Greening Seattle Center

With downtown crying for more park land, the pressure is on to make Seattle Center more park-like. New plans for recasting the Center seem to respond to that.
A slice of Scheme 3 out of four suggested for the future Seattle Center. (Seattle Center Century 21 Committee)

A slice of Scheme 3 out of four suggested for the future Seattle Center. (Seattle Center Century 21 Committee) None

Downtown Seattle is on a collision course, with lots more people moving in and demanding amenities but encountering a shortage of open space and few ways to get more green. Last month, Mayor Greg Nickels quietly shelved a plan to tap developers for funds to create more downtown parks, after developers and open-space advocates alike panned his plan. There's still some money around from the soon-expiring Pro Parks Levy, but the cost of land is so high that the city is having a terrible time finding land it can buy for some small parks on First Hill, in the International District, and in the University District. Three solutions are appearing, however. One is to green up streets and build more "Bands of Green" trails, including some weekend one-block street closures for open markets and other festivities. (One of the most exciting ideas is a bike-and-walking trail around Lake Union, emulating the great success of Green Lake Park.) Second, the Mayor is showing signs of keeping a door ajar for a renewal of the Pro Parks Levy, which expires next year. Nickels has opposed a second levy, arguing that maintenance and operations money for the new park land should not be coming from special levies but the general fund, and also that the groundwork has not been laid for buying expensive-to-maintain new parks. Open space advocates like the Parks Foundation are pushing hard for a levy renewal, and a new parks superintendent later this year might want such a program as well. The third solution to the parks paucity showed up last week as the Century 21 Committee, exploring ways to improve Seattle Center, released three alternatives (plus the status-quo version) for modifying the Center. The three alternatives all create more open space, and two of them significantly green up the Center. See the plans here (3.3 MB PDF) and pay particular attention to versions 3 ("Green Window") and 4 ("East-West Axis"). These last two schemes take out Memorial Stadium and put a three-story underground parking garage in the former stadium bowl, with a green lid on top along with a large open-air amphitheater for summer concerts. Moment of disclosure: I've been leading a group called FROG (Friends of the Green at Seattle Center) pushing for a more park-like Seattle Center, replacing worn-out features like the stadium and the Fun Forest with flexible open space. An earlier planning exercise by the Center, under outgoing Director Virginia Anderson, shied away from the political minefield of the stadium (leased by the School District and forcefully defended by veterans in favor of keeping the war-memorial aspects untouched), and tried to solve the Center's chronic financial shortfall with more commercial uses. That plan failed to take wing, and so a new and broader citizens' committee was formed, under new Center Director Robert Nellams, who enjoys better rapport with the mayor than Anderson did. The Center now seems to be getting the message from the city that it can help solve the open-space needs for three burgeoning nearby residential neighborhoods (Uptown, Belltown, and South Lake Union). Another message was probably delivered by the great public embrace of the new Olympic Sculpture Park. The three alternatives all take out the Fun Forest, including the drab building housing bumper cars and video games. And they all dramatically remodel Center House, a former armory, by putting in a large glass roof and blowing out the east and west walls for lots more transparency, better restaurants, and improved theaters. The committee had some serious debates about demolishing Center House and putting its uses in a new facility closer to the perimeter of the campus (as FROG urges) but decided to keep the old building in place as "the center of the Center." The Green Window scheme, option 3, gains eight acres of new open space by lidding the stadium and also creates a more open feeling in the area around Broad Street and the Space Needle. The East-West Axis plan, option 4, opens up the areas around Key Arena, creating long promenades and vistas from the lower Queen Anne area all the way across the campus to Fifth Avenue North, where the new Gates Foundation complex will be built. August Wilson Way, a new walkway to the south of the theater lineup (Rep, Intiman, Ballet, Opera) would also articulate this promenade and might even have a slow streetcar along that stretch, linking South Lake Union to the waterfront trolley. The Century 21 Committee will issue a report in June, which will start the draft environmental impact process. A preferred alternative will be picked around January 2008, and the Center hopes to have a funding proposal ready for a November 2008 levy vote, in combination with an estimated $50 million plan to repair the Pike Place Market. Lots of political fights lie ahead for the Center, and the ambitious schemes 3 and 4 will require money not yet in clear sight. One source of funding did show up at the public presentations this week: sell off the old parking garage on Mercer Street (poorly designed for exiting after big events) and use the money from that sale to help build the new underground parking garage at Memorial Stadium.

David Brewster is founder of Crosscut and editor-at-large. You can e-mail him at david.brewster@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Apr 23, 3:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Death to the Seattle Center! Long Live the Seattle Center!: As a kid, I remember the Seattle Center as practically the Center of Civilization. The fact that it had a Space Needle, a Science Center, a Monorail, and the Coliseum was utterly amazing, and with the International Fountain and the Fun Forest, the place was beyond cool. In the 70's and 80's the Center's performance leveled off, but it started to hold great concerts and fairs (e.g. Bumbershoot) and Memorial Stadium was home to the Sounders plus was the venue for most high school football games. And back then we had the World Champion Sonics.

In the last twenty years things have gone down hill. The civic boosterism that built the World's Fair has died. Parks and school budgets have been tight as the school-age population has dwindled, so there's been little significant reinvestment, other than the upgrade of KeyArena for the Sonics. The addition of the EMP, though significant, seems insular and separate from the Center itself. Even the Space Needle no longer really seems to belong to Seattle, but to tourists. And the monorail is so run-down that it's accident rate is right up there with Nigerian taxis.

That's my faintly remembered history of the place. I don't frequent it much anymore. That was then. But the future is now. Here's what we should do:

Memorial Stadium - This shouldn't be removed but UPGRADED to a facility that can hold outdoor concerts and a professional soccer team. The Columbus Ohio has a great 22,000 seat stadium appropriate for hosting the Sounders and upgrading current usage. With appropriate design work an amphitheater could be built in or added adjacent.

KeyArena - As Danny Westneat suggests in his recent column, we should relook at the Sonics staying at the Key (or leaving to Okie City and THEN Seattle bringing in a new team).

The Science Center - I love this place, but it's grown old. Between Boeing and Microsoft and all the tech billionaires I'm surprised we can't raise several hundred million for a new one. The UW should absolutely be a partner. An upgrade and an expansion is a must. How about a Microsoft wing? An Amazon Wing?

Center House - I still call it the Food Circus. (Remember the Bubbleator?) Let's figure out what it's purpose really is and upgrade it like the rest of the center, or use the space it occupies for other needs. This should be an architecturally significant building.

Green Space - I think of the Center as a place that is cutoff from the rest of the City. Olmsted, when he designed Central Park, chose to create vistas separated by rows of trees, hillsides, hedges, etc. Let's focus on that here.

Fun Forest - I object to get ridding of it. Kids love this. Parents do to. Get Disney involved or Six Flags. Make it world class. But let's upgrade it. Put in state-of-the art rides.

Parking - The most significant item here is parking. Underground parking ala Red Square at the UW is the way to go. Except put green space on-top instead of bricks. If everything goes underground then you can use the existing Memorial Stadium lot as part of the footprint for the new stadium/amphitheatre.

As you point out, the Gates Foundation is nearby. Paul Allen's EMP is on the campus. Those two created something great a while back. Maybe there's some philanthropic and financial creativity still lurking in their brains.

More power to Century 21 in thinking about a new Center! But you're thinking too small. It needs and deserves a big vision. The Center done well is more intrinsically valuable to the public than Qwest Field, SafeCo Stadium, a Renton Sonics stadium, and a new Viaduct combined.
Stuka

Posted Mon, Apr 23, 10:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Center comments: The drawings are interesting. Just a few random comments from the perspective of a nearby resident and frequent Center visitor:

1. I like the park at the Duck site. But it's sort of isolated. This would make more sense if the neighborhood is reconnected by lowering Aurora and deleting Broad.

2. I like the Center House. Replacing its various uses would cost at least $100,000,000 and not accomplish much.

3. You could add a significant amount of green with virtually no cost: Simply convert the SW corner of the stadium "block" from trees into lawn. This would open the intersection, create longer sight lines, and provide a small amount of actual space.

4. I'd love to take out Memorial Stadium and replace it with an amphitheater and lawn. Parking below is perfect.

5. Retail below the lawn? This is totally unworkable. Nobody shops below-grade unless it's a subway station or attached to an above-grade mall, like Westlake Center.

6. Finally, an improved entrance at 2nd N!

7. Half of the Fun Forest should stay. Keep the good parts and ditch the rest. I'm ambivalent about the recent built addition, which is ugly (CMU?!) but, passing by, appears to be very active year-round.

8. The Space Needle is for locals too! I go up every couple months and can't help but overhear a lot. The crowds are invariably more international than I used to expect (who knew we got so many Europeans?), but plenty of locals are there too, whether they're showing their visitors around or not.

9. I love the idea of redeveloping the Mercer Garage site. Presumably this parking would be replaced by the parking under the stadium site.

10. Here's a wild idea. Denny and Mercer/Valley/Roy are too busy because traffic is too concentrated. What about a narrow, one-lane-each way tunnel under the Center east-west at Thomas? This would continue east across the lowered Aurora. The same concept would work at Republican, which has a garage halfway along the route anyway, but it wouldn't connect eastword past the Gates Foundation.

I'd love to open up the NW corner by getting rid of some of the Northwest Rooms.
mhays

Posted Mon, Apr 23, 12:35 p.m. Inappropriate

Reality at the Center: Key Arena is OK for all events except Sonics. Memorial Stadium needs a streamlined re-model and opened entrances and a versatile field for soccer, football, laccross, and concert seating. Clean-up the fun forest. Leave Center House alone except for minimal upgrades. My guess is $125-150 million and it can be a K-12 and beyond playground for decades.

animalal

Posted Mon, Apr 23, 7:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Memorial Stadium/MLS: I completely agree with the commenters who want to keep some form of Memorial Stadium. With the imminent departure of the Sonics/Storm and T-Birds from Seattle Center, the area needs to keep as many ways to attract people as possible. I disagree with people who feel that parking is a major problem at the Center - at least 15,000 per game seem to find parking spots for Sonics games, and I doubt even a greener Seattle Center will attract a huge influx of new cars once the sports teams leave.

A remodeled Memorial would also likely attract an expansion MLS soccer team. (Although MLS originally promised Seattle a team if Qwest Field was built, new MLS leadership realized it made bad business sense and created a really bad atmosphere for fans to have 15,000 people watch a game in a cavernous NFL stadium meant to seat 70,000.) Designs for soccer stadiums in Columbus and several other US cities have resulted in facilities that seat about 20,000 and double as premier outdoor concert venues. In addition to partially replacing a good chunk of the people who won't be attending basketball and hockey games for local businesses, I just like the idea of a soccer stadium at the site. Seattle Center has always been a place that reflected our city's diversity and international character. And soccer is, after all, "the world's game."

Also - there's just something wrong with building a giant parking garage to renew Seattle Center, a place born after hosting a fair dedicated to thinking creatively about the future. Aren't we trying to be a greener city? Or is that only if we get to keep our SUVs....
JesseMT

Posted Mon, Apr 23, 11:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Center plan: Less is more. Less concrete, more green, less cost.: Nickel's "discovery" that no affordable land exists for more n'hood parks reeks with irony.

It's Mayor's and Council's land use policies emphasizing maximum square footage development that helped cause the rapid rise in land prices in the first place, leading to less green space, fewer trees. His complaint has little credibility with me.

He's correct in one respect, however. We can't keep funding operations and maintenance with special levies. Hence his and Council's emphasis on rapid, market rate building creating more property taxes for general fund revenues, even though such taxes can't keep up with demand for services - like parks - development brings.

Yet Mayor and Council seem to offer little in way of solutions to restore needed GF monies.

Other than relentlessly raising property and other taxes, fees while refusing to cut fertile areas as a city bureaucracy increasingly top heavy in needless, well paid and benefited upper management supervisors, consultants and employees.

Money better spent on direct service personnel.

As for the Center: I second many of David's and others comments. More green space, less concrete, less "pay to play" features. Fewer buildings, less money needed for costly maintenance. Grass and trees are cheaper.

Upgrade dowdy PSE, remove Memorial Stadium, or if not then improve it for more versatility and multiple use as suggested. Better Center connections with the surrounding n'hood.

My personal and somewhat radical suggestion: Tear down Center House and use the footprint, along with the north Fun Forest section, for more open space -perhaps as part of the proposed amphitheater if Memorial isn't removed.

Center House functions poorly in almost any respect: Terrible acoustics and layout. The substantial, needed remodeling is far too expensive. Most of it's dance and performance events can be held at other Center venues (particularly Fisher Plaza hall).

"Food courts" are for shopping malls. Spread the food around the Center and add a couple of small - and affordable - restaurants somewhere on the grounds.

Remove it: One less costly building to support. Center has plenty as is.

I'm torn on the Fun Forest. I was just down there today while biking through the Center. It was dark, deserted, silent - inside and out. Generally run down and shabby.

Yet I've seen the FF in summer: It's often jammed with families and kids, taking advantage of relatively affordable entertainment increasingly missing in Seattle. For three or so months of the year.

There should be room at the Center for other than affluent "City of Light" charter club members and self styled "urban visionaries". Families with kids aren't evil, particularly those not otherwise attending the Bush School or Lakeside with season tix to the Children's Theatre.

The FF helps serve that need. Consolidate it in one area, emphasize providing updated rides and attractions for kids 10 and under. The larger north section rides adjacent to EMP should be eliminated, that space used for other purposes.

Now, of course, all we need is the money to do this.

Ironically, once again, the Mayor proposes that funds come from still another special levy. It's the only realistic option, and last I heard currently proposed for '08, possibly combined with a $50 million capital improvement plan for Pike Place Market.

One other note: Thank God SMP's ludicrous, useless monorail won't be decimating the Center's best, versatile open space while clearcutting most of it's trees.

(As some understand, I couldn't resist that one.)

Posted Tue, Apr 24, 9:54 a.m. Inappropriate

Center House: The center house is a Seattle treasure.

It's the most consistently busy public space in Seattle -- day, evening, weekday, weekend, winter, summer. It's 9:50 am on Tuesday, which means locals with strollers, plus tourists.

You see misc. musical acts you'd never hear about otherwise, let alone go to a special hall for.

It has a high school. Where would that go otherwise?

We need the food court.

Where would Center offices go?

The Children's Museum too.

Replacing the Center House would cost an astonishing amount of money and cause substantial problems, with questionable advantages.
mhays

Posted Tue, Apr 24, 10:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Greening the Heart of the Emerald City: A more park-like Seattle Center provides an excellent opportunity to connect the growing significant green spaces in the heart of Seattle. Already the Olympic Sculpture Park has opened saltwater access on Puget Sound to the public, and soon Lake Union Park will provide 12-acres of green space near the geographic center of Seattle which will open access to over 600 acres of "blue space" on Lake Union.

Imagine walking or biking on a safe and pleasant boulevard or trail from the Sculpture Park to Seattle Center, then continuing on to Lake Union Park to sail a boat at The Center for Wooden Boats. This green connection, one of the 50+ recommendations in the Seattle Parks Foundation's Bands of Green report, is known as the Lake to Bay Trail, and would provide a necessary link through some of the most unfriendly corridors for walkers and cyclists. Then people could even continue on to the UW and beyond on the Lake Union Loop Trail.

The idea is to create an "emerald necklace," as the Olmsted brothers called it, where green pearls like the Seattle Center, Lake Union Park, Gasworks, and other significant parks would be connected by a string of trails, boulevards, and linear parks. There are few opportunities to create these green pearls, and it would be great to see Seattle Center become one of them.

As density increases, the respite of a walk in the park becomes increasingly important. Whatever the final plan for the Seattle Center looks like, let's hope it has a green tint.

Posted Thu, Apr 26, 1:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Bring: I love the idea of building a soccer-specific stadium in Seattle at Memorial Field. I don't know if the support is there, but MLS would draw a larger crowd than the Sounders 4,000 average attendence.

People pay to see star power, the MLS has it and the Sounders don't. It would be a wonderful facility for the Seattle schools to play soccer games at, and at least we wouldn't have another corporate named stadium, but something named for the citizenry of Seattle who gave of themselves completely. The name should stay.

Professional soccer was promised by 1st and Goal when they built the stadium, but things changed by the time that the MLS was ready to expand. By that time they required a soccer specific stadium for their franchises.

It was a bit of a hollow promise anyway, most professional leagues and FIFA endorsed matches must be played on grass. Qwest is fieldturf, which is fine to play soccer on but it isn't endorsed by FIFA. Although they always said that they could bring in a grass field for big-time matches, we haven't had a World Cup qualifier or US national team game in at least 10 years. (USA v. Russia at the KINGDOME!!!) I can't say if Real Madrid or Manchester United had grass brought in when they played Qwest on tour the past couple of years.

I believe that the lesson for Seattle is that those who hesitate are lost, and Seattle has been lost in (in)decisions for the past 10 years, at least. Look at all of the proposals that failed to provoke the slightest interest a la the monorail, viaduct and now 520.

And it is totally hypocritical and small-minded for Seattle to build that much parking. Especially after listening to the viaduct debate and "car-centered" culture. It would be nice if Seattle would put its money where its mouth is for once.

I can only assume that they are going to put as many resources toward mass transit to bring the masses to the center as they are towards the parking garage.
keepkalm

Posted Fri, Apr 27, 1:54 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Greening the Heart of the Emerald City: Dear Seattle Parks Foundation,
I love this idea, and I hope it will be funded and implemented. Please make sure those green pathways are well treed since warm weather walkers really need protection from the sun, and trees have great benefits aside from providing shade as well.
Seattle has an unfortunate dearth of good walking areas as the congestion at Green Lake so well illustrates. I hope too you will take care to separate the wheeled from the footed since they don't mix very well. Green Lake is a good example again although the walker/strollers seem to have slowly won out on the paths. Even better would be to add some small stopping parks where people could rest and maybe eat a carry along snack or lunch. These could function as respite space for nearby apt and condo dwellers too. And respite from city life was one of the founding beliefs when Olmsteads set up their Parks in certain lucky cities in the US. Sometimes I think we have gotten too far away from that enduring idea and need. walker
walker

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