Seattle Center shouldn’t be a staging area for the rich and famous

Rendering of the Dale Chihuly "glass house" proposed for Seattle Center Credit: Seattle Center

The proposal to devote a chunk of the Seattle Center to a museum and shop for the works of glass artist Dale Chihuly has stirred quite a debate about the identity and future of Seattle Center — and a lot of political push and pull.

In some sense, “Seattle Center” has always seemed a misnomer for something that more closely resembles the “Seattle Hodgepodge.” There’s a little of this and some of that: arts and sports, open space alongside high-priced venues, bumper cars and basketball, concerts and crafts.

If this is Seattle’s Center it suggests that Seattle itself is less a coherent whole and more a collection of fragments, which may be true. If Seattle is about competing factions and protracted process, combined with periodic bouts of civic activism and incursions of big names and big bucks, then Seattle Center is, well, sort of, us. Parts, projects and process, but not a lot of coherence or direction. The eerie and depressing Center House seems to epitomize the Center’s internal void.

That’s not to say Seattle Center hasn’t had its attractions. Our family, for one, has taken graduation parties up the Space Needle and birthday parties to the Fun Forest. At Christmastime we’ve enjoyed ice skating at the Pavilion, and we’ve taken in the various festivals (Folklife and Bumbershoot) in season.

But every now and then someone with power or money comes up with their bright idea and you can almost hear the boardroom discussion. “Well, where should we put it?” “Gee, how about Seattle Center, there’s all that space there.”

So when Seattle was supposed to become “A Kids’ Place,” under Mayor Charles Royer, the Children’s Museum was thrust into the Center House basement. Somewhere along the line it looked like a smart idea to move all of Seattle’s high school football games to Memorial Stadium to save the cost of football venues at each school, and so the School District took over a part. When Paul Allen wanted to build a museum for his hobby of rock and roll, we ended up with the EMP. During the brief heady era of John Stanford as Seattle Schools Superintendent, the idea of a new kind of school seemed a good one and The Center School was born. When the notion of extending the Monorail was on our ballots (again and again) proposals ran it smack dab through the Center’s largest green spaces. Lately, the Gates Foundation has taken a piece of the Center. And now Chihuly wants a chunk too.

It has been noted that unlike some cities that draw you, centripetally, towards a center, say New York or Chicago, the setting and its natural force here is more centrifugal. The Olympics and the Cascades, the Puget Sound and Lake Washington, all draw the eye and heart outward, not inward. In Seattle, we incline away from a center and not towards one. And at the continent’s edge there is a tendency to look out and beyond, to the horizon, to the rim of Asia. So perhaps “center” never has been nor will be in Seattle’s nature or part of its genius.

Still, the idea that Seattle Center should take another step in the direction of being a staging area for projects of the rich and famous, for which the public may pay admission, seems, well, wrong.

But that’s one narrative for framing the Seattle Center recent history. In a time when the public sphere has everywhere eroded in favor of the private one, the Center seems to be succumbing to a similar fate. There’s a resemblance to what happened to Seattle’s downtown in the ’80s and ’90s, when local stores disappeared and downtown became a province of national and international brands like Old Navy, Nike, and Banana Republic. “Chihuly” is another international brand, as is “Gates” in its way. The public, along with the local and particular, seem to be the casualties.

Is it too late? Rather than paid, private, and branded could Seattle Center become more public, civic, and local?

It seems important to note that city and regional planners have worked successfully for some time now to increase urban density in Seattle. A Rip Van Winkle who nodded off in 1980 would surely be stunned to see all the new high- and low-rise housing in downtown Seattle now, 30 years later. So, there’s been success there, in creating greater urban density. But such residential density cries out for increased open, safe, inviting public spaces where those living in condos and working in offices can walk and talk, sit and sun. Out of town visitors to the existing museums and theaters, especially those with children, would welcome a place to stretch and take a break. If you don’t think such public place is really needed or appreciated, check out the Olympic Sculpture Garden on any decent day.

One future for Seattle Center might be to make it more park-like, more Seattle’s “Central Park.” We needn’t be extravagant (recent talk of creating old-growth forests and salmon streams seems silly). Maybe just a nice park, some great playgrounds for kids, with sitting and strolling space for others. It’s a modest idea, but these are modest times and Seattle does better when it isn’t worrying overly much about being “world-class.”

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