Visions for the Center's future: I hear Seattle singing

One thing we can all agree on is that the chance to remake Seattle Center brings out a multitude of ideas that reflect our varied expectations. It's like a Whitman poem in action.
Crosscut archive image.

Rendering of the Dale Chihuly "glass house" proposed for Seattle Center

One thing we can all agree on is that the chance to remake Seattle Center brings out a multitude of ideas that reflect our varied expectations. It's like a Whitman poem in action.

Somewhere within the walls of all,

Shall all that forwards perfect human life be started,

Tried, taught, advanced, visibly exhibited.

— Walt Whitman, from "Song of the Exposition"

The new round of proposals for what to do with the South Fun Forest space that was triggered by the controversial Chihuly museum plan is a reminder of one thing: Seattle loves Seattle Center, but we all see it differently. It's a park, it's a carnival, it's a media center, it's museum space, it's a continuation of the world's fair, it's a neighborhood amenity, it's a sacred space, it's an art gallery, it's a music venue, it's a tourist trap.

Despite loving it, despite many master plans and proposals and schemes (remember Disney?), for Seattle Center, the future once predicted by the world's fair that gave birth to it has turned out to be more chaotic than promised. The sleekness of the New Frontier has been ruffled by democracy, entrepreneurship, recession, success, and conflicting urban visions.

I've had a chance to quickly review the proposals (there are eight, and a ninth the reads like a letter-to-the-editor, which I omit here). My own reactions to the various ideas follow, with their pros and cons. My bias is to see the Center continue to be vital and viable, with a Walt Whitmanesque diversity of functions, noise, fun, and high and low culture. I want it to maintain both its historic connections and its status as a kind of special precinct within the city. I found a lot to like in some of these proposals, which seem to me like hearing Seattle singing.

1. Fun Forest

Proposal: Continue running the Fun Forest by keeping the kiddie rides going.

Pros: Keeps the existing use, which has been part of Seattle Center since the 1962 World's Fair; it's a great place for kids and teens, keeps 100 or so entry-level jobs; provides a $250,000-plus revenue stream in rent.

Cons: Not as exciting as it used to be, big rides are gone (the sale of which have improved the Fun Forest's financial condition). Owner promises upgrades, but some think it's outdated and tacky.

Mossback says: Big cities often have central parks and opera houses, but they also have amusement parks (see Copenhagen and other European cities Seattle tries to imitate). In New York, Coney Island is resurgent with the revival of Luna Park. If the Fun Forest closes, Seattle won't have any, which is a shame. We're already pretty close to being a No-Fun Zone, with only The Ducks to keep us humble. However, the long-term key is major, high-tech, multi-media upgrades to bring the Fun Forest into the 21st Century. Without some investment here, it's a dead-end.

2. World's Fair Gallery

Proposal: The Seattle Center Foundation would like to move a souvenir shop and exhibit space devoted to the 1962 fair to the Retail Kiosk in the south Fun Forest Area.

Pros: Increased visibility and sales, helps to fund and publicize upcoming 50th anniversary of Century 21 Exposition and mark its legacy, plus focus on the next 50 years. Would not necessarily conflict with some other uses (conversion to green space, for example).

Cons: It could be accomplished with so little muss and fuss there's be nothing for the rest of us to complain about.

Mossback says: It's a good idea that raises a larger one, which is that the Center should host an ongoing major multimedia exhibit of fair artifacts and history, and, in fact, might want to consider hosting a national world's fair museum someday devoted to the legacy of some 150 years of urban utopianism.

3. Northwest Mysteries Museum

Proposal: To create a museum and exhibit space that would take visitors on a walking tour of Seattle and Northwest history, including our strangest episodes, and feature displays ranging from Bigfoot footprints to film of Mt. St. Helens erupting. They even hope to put the old Bubbleator on display. A Pirates Cove Cafe and Treasure Chest Gift Shop add appropriate piratical elements.

Pros: A fun experience with P.T. Barnum-type, envisioning a museum catering to the masses, like the Wax Museum in Victoria. Northwest history is notably absent from Seattle Center.

Cons: The budget is just under $1 million, but it's unclear who provides the seed money to get it all going, and some of the revenue figures seems overly optimistic. And while a fun idea, it seems like it would meet serious resistance from those seeking a higher class of schlock. Also, the local history emphasis will likely find multimedia competition when the Museum of History and Industry accomplishes its planned relocation to South Lake Union. (Disclosure: I did some consulting for MOHAI last year).

Mossback says: The museum revives a link to the much-missed elements of weirdness that used to be part of the center, including the Jones Fantastical Museum at Center House. The attitude used to finds its way into more serious institutions, too. I remember in the 1960s attending a UFO forum at the Pacific Science Center. So, why not a museum that reminds us that Kenneth Arnold first spotted flying saucers at Mount Rainier, an event echoed in the architecture of the Space Needle? But you'll need someone to fork over the investment, Paul Allen-style.

4. Center Park

Proposal: Put forth by Friends of the Green at Seattle Center (FROG), the idea is to turn the South Fun Forest into open space to make a vibrant, urban park.

Pros: The plan adds open space downtown, which is tough to come by. It would be a major green amenity for visitors and families, keeping public space free and open to the public. It would also act to connect various existing venues, by linking open space to Center House and ncorporating the mural amphitheater, and it would remove the Pavilion arcade, which the proposal called a "temptation to commercialization." It also fulfills the Century 21 Master Plan approved by the city council in 2008.

Cons: Open space doesn't contribute to the struggling Center's revenue stream; it removes the Fun Forest or precludes other pavilions or new attractions coming in (like EMP or the proposed Chihuly space). It emphasizes the Center as a neighborhood amenity rather than as a regional arts and entertainment zone. And don't we already have problems funding maintenance and policing of city parks, especially downtown ones?

Mossback says: The Center Park plan has many appealing aspects, and if anyone has a right to be pissed off by the Chihuly scheme, it's the open-space advocates, who fought and won the fight during the Master Plan process. (Disclosure: my boss at Crosscut, David Brewster, is a leading FROG). But Seattle Center isn't a pure park and I think new exhibits and attractions have a place there, not more park benches. I don't like the group's proposal for Center House to "open it up" like a sardine can in order to connect it with the new green space. Like it or not, the former Art Deco armory is a historic landmark.

5. Northwest Native Cultural Center

Proposal: To turn the Arcade Pavilion into an exhibition center of Northwest Indian art, culture, and history, and to convert the surrounding grounds to open space featuring native plants to help exhibit Indian stewardship and sustainability practices, and traditional uses of plants for food, medicine, clothing, etc.

Pros: The proposal points out a glaring omission in Seattle's treatment of heritage. As the proposal says, the city "does not have a prominent place in the central city dedicated to the living culture of the region's first people." This would rectify that and potentially expose literally millions of people a year to the history and lives of the original inhabitants of the region, including the site of the Seattle Center grounds.

Cons: From the Center's perspective, the negative here is that the cultural center would expect free rent and be self-sustaining from donations and admissions. Realistically, it would take a lot to develop this idea the right way.

Mossback says: Seattle Center sits on land that was important to local Native Americans: it was a wetland for duck hunting, a gathering place, an area where Indians traveled between Lake Union and Puget Sound. There really ought to be more there to recognize Seattle's native history, and the way indigenous cultures live on. Public carvings and totems are usually not from Puget Sound tribes, and local Native American museums are scattered and away from the center of things. If nothing else, a native heritage center should be close to where the people, including tourists, are. Pioneer Square, the Pike Place Market, the waterfront, and Seattle Center are obvious opportunities.

6. Open Platform

Proposal: Turn the South Fun Forest into a kind of interactive open space exemplifying sustainability and green technologies, and integrating live performances, temporary art exhibits and installations, social and cafe culture into the space, along with "unexpected" appearances by dancers, opera singers, etc. The goal is to turn it into the city's "best gathering place." If the Olympic Sculpture park is for sculptures, this is more for stuff that moves.

Pros: Creative, active, not a passive park but a kind of eco-space with cultural zones designed into it (think of the aesthetic of the grass-roofed Seattle City Hall). The FROG plan is a bit more oriented toward cafe culture, this to the kind of street art and eco-innovation you often see on the grounds of world's fairs in Europe. If FROG is New York-inspired (Bryant Park), Open Platform seems more San Francisco or Vancouver. The team, ThinkActivate has the design skills to pull it off. Could work in conjunction with KEXP proposal (see below).

Cons: Is there a funding plan? Proposal has too much artsy jargon. One fears that Seattle sensibilities could also steer a project like this to a more whimsical landscape (Trolls? A bocce ball court?). Not sure we can be trusted with this concept.

Mossback says: Oh my god, no mimes please.

7. The Chihuly Museum

Proposal: To create a comprehensive, indoor-outdoor Dale Chihuly exhibition space, including a huge gallery space, a Glass House exhibition and special events space featuring a giant, suspended Chihuly sculpture, an outdoor plaza, a cafe, and adjacent green space (Art Garden) featuring the glass-master's works. Also proposed for elsewhere on the Center grounds would be a $1 million kids playground with the equipment designed by artists.

Pros: Love him or hate him, Chihuly would be a draw and help suck cash out of the pockets of Seattle visitors. It would be an international attraction. The fact that the Wright family, the folks who own the Space Needle, think it's a money maker is a strong endorsement. The project would be fully privately funded and generate new money for the strapped Center (the proponents say $10,000,000 in rent alone over 20 years). They plan to invest $12-$15 million in capital expenditures to get it going, funding provided by the Space Needle owners.

Cons: Should we privatize public space? Is it art or schlock? Didn't we just agree on a different direction? Chihuly aside, doesn't this project seem like a big investment in one guy? What's next, the Kenny G Pavilion?

Mossback says: You hate it now, like you hated the Qwest and Safeco fields when the bullies pushed them through, but you go to games there, right? Well, you'll be thrilled to have your wedding reception at Dale's Glass House when it opens. Chihuly chotchkes for everyone!


Proposal: A new home at Seattle Center for everyone's favorite hipster, non-profit radio station and KEXP's services as a producer of Center cultural and musical events. The station would set up in the Arcade Pavilion and open up the station to public view through a glass window 24/7. The station could act as "curator" for hundred of on-campus and in-studio musical events every year, events that are broadcast locally, on the web, and on the radio in New York City, giving vast exposure to Seattle artists.

Pros: It would be excellent adaptive re-use for the Arcade, plus there would be green space including a Music Garden. With concerts and organized busking, it kind of makes Bumbershoot a year-round thing. Media (KCTS) and music (EMP) are already institutionalized at the center. KEXP activates and involves both media and music in a much more dynamic way.

Cons: Radio is often boring to look at, and you could accomplish the same thing with a webcam.

Mossback says: If Seattle Centers needs a DJ, these guys are it.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.