A big-time architect tackles Seattle's lack of a decent gathering place

Seattle has a reputation for doing a lousy job with public plazas. Can Norman Foster and $300 million change that?
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An early sketch of Seattle's new Civic Square.

Seattle has a reputation for doing a lousy job with public plazas. Can Norman Foster and $300 million change that?

For all the vast sums spent in recent years on public buildings - more than $1.5 billion on stadiums, a downtown library, two music halls, a new federal courthouse, and a new city hall - Seattle still lacks a there there. In times more optimistic about our sports teams, the issue used to be framed as: Where do we go to celebrate when the Mariners win the World Series? Okay, we need to lower our expectations. Winning can just be a nice day at the ballpark, right? But the question remains. Where does Seattle gather for big civic celebrations? The Pike Place Market is too small. Seattle Center is too far from downtown. Ditto for the University of Washington's Red Square. Westlake Park is clumsy, unless you're partial to the papal balcony look. Now we're on course to solve that dilemma. Across Fourth Avenue from City Hall, Seattle is getting a $300 million Civic Square to be designed by one of the world's most renowned architects, Norman Foster. Among his achievements: London City Hall, a giant cone of glass and metal; the headquarters of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank; and the renovated Trafalgar Square in London. This is a big deal. That money and name should have generated considerable attention in a town that went nuts over the design development and opening of the downtown public library. (And while it's true that patrons may get lost inside the Rem Koolhaas building, it's a spectacular place to be lost and a wonderful thing to look at, night or day.) But the dailies have given little attention to the announcement of Foster's selection. The first public presentation of his ideas at City Hall last Thursday drew at best a few citizens. How come? First, public interest may be low because Seattle has a lousy record with public plazas. They tend to be cold and lifeless (especially the King County buildings') or unrealized because of so many compromises and political warring (Westlake). Second, the Foster project is the third and biggest piece of the as-yet-disappointing Civic Center Master Plan, adopted in 1998, which gave us the new the Justice Center ($92 million) and the new City Hall ($72 million). Though the Justice Center and City Hall are handsome structures with fine details, they don't work as well together as hoped. A planned faux creek running under Fifth Avenue to link the two buildings, for example, was abandoned. City Hall provides some interesting spaces, especially a glass walkway and the council chambers, but the place has a high-end generic feel, like an office for a prosperous law firm or a new lobby for Swedish Hospital. Little about the place says Seattle, and the message sent to the average citizen is not encouraging. The Fourth Avenue entrance is a bit disorienting. The public might own the place, but if they want to find the chambers, it's a choice of walking up a severe flight of stairs or hunting for an elevator. The west side of the new City Hall presents other problems - a maze of interior stair cases, empty spaces inside a red glass area and an outdoor plaza that works poorly. The entire area seems unfinished, as if it awaits completion of Civic Square, which is not till 2011. By then, we'll see how City Hall flows into the plaza, a space that will include a 400-foot office-residential tower, a light-rail connection, a "water feature," retail or other uses to animate the area, a "people's pavilion," and an amphitheater. More than 55 percent of the site will be dedicated to open space. The lead developer is Triad Development. Architects are Foster+Partners and GGLO of Seattle. Based on presentations last week by the design team, there's reason to be optimistic about Civic Square. This won't be a park. It's a built thing. The goal is something lively, urban, congested, and even fun. The designers want a space that serves many functions, not just as Seattle's one big celebration venue, but also a gathering place for a surrounding neighborhood. Ironically, the model for what not to do is the old Public Safety Building, which once occupied the site. For now, the site is a very big hole with lots of possibilities. Update: The city says its cost for the $300 milllion project is about $25 million, of which $19.8 million is the estimated value of the land set aside by the city as open space.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.