The view of all-grown-up Seattle from the Space Needle. (Chuck Taylor)
The Space Needle
may be Seattle's symbol, but it's always been an alien presence, a relic of a space age that never came to be. The Needle has achieved iconic status – our Eiffel Tower – but for decades serious architects and urban planners have viewed it as a kind of embarrassment. Did we really think we would live like that, in low-density towers, in flying saucers on stilts?
Just as we've outgrown the Space Needle, some argue we've also outgrown Seattle Center
, location of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair
. It is the country's most well-preserved expo site. It is also a reminder of when a Northwest hick town decided to put on a big show, Mickey Rooney- and Judy Garland-style.
When world's fairs started occurring in burgs like Seattle instead of Chicago or New York, they became distinctly uncool – so uncool that the last U.S. fair was held in 1984. For some, Seattle Center is a little like that big-hair high school yearbook photo – evidence of a coming-of-age period that's best forgotten. Our Wi-Fied, skinny-towered, "world-class" city should offer worthier amenities, some say. Seattle Times
columnist Danny Westneat made the anti-fair argument in a column last spring titled, "It's Time to Let Go of the Fair." What Seattle Center really needs, he wrote, is an appointment with a "jackhammer."
He may get his wish. The Sonics are almost certainly leaving KeyArena, the Fun Forest is having financial difficulties, and the on-again, off-again monorail shows signs of becoming an elevated white elephant. Memorial Stadium is an earthquake hazard, and Center House often resembles a homeless shelter.
At the same time, the surrounding neighborhoods are changing. South Queen Anne, Belltown and South Lake Union are all targeted by the city for massive, dense, high-rise growth. The multibillion-dollar Gates Foundation is building its headquarters across the street and will land a new phalanx of upscale office workers at the center's doorstep. This is exactly the type of urbanization the world's fair was meant to stimulate – it just took 45 years to arrive.
So, with changing environs
and aging infrastructure, it's time for another rethink. Mayor Greg Nickels has appointed a Century 21 committee to go through the process of "visioning" a new future for the city's most important civic space outside the Pike Place Market. Studies say the center is responsible for more than 15,000 jobs and generates more than $1 billion in economic activity. The fountain, a meeting place in troubled times (such as post-9/11), is regarded by many as the spiritual center of the city.
The mayor's committee has been holding community meetings, inviting new designs and soliciting input, at least through this June. The stakes for keeping the center viable are significant, and whatever plan is settled on will likely lead to a new levy or bond issue for renovations and to help the center get on its financial feet.
A number of visions are already emerging. Civic dynamo David Brewster (disclosure: he's the founding publisher of Crosscut) has touted turning the campus into the equivalent of New York's Central Park by increasing the amount of open space. He'd like to tear down Center House and Memorial Stadium. Others would like to see the center integrated into the surrounding neighborhoods, which cater to the young and affluent, offering more upscale amenities like outdoor cafés. Some are even eying the center's Mercer Street garage as a site for new housing.
Changes, some of them major, need to be made. But while Seattle could benefit from a Central Park, it also needs a Coney Island. Yuppification, which would make some nearby residents happy, could jeopardize the center's commitment to populist entertainment like Bumbershoot. Those new condo dwellers on Mercer would likely be quick with noise complaints. The center should continue to be defined by its devotion to the broader public by offering attractions for high-, low- and middlebrow audiences.
The center is not
a broken-down, boomer nostalgia trip. It draws 12 million visitors a year. That's more people than went to expos in Spokane, Okinawa, Knoxville, New Orleans, Genoa, or Lisbon. That's more people than attended the original Seattle World's Fair.
Seattle's legacy is not that we're clinging to the past, but that we're hosting America's only world's fair – the expo that never died. That may not be Koolhaas cool, but it's unique and it's ours and it can still work.