Somewhere within the walls of all,
Shall all that forwards perfect human life be started,
Tried, taught, advanced, visibly exhibited.
— Walt Whitman, from "Song of the Exposition"
The new round of proposals for what to do with the South Fun Forest space that was triggered by the controversial Chihuly museum plan is a reminder of one thing: Seattle loves Seattle Center, but we all see it differently. It's a park, it's a carnival, it's a media center, it's museum space, it's a continuation of the world's fair, it's a neighborhood amenity, it's a sacred space, it's an art gallery, it's a music venue, it's a tourist trap.
Despite loving it, despite many master plans and proposals and schemes (remember Disney?), for Seattle Center, the future once predicted by the world's fair that gave birth to it has turned out to be more chaotic than promised. The sleekness of the New Frontier has been ruffled by democracy, entrepreneurship, recession, success, and conflicting urban visions.
I've had a chance to quickly review the proposals (there are eight, and a ninth the reads like a letter-to-the-editor, which I omit here). My own reactions to the various ideas follow, with their pros and cons. My bias is to see the Center continue to be vital and viable, with a Walt Whitmanesque diversity of functions, noise, fun, and high and low culture. I want it to maintain both its historic connections and its status as a kind of special precinct within the city. I found a lot to like in some of these proposals, which seem to me like hearing Seattle singing.
1. Fun Forest
Proposal: Continue running the Fun Forest by keeping the kiddie rides going.
Pros: Keeps the existing use, which has been part of Seattle Center since the 1962 World's Fair; it's a great place for kids and teens, keeps 100 or so entry-level jobs; provides a $250,000-plus revenue stream in rent.
Cons: Not as exciting as it used to be, big rides are gone (the sale of which have improved the Fun Forest's financial condition). Owner promises upgrades, but some think it's outdated and tacky.
Mossback says: Big cities often have central parks and opera houses, but they also have amusement parks (see Copenhagen and other European cities Seattle tries to imitate). In New York, Coney Island is resurgent with the revival of Luna Park. If the Fun Forest closes, Seattle won't have any, which is a shame. We're already pretty close to being a No-Fun Zone, with only The Ducks to keep us humble. However, the long-term key is major, high-tech, multi-media upgrades to bring the Fun Forest into the 21st Century. Without some investment here, it's a dead-end.
Proposal: The Seattle Center Foundation would like to move a souvenir shop and exhibit space devoted to the 1962 fair to the Retail Kiosk in the south Fun Forest Area.
Pros: Increased visibility and sales, helps to fund and publicize upcoming 50th anniversary of Century 21 Exposition and mark its legacy, plus focus on the next 50 years. Would not necessarily conflict with some other uses (conversion to green space, for example).
Cons: It could be accomplished with so little muss and fuss there's be nothing for the rest of us to complain about.
Mossback says: It's a good idea that raises a larger one, which is that the Center should host an ongoing major multimedia exhibit of fair artifacts and history, and, in fact, might want to consider hosting a national world's fair museum someday devoted to the legacy of some 150 years of urban utopianism.
Proposal: To create a museum and exhibit space that would take visitors on a walking tour of Seattle and Northwest history, including our strangest episodes, and feature displays ranging from Bigfoot footprints to film of Mt. St. Helens erupting. They even hope to put the old Bubbleator on display. A Pirates Cove Cafe and Treasure Chest Gift Shop add appropriate piratical elements.
Pros: A fun experience with P.T. Barnum-type, envisioning a museum catering to the masses, like the Wax Museum in Victoria. Northwest history is notably absent from Seattle Center.
Cons: The budget is just under $1 million, but it's unclear who provides the seed money to get it all going, and some of the revenue figures seems overly optimistic. And while a fun idea, it seems like it would meet serious resistance from those seeking a higher class of schlock. Also, the local history emphasis will likely find multimedia competition when the Museum of History and Industry accomplishes its planned relocation to South Lake Union. (Disclosure: I did some consulting for MOHAI last year).
Mossback says: The museum revives a link to the much-missed elements of weirdness that used to be part of the center, including the Jones Fantastical Museum at Center House. The attitude used to finds its way into more serious institutions, too. I remember in the 1960s attending a UFO forum at the Pacific Science Center. So, why not a museum that reminds us that Kenneth Arnold first spotted flying saucers at Mount Rainier, an event echoed in the architecture of the Space Needle? But you'll need someone to fork over the investment, Paul Allen-style.
4. Center Park
Proposal: Put forth by Friends of the Green at Seattle Center (FROG), the idea is to turn the South Fun Forest into open space to make a vibrant, urban park.
Pros: The plan adds open space downtown, which is tough to come by. It would be a major green amenity for visitors and families, keeping public space free and open to the public. It would also act to connect various existing venues, by linking open space to Center House and ncorporating the mural amphitheater, and it would remove the Pavilion arcade, which the proposal called a "temptation to commercialization." It also fulfills the Century 21 Master Plan approved by the city council in 2008.
Cons: Open space doesn't contribute to the struggling Center's revenue stream; it removes the Fun Forest or precludes other pavilions or new attractions coming in (like EMP or the proposed Chihuly space). It emphasizes the Center as a neighborhood amenity rather than as a regional arts and entertainment zone. And don't we already have problems funding maintenance and policing of city parks, especially downtown ones?
Mossback says: The Center Park plan has many appealing aspects, and if anyone has a right to be pissed off by the Chihuly scheme, it's the open-space advocates, who fought and won the fight during the Master Plan process. (Disclosure: my boss at Crosscut, David Brewster, is a leading FROG). But Seattle Center isn't a pure park and I think new exhibits and attractions have a place there, not more park benches. I don't like the group's proposal for Center House to "open it up" like a sardine can in order to connect it with the new green space. Like it or not, the former Art Deco armory is a historic landmark.
Proposal: To turn the Arcade Pavilion into an exhibition center of Northwest Indian art, culture, and history, and to convert the surrounding grounds to open space featuring native plants to help exhibit Indian stewardship and sustainability practices, and traditional uses of plants for food, medicine, clothing, etc.
Pros: The proposal points out a glaring omission in Seattle's treatment of heritage. As the proposal says, the city "does not have a prominent place in the central city dedicated to the living culture of the region's first people." This would rectify that and potentially expose literally millions of people a year to the history and lives of the original inhabitants of the region, including the site of the Seattle Center grounds.
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