Will they ever finish Seattle Center?

Years of planning and public relations work fail to hold the Center's place in the queue for capital improvements. Will two more years of waiting make things worse?
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A renovated Center House in the Seattle Center master plan.

Years of planning and public relations work fail to hold the Center's place in the queue for capital improvements. Will two more years of waiting make things worse?

Buried amid the hoopla about a levy later this year to repair the Pike Place Market was the announcement that the planned levy for Seattle Center this year has been put off until 2010. Mayor Greg Nickels decided to change the queue positions, and now the Center levy will be in third place, behind the Market and low income housing (set for 2009). A parks levy might come this year (if the City Council has its way) or as part of the Center levy in 2010. The delay of the Center levy was a blow to the Center staff and many of the arts institutions located there. Planning for this levy has now been going on for three years, leading to lots of uncertainty. But the new Master Plan and the $150 million or so for the first step were apparently not polling well, and the Center faces a lot of indecision about KeyArena as well as Memorial Stadium, controlled by the Seattle School District. Originally, Mayor Nickels wanted to combine the Center and the Market as a "legacy levy," but the total bill was climbing over $200 million, the economy was getting sour, and the two recipients lacked neighborhood appeal, however good they are on the motherhood scale. But it's apparently not back to the drawing board. Public reception of the Century 21 Committee's Master Plan seemed positive. Am I the only one who finds it lacking? Center Director Robert Nellams says the plan elicited a lot of Wows among the 200 people who looked at it in public forums, and he feels the Council also bought into its basic plan for more open space, an outdoor amphitheater, and an upgraded children's play area. (Arts groups, while major users of the Center, tend to go along with whatever the Center devises for its planning, so long as their particularly building is not affected.) More likely, it's now back to the private sector to see the color of its money. The two-year delay will give the Center more time to line up sponsors and partners who can reduce the sticker shock of $650 million for the whole deal. My predictions: a private operator of the new children's area; heavy programming of the amphitheater by One Reel; and the selling off of Mercer Garage to a hotel/condo development, to finance a new parking garage replacing the old Memorial Stadium.) Also, Nellams hopes to show some progress in small changes, such as the Opera's backstage facility in the old Mercer Arena, and doing something when the present Fun Forest lease expires in January 2010. The other good reason for delay is to see if the School District will actually agree to depart Memorial Stadium, either for a new field at the site (converted to the amphitheater in the summer) or elsewhere. And to see what may happen to KeyArena, a great big cost factor for the Center's budget. It seems likely the current Sonics will decamp to Oklahoma City in the next year or two, and then the city will have to decide whether to do a minimum fix-up of the Key (about $20 million) or to keep planning for a $300 million renovation to nab a real NBA team. Some of that money may come from the state, or from a Center levy. Nellams was "confused" by NBA Commissioner David Stern's comments, reported Wednesday, that "the footprint of Key is at present time not viewed as adequate to support" a team. (Note: "at present time," which may mean that the revised plans could be adequate?) Nellams politely notes that Stern seemed okay with the KeyArena expansion when Howard Schultz's Sonics were pushing for it, and that the revised KeyArena plans have 750,000 square feet of space, compared to the Oklahoma City arena with only 500,000 square feet. More likely what deters Stern is the absence of parking, the congestion getting to the Key, and the near-impossible political minefield of Seattle politics. Whether Seattle politics also manage to mangle the Seattle Center plans, given two more years of mayhem, is another interesting question. Time has long been the enemy of the Center, for it gives all kinds of people with grudges, gleams in their eye, and pet projects in need of a home a chance to weigh in and ultimately weigh down the place. In my view, what the overloaded, cluttered Center most needed was some editing out of tired old uses. What we're likely to get is a wee bit of editing (so long, bumper cars!) and a whole lot of jostling new attractions. The magic term "open space" will camouflage what is more properly termed "open season."


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