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Originally published March 10, 2013 at 9:44 PM | Page modified March 10, 2013 at 9:42 PM

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Seattle deciding who’ll see the Space Needle

The City Council is debating what views of the famous structure should be protected — and at what cost.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) has a new home at the water’s edge in South Lake Union.

But when museum-goers stroll outside in the adjacent city park in the future, they may not be able to see Seattle’s most famous structure, the Space Needle. Their views could be obstructed, if not obliterated, by new taller buildings, some of which would be allowed by zoning changes the City Council is debating.

Jeffrey Wright, chairman of the Space Needle Corp., argues that views of the iconic tower should be preserved from public places such as Lake Union Park and even the Interstate 5 offramp to Mercer Street.

“This is a huge issue for the image of our city,” Wright said. “Most people when they see the Space Needle or Pike Place Market say, ‘That is Seattle.’ I’m very concerned that is not a priority for the council or planners.”

When it comes to public views of the Space Needle, a South Lake Union zoning proposal by Mayor Mike McGinn follows a 2001 city rule that preserves views from 10 city parks. But that list does not include Lake Union Park.

Because taxpayers and private donors, led by Paul Allen, spent $30 million to renovate the park, and MOHAI opened there in December, city Planning Director Marshall Foster said preserving the park’s views of the Space Needle is a “very valid policy question.”

But protecting those views and others would likely lead to diminishing the development potential of some private properties. That leaves city officials with a balancing act between public views and private interests whose buildings would add jobs and housing, which also can benefit the public.

For some, that’s an easy call.

“Take my view, please,” wrote Roger Valdez, an advocate for compact, vertical communities, in his land-use blog.

Valdez argues that the public benefits of taller buildings — tax revenues, shorter commutes, less pollution — outweigh the protection of some Space Needle views. That’s especially so, Valdez says, when the 605-foot tower will still be visible from all over the city.

“It’s kind of the price of growing up,” he said.

Jeffrey Karl Ochsner, a University of Washington architecture professor, disagrees.

Public views of the Space Needle have their own economic value, particularly for tourism, Ochsner said. Seattle also has a history of valuing public views because much of the populace can’t afford sweet private views, he said.

City officials hope to attract several thousand new residents to South Lake Union with taller buildings. But Ochsner asks who will live in high-rise towers in a chic neighborhood. “You’re talking about the 1 percent,” he said.

2001 list

To be clear, the debate involves only public views of the Space Needle.

The city’s policy is that it can’t be concerned with legislating private views. In the 2001 legislation, city officials acknowledged the profound value of being able to see the Space Needle from certain high-activity public places.

Planners scored those places through a matrix of criteria and came up with 10 city parks from which views of the Space Needle should be preserved. Those sites include Kerry Park on Queen Anne and Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill.

For a good view, planners said, 75 percent of the tower and all of its crowning saucer should be visible.

Lake Union Park didn’t score high enough to make the list in 2001, according to planners, because it was not restful enough, it didn’t draw enough tourists, and protecting views from there would significantly diminish private-property values nearby.

“There’s no question it would score higher” today, Foster said of the park, “given the city investment and the attraction we’ve created in MOHAI.”

Even then, there may be dispute over just how severely park views of the Space Needle would be blocked in the future.

The Space Needle Corp. has a model showing complete blockage from the pond in roughly the center of the park. Planners have shown council members a view which assumed less development, and in which some of the Space Needle was visible. Foster said he hasn’t had time to analyze the Space Needle’s model.

Views from other public locations may be more problematic, Foster said.

Wright contends views would also be blocked from many streets and sidewalks in South Lake Union, as well as the I-5 Mercer ramp. Views from the ramp serve as a wayfinder, Ochsner said, for people trying to get to Seattle Center and other locations.

Foster counters that many such views would be blocked under existing zoning as build-out occurs in the neighborhood.

View from Capitol Hill

As for Capitol Hill, the city’s most densely populated neighborhood, Foster said the public view from Volunteer Park will still allow people to see the Space Needle.

But views from some Capitol Hill sidewalks and streets will be blocked by new towers in South Lake Union. It all depends on where you might be. “The view changes, but there’s not sweeping blockage of the Space Needle,” Foster said.

Ron Sevart, CEO of the Space Needle, said he would be satisfied if public views from Lake Union Park, Mercer Street near the ramp and Thomas Street were preserved.

Richard Conlin, chairman of the City Council’s South Lake Union Committee, said the council is likely to satisfy some of the Space Needle’s concerns. He expects it to require buildings to be set back on Thomas Street to preserve views.

He also expects the council to look closely at park views, with the key question being how much to protect: all of the Space Needle, or some portion of it?

Views from the I-5 ramp “are probably not very significant,” he said.

And he noted a certain irony in the debate. “If you go back 50 years you’d find people protesting the building of the Space Needle because it would block some views. So the city changes over time,” he said. “Again, it is that balancing act.”

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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