Last fall, months before the public learned of plans for a Dale Chihuly glass museum at Seattle Center, backers were laying out an ambitious design and timeline, including an outdoor "hot shop" for blowing glass and an opening date of May/June 2010 — about a month from now.
That timeline, evident in documents just released by the Seattle Center, seems wildly optimistic now, as criticism of the proposal has led the city to back up several steps and call for alternative proposals. Ideas must be submitted by June 4 then will be vetted by a review panel.
For much of last year, the Chihuly plan for replacing the existing Fun Forest kiddie carnival at the Center was the only proposal under consideration. And in fact, proponents of the plan had immediate, unwavering support and even assistance from city officials. That comes through clearly in emails between the officials and the proponents, which include the Wright family, owners of the Space Needle; Chihuly Studios; and architecture and design firms hired to help them. The city released the emails in response to a public records request by Crosscut.
Seattle Center redevelopment director Jill Crary was sold on the Chihuly museum idea early on. In an email describing a Nov. 5 presentation (during the administration of then-Mayor Greg Nickels) to the Seattle Design Commission, she told two city colleagues and a Space Needle consultant: "I thought it went very well. It was important to get buy-in for the concept — that's our first public stamp of approval and no small thing. I'm not sure we helped or hurt ourselves showing actual schemes and I'm not sure right now what our next presentation to them needs to be — we may have to go back with actual 'concept design' and not jump to schematic design."
Crary also acknowledged the museum would be a diversion from the Seattle Center Master Plan, which encourages open space: "'ê¦given that this was the first vetting of something different from the master plan, that has had no other public vetting ... they didn't read about it in the paper or hear about it from legislation, we made a good start."
Delays in the project actually started late last fall, when the Design Commission (referred to in some emails as "DC") requested adjustments to the project. Amy Worthington of the Seneca Group, a real estate consulting firm working on the project, wrote on Nov. 9: "I agree that we will need to still go back to DC with our concept design. However, I am concerned about that happening in January instead of December. I know we had targeted 12/17. Is there ANY way the DC would be willing to meet that day?"
Nearly three months later, in late January, Seattle Center director Robert Nellams met with brand-new Mayor Mike McGinn to present the plans. "My meeting went VERY well yesterday," Nellams wrote to Space Needle CEO Ron Sevart, Chairman Jeff Wright, and Crary. "I now have the support I need to move forward with you. The only 'issues' that came up were references to the perception of elitism and/or stepping away from the egalitarian nature of the Center that this project may invoke. We will counter those concerns with clear public benefits and significant new revenue for the Center."
Nellams, asked yesterday (April 27) about the emails, said he and his staff began working with the Chihuly team only after getting the go-ahead from then-Mayor Nickels in July and the City Council in September. It was his call, Nellams said, to move forward without issuing a Request for Proposals — in large part because an RFP for the northern part of the Fun Forest had generated very little interest.
Stressing that the Center staff was negotiating lease rates and other terms as it worked on the Chihuly design, Nellams said the project was never considered a done deal. In addition, he said, his staff offered assistance in the best interest of the city. For example, they insisted the design be changed to allow better public access on both the northern and southern ends of the museum site, addressing a concern raised by the Design Commission.
In a Feb. 10 email to Wright that included project details, Nellams alluded to those changes. "I would like to address your attention to the Public Benefits section," he wrote, "as it lays out the things I believe we agreed to or are necessary to get the deal approved by the Council. Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns. Peace."