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The importance of seeing the Space Needle

The economic and cultural case for preserving public sightlines to the city's biggest landmark.
The Space Needle: In some ways, as impressive as the Eiffel Tower.

The Space Needle: In some ways, as impressive as the Eiffel Tower. Chethan Shankar

Knute "Mossback" Berger, second from left, the newly named Space Needle "Writer in Residence." Seated with him: Petyr Beck of Documentary Books (far left); publicist Dan McConnell and the Space Needle's Mary Bacarella.

Knute "Mossback" Berger, second from left, the newly named Space Needle "Writer in Residence." Seated with him: Petyr Beck of Documentary Books (far left); publicist Dan McConnell and the Space Needle's Mary Bacarella. The Space Needle

I spent a good part of the last couple of years researching and thinking about the Space Needle. I was appointed the Needle's Writer-in-Residence in 2011 and was hired by the Needle's owners to write the tower's 50th anniversary history, which came out in April 2012.

As a consequence, I spent many hours on top of the Needle, where I had a desk. Like most Seattleites, I had come to take the tower for granted, visiting only once in a great while to show guests the view over a meal. The Needle had become part of the backdrop of daily life, something I accepted simply as a thing in itself. In short, I didn't think about it much.

It turned out to be a rich subject. The Needle's story is complex and amazing, and it is ongoing. One of the threads that continues is its role as a landmark, and the public-private nature of the enterprise. Most people are surprised to discover that it is privately owned by a single family of one of the Needle's founders and builders, Howard Wright. The men who conceived the Needle for the Seattle World's Fair in 1962 wanted it to be publicly financed, but had no luck getting backing from the city, state or county. The city's building superintendent, Fred B. McCoy, called it a "white elephant." A group of five wealthy backers stepped in to get it up and going.

But the Needle is a unique structure, and despite private ownership and financing, it serves a public purpose. It was built not just to be an icon of the fair, but to be a permanent symbol of the city, and has spurred imitators around the world. What modern big-city skyline does not feature a rotating tower restaurant these days?

The city bent over backward to get it built. It sold the property the Needle stands on without competitive bidding. It bent its zoning laws to allow a 600-foot structure in a neighborhood zoned for 60-feet. It looked the other way for years when the Needle's Top House turned out to hang over the structure's property lines. The Needle was unveiled to the public in September of 1960 with no final design, engineering, financing, zoning or permits. Ground was broken in April, 1961 and it was "topped out" in December of that year. Public process for the Needle was streamlined, to say the least. Back in the late 1990s and early '00s, it took nearly 10 years just to build a water tower on Queen Anne Hill.

But make no mistake: While the Needle is private owned and operated, it is the result of public support and protection, and the city has a role in ensuring that it continues to perform its duty as an international civic symbol and landmark. The Needle is currently seeking protections for views of the tower, spurred by the proposed raising of height limits in South Lake Union. (There's even a Facebook Page about it.)

The city already protects 10 "beloved views" of the Needle from public parks including Gas Works, Alki, Volunteer, Myrtle Edwards, Olympic Sculpture and Kerry Park. Mayor Paul Schell and others at the city wisely saw the value of these sightlines.

The protection of views is very important. For one thing, the Needle is the urban landmark of the region. It is the city-builder's answer to Mt. Rainier, the statement of the city's power, position and ascendency to — as Jonathan Raban put it — "Seattle's capital status across the hinterland." It embodies the characteristics of self-image that we all still promote today — that Seattle is a modern, high-tech, aspirational city. If you can see the Needle, you can see Seattle's mission statement.

Seen by its creators as a new Eiffel Tower for the 21st Century, the Needle in fact received the full support of its French alter-ego. The Eiffel volunteered to fly out their entire kitchen crew to prepare the Needle's first dinner and champagne from its cellar christened the Needle when it opened. The Eiffel Tower was a role model and the Needle is the only world tower that has come close to matching its legacy as an exposition centerpiece and symbol of a city. One reason is that for the nearly 125 years the Eiffel Tower has stood, it has continued to be visible. High-rise Paris never subsumed it. It stands out today just as it did when it was built in 1889.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Mar 12, 7:32 a.m. Inappropriate

I think this is a fine and laudable idea but there is a price to be paid. The price is the removal of the Chihuly mess from our land at the Center.

TLacci

Posted Tue, Mar 12, 8:28 a.m. Inappropriate

Completely agree with the writer's point that we must preserve views of the Space Needle so all city folks may continue to see it. As I was driving north on I-5 into downtown recently, my view was the shaft and top of the Space Needle above the "Great Wheel." Looked like a giant Segway. Sad we have allowed that much blight already. The SLU upzone is a bad idea for many reasons. I appreciate the writer bringing another one to our attention.

mspat

Posted Tue, Mar 12, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

I like the space needle too. But a mature, adult city needs to sometimes make trade-offs. If we are to prevent new construction and more urban density, then we are choosing our views of the needle over all the inherent public benefits of new growth in the city center. The benefits of increased density in the urban core include less suburban sprawl, fewer carbon emissions, greater overall efficiencies of resource use, and more housing supply, thus balancing supply and demand for housing and easing the upward pressure on housing costs. I'm sorry, Knute, but I'll take those benefits over views any day.
My current apartment on capitol hill would have a view of the space needle but it is blocked by 4-story apartment building across the street. Should I demand that building be torn down so my god-given right to see the Space Needle be restored? I would love to see the Space Needle out my back window, but as a rational adult I can see there is greater value in the apartment building, and so I am happy to have my view blocked.

Posted Tue, Mar 12, 3:29 p.m. Inappropriate

"mature, adult city" - "rational adult" -- is that something like a 1%er who whines to get what he wants? As you can see from all the cranes and permit applications downtown, there is plenty of room for increased density without an upzone in SLU. That proposal is designed to benefit one major developer and his sycophants, not to provide any benefits that are not already available.

Don't believe it? Dig up and post some data showing that Seattle is short of building capacity under existing zoning in any neighborhood. You might actually find a few, but I doubt it, and certainly not in the downtown core or surrounding areas.

louploup

Posted Wed, Mar 13, 1:05 p.m. Inappropriate

AMEN! Couldn't have responded better.

mspat

Posted Thu, Mar 14, 12:42 p.m. Inappropriate

There is all the difference in the world between demanding a building be razed to create a view and keeping decades-old zoning in place to protect a view. The Space Needle, to most of the world, is Seattle. To bury it in a forest of high-rise apartment buildings for the sake of "virtuous" asceticism is, in its own way, narcissistic. We can all stand around and congratulate ourselves on how altruistic, mature and forward-thinking we are that we have turned Seattle from a jewel into a crowded urban "everycity", but we'll only be fooling ourselves. Posterity will loathe us for our egocentric self-denial.

dbreneman

Posted Tue, Mar 12, 11:59 a.m. Inappropriate

I am wondering how you came up with that DPD webpage explaining how an undesigned park 9 years into the future in 2001 (opened Sept. 2010) came to be written off as low value Space Needle view. Is or is not the webpage current? If so it does not appear here: http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/Planning/Complete_Project_List/default.asp

The DPD webpage from history reveals the shallow rationale behind labeling a "Space Needle high value" view for Bhy Kracke Park—an-out-of-the-way, still little-used park in a residential neighborhood, a gem, though—and a "Space Needle low value" view for a then off-limits, not especially appealing, none-the-less possible regional park.

The 2001 law change itself illustrates the fact that the City amends, and otherwise updates ordinance every month of every year—the issue at hand being poor practice, bad maintenance. Initially, Seattle's SEPA matter-of-factly extended view protection to all public parks, as distinguished from private places. Soon enough, loop-hole inserters sought definitive listing—resulting in pretty much all public parks and view points/drives still listed today with respect to scenic views. However, the list got shorter when the question came to public views of the city's new icon.

Effective definitive listings require keeping the list timely, rather hard to do even when not preoccupied with and hell-bent on raising land value sky-high with nary a thought to the price-out.

afreeman

Posted Tue, Mar 12, 12:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Mossyback has it right. City planners could not have anticipated the view from South Lake Union Park when view corridors were set aide to protect this Seattle icon. The vista from the new park that shelters both MOHAI and the Center for Wooden Boards adds considerable value to our treasured landmark.

MJH

Posted Wed, Mar 13, 8:59 a.m. Inappropriate

href="/2012/03/09/environment/22038/The-danger-beneath-Seattle:-echoes-of-Japan/">The danger beneath Seattle: echoes of Japan

Take a look at where its pylons are sunk: http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/sea/femaweb/King/KI_4ith.jpg found via http://search.usa.gov/search?utf8=?&affiliate;=www.ecy.wa.gov&query;=landslide

Care to guess which direction it will fall when that unstable foundation slips into the water?

hank

Posted Wed, Mar 13, 11:06 a.m. Inappropriate

This seems a very slippery slope, with a lot of other public goods being sacrificed for a very private venture that is already very lucrative and almost entirely focused on tourists. Imagine what effect on downtown would have resulted if the Smith Tower views had to be protected. Also, the Needle is already surrounded by the low-lying Seattle Center grounds and so will always stand up in proud isolation.

A second point: Lake Union Park, if it is to succeed, will need lots of people (and dog walkers) nearby, so it makes sense to allow pretty high development on its southern edge. The real issue for South Lake Union's building boom is not views but how in the world it will handle all the traffic, particularly with poor transit connections.

Posted Wed, Mar 13, 12:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Part of the question is protecting the view of the Needle. The other question is the semantic meaning of zoning. Is it right that a developer can effectively buy a zoning change in his favor?

Basically, that's what's at stake north of Valley street. The proposed zoning would allow buildings up to 85'. With special favors, the council might allow residential towers up to 240'. I'm not sure if 85' would block views of the Needle, but 240' sure will!

So, what does zoning mean? It gives stability to existing land owners. If you buy a house in a single family area, you are protected against radical deviations, such as a bar or a 20 storey building next door. That protects not only your lifestyle, but your investment in your property.

I can assure you, if I wanted to build a 40' high penthouse on my house, the city would not allow it. Yet, if a developer comes in with enough money, apparently these rules can be broken, to the detriment of nearby landowners and the public.

I strongly support protecting the Needle view from the south Lake Union park. Let's also not go down the slippery slope of "preferential zoning treatment".

pragmatic

Posted Wed, Mar 13, 2:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Calling any preservation of a public icon and it's surroundings a "slippery slope" is a little silly. There are many terrific iconic buildings here, but none are the same stature as the Space Needle. Not even close. The argument that sentiment should not stand in the way of commercial progress was probably applied to efforts to raize and develop Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square. The low-lying Seattle Center grounds will not suffice as a buffer on their own to allow future generations access to this cultural and navigational landmark. The needle needs to be seen easily from as many vantage points as can be preserved, period. The idea that some developers will suffer to not get as fat as they potentially could if they were hand fed by the city council is comic.

Posted Fri, Mar 15, 5:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Yikes, first it was about protecting views from the Alaskan Way Viaduct, now this.

How tall does one need to be to see the needle from the park? Is a lying down position supported? How much of the "Shaft" view is protected or is is it just the view of the "tip"?

It is so ridiculous to limit building height in a city core, now we must protect views?

andy

Posted Sun, Mar 17, 7:50 p.m. Inappropriate

You can call it ridiculous; many call it an honorable tradition in defense of the public interest in the quality of the urban environment including conservation of specific views of and from the urban core, and to protect the prominence of designated landmarks. Washington, D.C. (under attack), Madison, WI, Montreal, Vancouver, B.C., Hong Kong, Athens, Paris (but see http://www.treehugger.com/sustainable-product-design/newly-freed-from-height-limits-paris-skyline-ready-to-rise.html). // Seattle is so provincial in so many ways it's almost amusing. What's not amusing is the enthrallment in which "new urbanism" and density and "transit communities" is held to the neglect of other values. How naive and like rubes we seem.

louploup

Posted Fri, Mar 15, 5:53 p.m. Inappropriate

This whole idea that "fat-cat" developers are the only ones that benefit by lifting exclusionary zoning (height restrictions) is not correct. If we allow more density and more housing, housing prices come down. This is simple supply and demand. I challenge anyone to provide data that contradicts this.

One must also look at who gains by maintaining or strengthening exclusionary zoning. I submit that current home owners benefit the most, since housing prices in the city will remain high or go higher. Who suffers? New lower income residents moving to Seattle. Seattle is getting pretty good at passive-aggressive classism and racism.

andy

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