A tortuous course through Seattle Center and Seattle process

More than two years of planning and public hearings for a new skateboard park ended with an unplanned compromise site that is highly problematic. Here's what happened. Still unclear is why it happened.
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The popular SeaSk8 skateboard park at Seattle Center, before it was torn down for a parking garage. (City of Seattle)

More than two years of planning and public hearings for a new skateboard park ended with an unplanned compromise site that is highly problematic. Here's what happened. Still unclear is why it happened.

The Seattle City Council voted on Aug. 6 to remove a building at Seattle Center to make way for a skateboard park, ending a contentious process that lasted two and a half years. But significant questions remain regarding the site selected and the tortuous process itself. Not the least is why the council, after being caught unprepared when a previous site proved untenable, moved within the space of six days to finalize and vote on a new site.

The controversy stems from the city's 2005 sale of a parking lot along Fifth Avenue North, across the street from Seattle Center, to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a site for the organization's new headquarters. Construction requires removal of an existing skateboard park, known as SeaSk8, as well as the Seattle SuperSonics training facility. Following the sale, the city promised skaters that they would replace the park with a new one elsewhere, also within Seattle Center or in the vicinity. The city set a variety of requirements for the new site, among them that it match SeaSk8's 8,900-square-foot area and that it be available by the time a parking garage that replaces it is completed. (That's scheduled to be finished by next spring.)

These promises resulted in two years of planning and consultation, a process that winnowed more than 20 potential sites down to three. In February, Seattle Center presented the three options to the City Council. The sites identified were a pocket park on North Mercer Street near the theater district, a parking lot on First Avenue, and the Broad Street green between the Space Needle and the Experience Music Project. Of these, the first two were deemed unsuitable due to concerns over safety and accessibility. The Broad Street green was the preferred option of the skateboard community but ran into opposition from other quarters.

As this process neared its finish, however, it was overshadowed by the work of the Century 21 Committee, a board appointed by Mayor Greg Nickels to draft potential plans for the long-term development of the center. Starting last November, the committee considered the various uses of Seattle Center and solicited public input to determine possible courses of action. It released a final report [30 MB PDF] in June, identifying four courses ranging from a do-nothing option to ambitious plans to totally overhaul the center. A major concern identified by the committee was creating increased green space at as adjacent neighborhoods densify.

The Century 21 Committee proffered its own recommendation for a skateboard park, in the courtyard of the Seattle Center Pavilion, a structure with two exhibition spaces on the south side of KeyArena near the intersection of North Thomas Street and Second Avenue North. The site is used by numerous festivals and events throughout the year, including Bumbershoot and Folklife Festival. Michele Scoleri, the executive director of festivals at OneReel, Bumbershoot's umbrella organization, says the site is ideal for the festival's needs and "crucial to Bumbershoot's production." At a meeting of the Parks, Education, Libraries and Labor Committee of the City Council on June 20, Century 21 committee member Bryce Seidl presented the site as an option. At the same meeting, however, center Director Robert Nellams and two staff members raised objections, saying the courtyard would be too small and would restrict emergency access to KeyArena.

It was shortly thereafter that Seattle Center officials first raised the possibility of using the current site of the DuPen Fountain for the skateboard park. The fountain is north of KeyArena and the site encompasses sculptures created for the 1962 World's Fair by the late local artist Ernest DuPen. It was proposed as a possible skateboard park location in late June. Council member Peter Steinbrueck circulated a letter to the council from Dorothy Mann, chair of the Seattle Arts Commission, opposing the proposal. The commission was also the first body to notify DuPen family members of the plan; until that point, in late July, no one had contacted them.

Even in the face of complaints, the DuPen site became the official proposal, and the council moved toward a vote. Some key members, including Steinbrueck and Tom Rasmussen, raised questions over the suitability of the site and the concerns of the arts community. At a council briefing on July 30, members of the DuPen family, along with a representative of the city's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs and a filmmaker who had made a documentary about the life and work of DuPen, presented their objections. Meanwhile, Seattle Center Director Nellams admitted that the site, at 6,700 square feet, was far smaller than SeaSk8 and thus didn't meet the council's requirements. He admitted that it only came into consideration when the center decided to ignore the council's criteria. Moreover, relocation of the fountain would have incurred a cost of $1.5 million to $2 million.

The council backpedalled furiously, removing the DuPen site from consideration on July 31. Immediately thereafter, council member David Della, the chair of the Parks, Education, Libraries and Labor Committee, introduced legislation selecting the Seattle Center Pavilion site. To incorporate the concerns of the center regarding safety and to ensure that the site was large enough, the legislation also called for the demolition of the pavilion building. The legislation was passed on Aug. 6, less than a week after the change of plans – and the same day that a final vote on the DuPen Fountain had been scheduled. The park will not be ready until the 2009, a full year after the promised delivery date.

There are many questions raised by this sudden turn. After a drawn-out process over two and a half years, why did the council move in less than a week to finalize a site without time for deliberation? Why, while appearing to accept the recommendation of the Century 21 Committee, did the council move ahead with a major change to the center and jump ahead of a long planning process? Why did the city summarily reject the Broad Street green site, the preferred option of the skateboarding community?

The last question is perhaps easiest to answer. Though people involved in the process are evasive, it is clear that the Broad Street site ran into opposition from the Space Needle and EMP, as The Stranger reported. At the July 30 council briefing, Nellams commented wryly, "We heard a lot from both [the Space Needle and EMP], as I would imagine many of you did," to a general response of laughter and assent. However, there was clearly concern over the potential reduction of green space at Seattle Center. Jan Levy, the co-chair of the Century 21 Committee, affirms that increasing green and open space was a key issue raised during the public hearings that the committee held. "We got very strong input on green space ... and specifically the Broad Street green," she says. At this point, however, the green is an empty and rather unattractive tract; visitors to the center tend to skirt around it on their way to EMP or other attractions.

Though the Century 21 Committee identified the Seattle Center Pavilion site as an option, it called for the demolition of the building only in the fourth and most ambitious option it presented. The committee suggested that the pocket park near Mercer be converted into a temporary skateboard park to avoid a conflict between the building of a permanent skateboard park and the broader process of redeveloping the center. Now the site will have to be developed and planned for separately, creating headaches as the full redesign of Seattle Center goes forward.

One can only guess the reasons for the sudden switch to the pavilion site. Council member Della appears to have allowed Seattle Center to dictate terms without providing direction. The quick acceptance of the DuPen Fountain site, despite concerns raised by influential members of the arts community and the failure of the site to meet the council's size requirements, display a clear lack of preparation on his part. Though he described the site as a broad-based compromise, it came about through the suggestion of the center officials in contravention of an extensive, two-year planning process. In light of this, the quick move to the pavilion site represented an opportunity to avoid looking incompetent without requiring any large expenditure of political capital. Dave Namura, Della's chief of staff, was evasive when pressed as to why the pavilion site was selected so quickly. In any case, Della's lack of preparation regarding the DuPen site was an embarrassing misstep as he prepares to face a tough challenger in the November election; quick action on the Seattle Center Pavilion site allowed him to recover his footing.

Namura argues that "a compromise needed to be made," and that the site was acceptable to skateboarders. "From a council standpoint, this was a win-win," he says, even though the site does not meet the council's own conditions. As with the DuPen Fountain, the pavilion has key drawbacks: It won't be ready until 2009 and it will require the demolition of a building. Moreover, the center will have to identify alternative space for all of the many festivals and events that utilize the pavilion. The clear outcome of directionless planning without strong leadership from the council is a much-more-difficult construction and mitigation process for the skatepark.


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