Chihuly exhibit: smashing Center open space hopes?

A proposal for Seattle Center to have a new Dale Chihuly exhibit has been sailing along quietly. But the plan runs counter to a master plan and the idea of preserving Center open space.
Crosscut archive image.

A Dale Chihuly artwork

A proposal for Seattle Center to have a new Dale Chihuly exhibit has been sailing along quietly. But the plan runs counter to a master plan and the idea of preserving Center open space.

A plan to turn part of the Seattle Center grounds into exhibit space for glass artist Dale Chihuly is generating controversy after gliding along quietly for months.

The plan would use the Center's existing Fun Forest arcade building, plus much of the open space where kiddie rides now stand, to create 44,000 square feet of exhibit space for Chihuly's work. Patrons would have to pay to enter the building, but some works would be installed outside, where the public could view them for free. The site would include an "art garden" and "glass house" separate from the building, as well as a gift shop and café inside.

The Seattle Design Commission, which serves as an advisory group to the mayor and city council, approved the "concept direction" for the proposal in January despite some concerns that too much of the space was closed off for paid admission. "Consider increasing the size of the area that can be enjoyed by the public for free," the commission urged, in a list of recommendations attached to its approval in minutes from the meeting.

The plan was scheduled for further discussion by the commission at a meeting Thursday afternoon (March 4), but was removed from the agenda without any official explanation. The proposal will go through at least two more stages of review by the commission, as the design gets more refined. If it gets final approval, and signoff from Mayor Mike McGinn, it will go to the council.

Robert Nellams, Seattle Center director, told the commission in January that the indoor-outdoor exhibit reflects the principles of the center's master plan. "It's about bringing vitality and vibrancy to the campus," Nellams said. He also touted the chance to showcase Chihuly, known around the world for his glass artworks, in his hometown; until now, the only public Chihuly showcase in the region has been the Museum of Glass in Tacoma.

"The premier glass artist in the world wants to be a part of this project," Nellams told the design commission. "This is a good thing."

But the center's Century 21 Master Plan, adopted by the council in August 2008 after nearly two years of study, shows the area as open space. "Five acres of valuable real estate returns to the public realm in January 2010," the plan states. "A significant space on the campus that is now most frequently an empty asphalt lot for carnival rides becomes an active, fun destination for children and families throughout the hours of the day and the days of the year. Surrounding the Space Needle will be a landscape expressing the abundance and sustainability of the earth, a naturally forested area, a structured urban forest, sustainable gardens and botanical terraces."

Some skeptics view the Chihuly proposal as a misguided departure from the master plan, a move that would take yet more of Seattle Center's space and cordon it off for people who can afford to buy a ticket.

"This is a big deal," said City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who heads the council's Parks & Seattle Center committee. "Seattle Center is 74 acres, and there are only 17 acres left that are open space. So let's preserve this." Bagshaw said she'd like to hear other ideas for the area, maybe even one that would dedicate the land to art and culture more broadly: "I want there to be a public process."

Norie Sato, the lone "no" vote on the design commission, said, "One of my concerns is that the space is going to become a paid space." But the artist — the only one on the 10-member commission — also felt the design needed more work: "If we're going to turn more public space into private space, we need to do something of extra quality, extra value. The design wasn't quite there yet."

Bagshaw said she did not know why the center didn't issue a "request for proposals" to solicit ideas for the use of the Fun Forest space. The rides will be removed and the arcade building emptied after Labor Day, when a lease to the private group that runs the carnival will expire. Another area — north of the monorail and east of the Center House — has been opened up to an RFP process. Seattle Center spokeswoman Deborah Daoust said she could not explain why one area is going through an RFP and another area isn't. Nellams, she said, was not available to comment.

Daoust did point out that the Fun Forest area always has been leased to a private, for-profit concessionaire, so the Chihuly idea is not a radical shift. In addition, she said, the Seattle Center has never been intended as pure open space. "We're not a park, we're an urban park," Daoust said. And the center, which must help support itself financially, has long made use of public-private partnerships and funding. The Space Needle itself is run as a for-profit entity by the Wright family, which helped build the structure in 1962, now owns it, and first proposed the Chihuly exhibit idea to Nellams last fall.

Between 1990 and 2008, the Center made use of $700 million in capital investments, and two-thirds of that was private money, Daoust said: "That's kind of how things work around here."

Bagshaw said she was told Thursday's design commission discussion was postponed because Seattle Center staff wanted to take more time with the design after questions had been raised. While Daoust would not discuss the postponement, she did say some elements of the design were still under review.

The design commission needs to review the plans at least two more times, when it reaches the "schematic design" stage and again at a stage called "design development." The group meets the first and third Thursday of every month.


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