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Originally published December 9, 2010 at 9:09 PM | Page modified December 10, 2010 at 12:49 PM

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Seattle Center plans giant Ferris wheel; Pier 57 planner upset

An elegant observation wheel reminiscent of the London Eye will be installed at Seattle Center in April and remain through the Center's 50th anniversary celebration in 2012, and the backer of a similar wheel at Pier 57 isn't happy about it.

Seattle Times staff reporter

An elegant observation wheel reminiscent of the London Eye will be installed at Seattle Center in April and remain through the Center's 50th anniversary celebration in 2012.

Seattle Center officials say the wheel both hearkens back to the carnival that was part of the Seattle World's Fair in 1962 and looks ahead to the next 50 years with its futuristic design and high-tech operating system.

The wheel's owner, Great City Attractions, has installed similar temporary wheels around the world, and estimates the Seattle version could draw a half-million visitors per year with each adult paying $12 to $15 per ride.

The announcement Thursday dismayed the owner of Pier 57 on the Seattle waterfront, who himself announced in October that he planned to buy a nearly identical wheel.

Hal Griffith, who initially leased Pier 57 in 1964 and bought it from the city in 1989, said his plan was meant to help offset the expected disruption of waterfront tourism during construction of the tunnel set to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

"'I'm very surprised and disappointed," Griffith said. "It's one thing to have to compete with a private business. It's another to have the city of Seattle do it, knowing what's going on with the waterfront."

He also questioned locating a 200-foot Ferris wheel right next to the city's signature viewpoint.

"A view ride? That's what the Space Needle is all about. It seems kind of redundant," Griffith said.

Deborah Daoust, Seattle Center spokeswoman, said plans there have been in the works since before Griffith made his announcement. She said the Center's master plan, completed in 2008, calls for an iconic ride to replace the Fun Forest, the Center's area for carnival rides and arcade games. She also noted that the Center's wheel will run for just 18 months and that Griffith has a long permitting process ahead of him.

"His probably won't go up before ours comes down," she said.

The Center's wheel will feature enclosed glass-and-steel capsules suspended on spokes that revolve slowly through six white steel supports. It will be installed between the Experience Music Project and the Center House, at the Fun Forest site. The observation wheel will be a partnership between Seattle Center and Great City Attractions, a British-based company that operates transportable wheels in more than 26 locations around the world, including Australia, Asia and the United Kingdom.

Great Attractions will pay the costs of moving, installing and operating the giant wheel. A small share of the ticket revenue will go to the Seattle Center and will help pay for the 50th anniversary celebration, Daoust said.

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The wheel would be less than half the size of the London Eye, which stands 443 feet high, but about four times as tall as a conventional carnival Ferris wheel.

The London Eye was the world's tallest Ferris wheel when it opened as England's symbol of the new millennium in 2000, but has since been surpassed by taller ones in China and Singapore.

Mark Hinshaw, a Seattle architect and architecture critic, said cities around the world have featured iconic moving wheels ever since bridge builder George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. erected the first steel wheel for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

"They speak to the child in everyone. They offer a thrill, but are safe. And the modern ones can be quite elegant," Hinshaw said.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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