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Art buffs vs. park preservationists — can we all get along?

Newlyweds in front of the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park Credit: dslrnovice

Seattle’s Volunteer Park, one of the city’s signature gems, has become a development battleground.

Such fights in Seattle frequently pit developers against preservationists, but the struggle on Capitol Hill is between preservationists. On one side are folks who want to upgrade and expand the historic Seattle Asian Art Museum. On the other, stewards of the surrounding Olmsted-designed park.

It’s rare to see landmark-on-landmark action like this, and the controversy is drawing national attention.

Both sides in this fight have good intentions. The Seattle Asian Art Museum is housed in the beautiful 1930s Bebb & Gould-designed museum that was once home to the main Seattle Art Museum, now headquartered downtown. SAM runs SAAM, and desperately needs to upgrade the building in Volunteer Park. The facility is woefully out of date, in need of climate control and utility upgrades. Condensation on the windows and walls threatens art and artifacts inside. It needs insulation, modern environmental controls, better ADA access and seismic upgrading.

Voters agreed, passing a parks levy containing money tagged for upgrades.

But SAM would also like a bigger, better SAAM — what they describe as “a modern museum in a historic building.” Seattle is one of only a few cities with a major Asian art museum, the argument goes, and it needs the upgrades in order to take the museum to get larger and better touring exhibits from major museums like the Getty, which won’t risk sending art to raggedy SAAM.

SAM’s plan calls for a new main gallery, a glass addition with park views, art studio and education space for school groups, more meeting and event space, and a streamlined art storage area, among other things. They’d like to expand the reach of the museum’s collection too, and with the Asian population of Pugetopolis booming, that addresses not only a historic need to embrace and reflect our deep connections with the Pacific but also tracks with where the region is heading in terms of diversity, growth and influence.

It’s a bid to truly embrace SAAM’s mission instead of puttering along in an antiquated facility. The $49 million price tag — a mix of public and private money — reflects the ambition.

It looks great on paper. The problem has been in the execution, and the process. The museum runs the city-owned building but it sits on Parks property, and this park property is a national treasure. Volunteer Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and, like the SAAM building itself, is a city landmark. The park was conceived as part of the city’s Olmsted plan that resulted in our best parks and a system of connecting boulevards — bedrock urban amenities that make Seattle Seattle.

Because the landscape is protected, changes in the park must be carefully planned and executed. And from the beginning, there has been concern about SAAM’s plans to extend the footprint of the museum into protected park space, particularly on the “backside” of the museum where a planned addition would eat up roughly 3,200 square feet of parks open space. Open space in our parks and elsewhere is an increasingly rare commodity.

The nonprofit Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks weighed in with concerns about the scale of the proposed addition and the rewiring of some of the park’s pathways. The National Association of Olmsted Parks also expressed concerns, and on Jan. 17, the national Cultural Landscape Foundation deemed Volunteer Park to be nationally significant “threatened” landscape.

Last fall, it looked like SAAM was fast-tracking the project with a timeline that called for a finished design by the end of 2016, and closing the museum to prepare for work this February with construction slated to begin in the fall. They still hope to make that 2017 schedule.

But after soliciting more public input, Jesus Aguirre, Seattle Parks and Recreation Superintendent, sent a letter to SAM director Kim Rorschach earlier in January, requesting the project be put on “pause” and listed many questions that needed to be answered, including a better understanding of the expansion’s business model for SAAM — in other words, how will the expansion pay off for SAM overall, is it needed, will it increase visitation, and asking if alternatives to expanding into the park had been “thoroughly” considered.

The last point is key, in that assessing impact on historic properties and considering alternatives is essential to the process beyond public making adjustments responding to public input. SAM says it is continuing with the approval process for the project and “having key conversations.” Says a spokesperson, “We respect the time it takes to consider a project of this size and importance.” Park advocates home that their SAAM concerns and input are being taken more seriously.

We don’t know whether there is a solution that makes everyone happy, but the idea of a rejuvenated SAAM that can host international quality shows and protect its collections to modern standards is good.

We should be, and are, investing in museums now. At a time when so much of our built heritage is being lost to development, Seattle has been undergoing a simultaneous museum renaissance: The Museum of History and Industry’s relocation to South Lake Union ($90 million), a new Burke Museum is under construction at the University of Washington ($83 million), the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard is getting new digs ($45 million). Such expansions and relocations are critical in a city transforming before our eyes.

Conceptually, the new SAAM restores and updates a landmark building and enhances its use. But it should not, and need not, do so at the expense of our protected heritage park. Such landscapes, whether city parks or national parks, are too often regarded as white boards ripe for scribbling. They are rare public cultural commodities, places that should be immune from wrecking balls and encroachments. In this case, we have two treasures that should be able to mutually thrive. If it takes hitting the pause button to get it done right, so be it.

Correction: This article originally stated that SAAM’s planned addition would eat up some 4,000 square feet of parks space on the museum’s backside. Updated plans would require roughly 3,200 square feet.

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