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Originally published December 15, 2010 at 11:14 AM | Page modified December 16, 2010 at 11:21 AM

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Seattle Center plan for Chihuly, KEXP: Now comes the fund part

Mayor Mike McGinn announced a plan Wednesday to make space for both a Dale Chihuly glass exhibit and a new KEXP studio at Seattle Center.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle officials laid out plans Wednesday to recharge Seattle Center, using private money for an elaborate Dale Chihuly exhibit, a new home for KEXP, and a fundraising campaign to begin renovating Memorial Stadium.

With almost no public investment, the plans are designed for lean city budget years, and success will depend on at least two fundraising campaigns. Mayor Mike McGinn said taking the past nine months to consider a variety of ideas built excitement and gave the city time to negotiate for public benefits.

In 2008, the City Council approved a $567 million, 20-year master plan for Seattle Center. The plan called for an ice rink, a renovated Center House with a retro, bubble-shaped elevator (as it once had), and an underground parking garage with an amphitheater on top. It anticipated a voter-approved levy for funding — something that lacks political support at the moment.

A 55,000-square-foot, paid-entry Chihuly exhibit proposed by the Space Needle Corp. prevailed among proposals for the old Fun Forest amusement park at the base of the Needle.

But the city found space in the Center's Northwest Rooms for a new 27,960-square-foot studio for popular nonprofit radio station KEXP (90.3 FM). With the new agreements, "we're able to leverage private and nonprofit money toward improvements to the Center," said McGinn. "I do think it lends a sense of forward momentum at the Center."

Like much of the city budget, Seattle Center has been struggling financially. The Center must pay for about two-thirds of its own operating budget. Adding to the troubles, several nonprofits at the Center have fallen behind on rent during the economic downturn.

Assuming the City Council approves the agreement, the Chihuly exhibit would be ready by 2012, the 50th anniversary of the World's Fair in Seattle. KEXP and a children's playground would open in 2013.

In September, a citizens panel recommended only the Chihuly exhibit from among eight proposals for a 1.5-acre parcel at the base of the Space Needle.

The committee had expressed concern about KEXP's funding plan, but McGinn and Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said they wanted to try to find space for both enterprises at Seattle Center.

Center Director Robert Nellams on Wednesday said putting KEXP in the Northwest Rooms is "an elegant solution."

A see-through studio

Station officials said they didn't know how much money would need to be raised, but KEXP Executive Director Tom Mara said plans called for "significant improvements" to the Seattle Center building.

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Once a University of Washington student radio station, donation-supported KEXP has an international audience of more than 200,000 listeners a week — an operation squeezed into cramped offices in the South Lake Union neighborhood.

Station officials envision transforming the Center meeting rooms with glass walls to give people outside a clear view of DJs and artists performing there, and better connect the area to Lower Queen Anne (The rooms are at First Avenue North and North Republican Street).

A gallery would offer space to watch in-studio performances, and free concerts would take place each year on an adjacent outdoor stage.

"We were arguing over whether I was allowed to say that they are the coolest music radio station in the universe," McGinn said. "I'm not allowed to say that, but they are very, very cool."

Mara said the decision to put the station at Seattle Center "reflects Seattle's extraordinary commitment to music."

The KEXP proposal includes plans for an after-school internship program with Seattle Public Schools.

KEXP will mention Seattle Center on air and pay about $62,500 in annual rent.

Huge house of glass

The Chihuly exhibit would be the bigger moneymaker.

The Wright family, which owns the Space Needle, would pay $350,000 to $500,000 in rent each year for up to 20 years. A private analysis said the $15 million to $18 million exhibit would draw 400,000 new visitors to the Center, the vast majority of them tourists.

For a $12 fee, visitors to the Chihuly display could view 12,500 square feet of indoor exhibits, including a 40-foot high glass house "featuring a cascade of Chihuly artwork flowing from the ceiling," according to a news release. The plan includes 26,000 square feet in an outdoor "art garden" and a 6,200-square-foot public lobby and retail space.

Leslie Chihuly, Dale Chihuly's wife, said at a Wednesday news conference that the exhibit would be first and foremost about art.

"Dale is really an artist, in his heart and his soul he's an artist," she said. "We're committed as citizens to the city, we're committed as artists to the city."

The Wright family had been in talks for months with city officials when they announced plans last March for the Chihuly exhibit.

What looked to be a done deal immediately drew a divided response from the public. Proponents said it would make money, draw visitors to the Center and honor a locally grown artist. Critics said it was too commercial and that public land shouldn't be used for another paid attraction.

To sweeten its proposal, the Space Needle Corp. agreed to spend $2 million to build and maintain a children's playground next door to the exhibit. A share of gift-shop sales would go to the city and some design changes were made to satisfy critics who said the plans were too walled-off.

Bagshaw was among the sharpest critics, but Wednesday she said she was thrilled by the outcome.

Landscaping improvements would allow people who don't pay admission to see parts of the exhibit, she said, and the Wright family addressed other concerns by arranging for public-school fifth-graders to learn about glass art and visit the exhibit on field trips, and promised that locals would have opportunities to see the exhibit for free.

"We're going to welcome Chihuly to this campus," Bagshaw said Wednesday.

The final piece of the plan announced Wednesday is to raise money to tear down the south wall of antiquated Memorial Stadium. The city reached an agreement with Seattle Public Schools, which owns the stadium, to turn it into an amphitheater with parking underneath. The plan stalled for lack of money.

Early next year, a citizens committee will begin meeting to raise $5 million to begin the work, with an eventual goal of $10 million. The group will create a plan for 9 acres of new open space at the Center.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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