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What's the future of the Seattle Center?

A study of contradictions, the Center is at once a cultural hub and an amorphous cautionary tale. What's ahead?

Century 21's Big Three: Ewen Dingwall, Eddie Carlson and Joe Gandy. They bet the city, and won.

Century 21's Big Three: Ewen Dingwall, Eddie Carlson and Joe Gandy. They bet the city, and won. Century 21

In a 1958 publicity photo, Eddie Carlson (on the right) looking at a fair concept that would have had the fair grounds (now Seattle Center) linked to the waterfront and a cruise ship dock. Yeosu did what Seattle thought about.

In a 1958 publicity photo, Eddie Carlson (on the right) looking at a fair concept that would have had the fair grounds (now Seattle Center) linked to the waterfront and a cruise ship dock. Yeosu did what Seattle thought about. Century 21 Commission

Seattle Center is a 74-acre Rorschach test in which everyone sees what they want to see. It is Lincoln Center to some; Central Park, Tivoli Gardens or Disneyland to others. It is about Bumbershoot, skateboards, the opera, New Year’s fireworks, the Space Needle, the EMP blob, IMAX shows, the fountain and Folklife. It is public, it is private; it is some kind of crazy hybrid. It’s a civic jewel and an opportunity squandered. It’s too expensive, too tacky; it’s for locals, for tourists. It’s the city’s heart and soul, a regional amenity, a headache.

The multiplicity of visions is nothing new; it’s in the Center’s genes. Scour the newspaper clippings from the 1950s and early ’60s, when the Center was still just a concept, and you’ll find familiar debates between those who wanted to run it like a business and those who wanted it to be purely for public benefit. The Chamber of Commerce, Greater Seattle, Allied Arts, the citizens, architects, planners and the City Council all struggled with what it could and should be. The debate has lasted more than half a century (see: Chihuly Garden and Glass). Arguing over the Center is Seattle’s version of the movie Groundhog Day.

We couldn’t even agree on its name. It was dubbed Seattle Center by the City Council in 1961 in anticipation of its post-fair existence, but some complained that was too generic. When an anonymous committee of PR professionals advised in 1964 that its name be changed to “Puget Gardens,” they were laughed out of town. Still, typical of Seattle, everyone had their own — and even worse — ideas: “Pacific Park,” “The Century Center,” “The Seattle Green,” “Paul Bunyan Park,” “Evergreen Cultural Center,” “World’s Fair Acres,” “Space Needle View,” “Denny Center.” Some called for a contest to rename it, others suggested (what else?) a public vote.

Wisely, the Center’s advisers tabled the name change as a distraction and worked with what they had.

Now, we've wound up the Next Fifty celebration of the 1962 fair that birthed the Center. Where does it leave us? Seattle Center’s director, Robert Nellams, is a self-described “incrementalist,” a guy who embraces the Center’s tradition of complexity. It isn’t Lincoln Center or Tivoli. It’s unique in the world, a complex ecosystem that, Walt Whitman‒like, contains multitudes: public and private, high and low. He embraces the Center’s multiplicity as its strength, not a weakness.

Nellams is working his way through a list of priorities laid out in a City Council‒approved master plan. Center House has been refurbished, sprouted new eateries (Skillet, Mod Pizza), and been renamed The Armory. There’s new signage on the grounds. Chihuly Garden and Glass is open and getting raves. By the end of the year, Nellams hopes to have the legal framework in place for the redevelopment of Memorial Stadium — which includes the creation of an adjacent public green space and parking lot — something that’s been on the to-do list for 50 years. KEXP will be opening its new studios and could even add a café. The Seattle Opera is poised to expand into the moribund Mercer Arena space. A new $1 million children’s art playground is in the works (part of the Chihuly deal).

Key Arena looms as a huge question: Can it be adapted to new uses or will it become the Center's new white elephant, as the new arena in SoDo takes shape? Redevelopment of the site will likely face hurdles. An effort to landmark the structure will seek to protect it from demolition.

The Center covers about 65 percent of its operational costs through earned revenue; the rest comes from the city’s general fund. Nellams figures that’s a great deal for a public entity, though he recognizes the budget pressures to do more. Capital investments are another thing; it will likely take a major bond issue at some point, but that won’t happen anytime soon.

The goal of the Next Fifty events, Nellams says, has been to forge new community partnerships, and to move public feeling from a sense of “ownership” of the Center, which is strong, to a sense of responsibility for it, which needs a boost. It’s the difference between having feelings and pitching in to make sure the Center has what it needs.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Nov 16, 11:59 a.m. Inappropriate

The article praises the Center for its inclusiveness, but I regard this as a failure to find a clearer focus and to put in place a governance structure that would make some hard decisions about what not to include.

I also think this rigor is about to happen, though that's rare in Seattle's civic life. One reason is the looming presence of the Gates Foundation across the street from the Center; it both has some new needs at the Center (day care, meeting rooms) and the funds to make change happen.

Another change-factor is the city's treasury, which is being forced to make some hard choices about non-essential areas such as libraries and parks and Seattle Center. Not to mention the below-market rents that arts and other groups pay at the Center.

A third is the shift of entertainment venues from the Center to the new basketball arena and its Vegas-like entertainment zone, and to the Central Waterfront.

Posted Fri, Nov 16, 5:35 p.m. Inappropriate

My view is that the inclusiveness is a virtue, but I agree that it does make it more difficult to manage. I think the centrality of the Center is one of the issues that will have to be dealt with. The re-do of the waterfront could pose a threat if it turns out to be unnecessarily expensive to maintain and "program," and the Center should be a cautionary tale about the waterfront going down that path. There is also plenty of room for creative new approaches and expanding on-the-grounds amenities (the culinary upgrades at the Armory are an example). The resilience of the Center to change is pretty amazing, all things considered. It has survived the Kingdome being located in SoDo (instead of the Center as recommended), the move of the Symphony and Art Museum downtown. Also, I agree that development near the Center (SLU, Denny Triangle, Gates) present potential opportunities to link it to the surrounding neighborhoods better, but that too will need to be done carefully so as not to compromise its regional and egalitarian character.

Posted Sat, Nov 17, 1:33 p.m. Inappropriate

"By the end of the year, Nellams hopes to have the legal framework in place for the redevelopment of Memorial Stadium — which includes the creation of an adjacent public green space and parking lot — something that’s been on the to-do list for 50 years."

You did forget to mention that the Seattle School Districts owns those 9 acres of Memorial Stadium and the parking lot and did waaay before Seattle Center even existed. The district uses that stadium a lot and it's not going away. That the district may do a land swap with the city would be okay but the district has prime land and should do everything to get the maximum benefit out of it for the children of Seattle Public Schools. As well, they need to keep the memorial that IS what Memorial Stadium is all about - a remembrance of the Seattle school students who gave their lives in WWII.

As a long-time district watcher, I am surprised to hear there will be a deal done by the end of the year. The district has so many capacity management issues on its plate, I find it surprising they have time for this issue.

westello

Posted Thu, Nov 22, 8:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Details and costs for the upgraded Memorial Stadium will certainly propel much 'Seattle process' but the site deserves a modernization with better seating and sightlines for a combination of football, soccer, and concert type events. As for Key Arena, I say keep it for all things high school, Seattle U, Storm, and entertainment.

animalal

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