Explainer: Seattle Center's best-laid plans going awry

The Center has been a chronic budget problem, and efforts to build one's way out of it have not worked. Here's why, and here's how this adds up to an opportunity to regroup, not commercialize the place.
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Seattle Center: enduring icons of 1962

The Center has been a chronic budget problem, and efforts to build one's way out of it have not worked. Here's why, and here's how this adds up to an opportunity to regroup, not commercialize the place.

The troubled unveiling of plans for a Dale Chihuly museum and garden at Seattle Center may be turning into a larger story: the unraveling of the Center itself. Here's a short "Explainer" on the situation.

Years ago, when the Center was emerging from the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, an economy-minded Seattle City Council, short on funds to run the 73-acre campus, chose to keep anything that could pay some rent, even if the buildings were temporary and ungainly for many new uses. Didn't work, and by the 1980s, the chronic budget shortfalls (around $13 million a year now) draining the city's general fund prompted some more radical thoughts.

Mayor Charles Royer brought in the Disney Imagineers to concoct a solution that would have transformed the Center, commercialized nearly every square inch of it, and conceivably solved the budget problem. Nearly everybody hated the Disney plan, indulging in a bout of California-hating. In his last year in office, Royer brought in Virginia Anderson, a developer, to boot out the Imagineers and produce a more Northwest-friendly plan.

Anderson, a forceful leader, dramatically rebuilt the Center, closed some of the tottering relics of the Fair, added a lot of ethnic programs to broaden the Center's appeal during its special levy campaigns, and became, in effect, a "mayor" of the little city of Seattle Center. She and Mayor Greg Nickels clashed, and in her last year, she convened a master plan task force, aiming at still another levy. This one would have spent $150 million or so in fixing up Center House, a converted armory. In turn, the fix up would lead to higher rents at Center House, thus easing the budget problem.

That plan, not really a plan so much as a public relations salvo to start the levy clock ticking, fizzled. Anderson departed, and a Century 21 task force was convened to redo the plan, this time with more open space. It was a better plan, but meanwhile Seattle Center was now led by Robert Nellams, Anderson's top finance assistant, who is nowhere near as dynamic a community leader as Anderson was. The new plan had a huge price tag of $750 million or so. Mayor Nickels gulped, had other priorities, and slow-tracked the Seattle Center levy until 2010, hoping to build more public support and to get some private support for aspects of the plan, lowering the price tag. And the Sonics left town, creating another question mark in the plan: KeyArena.

An excellent story in today's Seattle Times shows what has been happening in the past year, as the recession compounded the Center's best-laid plans. In effect, if the story is accurate, the Center has quietly given up hope on the Century 21 Master Plan, owing to the recession, new Mayor McGinn's lack of interest (or higher priorities for other levies like rail to West Seattle), and the failure of the Plan to ignite much public support. It's back to the commercialization strategy, which led Nellams straight to the Chihuly idea, run by the Space Needle.

Is there another option? One that never seems to come up is to attack the expense side of the equation, rather than trying to build one's way out of the red ink. Seattle Center is now a very program-rich operation, running lots of shows to keep the folks coming and helping the concessionaires — much as a shopping center would do. Maybe it should just get out of that business? Or hire some professionals such as One Reel to do some of that programming?

That idea never seems to come up, because it would lead to layoffs of city workers, and Seattle Center is highly unionized and very able to defend itself by rallying public support. The other idea that remains low profile is raising rents on the many sweet deals at the Center, relics of favors done to various groups by past mayors and city councilmembers. Again, this rarely comes up because the task forces looking at the future of the Center are always dominated by institutions on the campus.

No previous mayor has really wanted a "fresh look" at the Center, fearful of all the political landmines it contains. But Mayor McGinn is definitely a fresh-look guy. The recession casts a lot of grand plans into doubt. And Sally Bagshaw, who chairs the council's parks and Seattle Center committee, has a new paradigm in mind for the Center, one that is more parklike in the core. Smells like a big opportunity to me.


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