Ménage à Seattle Center: Chihuly, KEXP, some other suitors?

At a public hearing, the big themes were money for the Center's perpetually stretched budget and the potential for mixing and matching among various proposals for the Fun Forest area.
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An artist's rendering of a proposed new Chihuly museum at the Seattle Center.

At a public hearing, the big themes were money for the Center's perpetually stretched budget and the potential for mixing and matching among various proposals for the Fun Forest area.

Two themes emerged last night (July 7) during the public hearing on redeveloping Seattle Center's Fun Forest. And one leads naturally into the other.

The first is the pressure the city feels to generate revenue from whatever replaces the kiddie rides that have occupied the space for some 45 years. The Center's Request for Proposals (RFP) lists six criteria on which the ideas will be judged, and three of those mention money — capital investments and rent income, for example.

This is despite the fact that the Center's own Master Plan, developed over two years between 2006 and 2008, calls for wide-open space in the Fun Forest area. An open field wouldn't do much to help the Center's perpetual financial struggles. Many of those who commented on the proposals — nearly 80 people signed up to speak — touted the financial benefits of whatever plan they supported, giving more "air time" to that factor than any other.

The second theme to emerge was the idea of combining two or more of the nine proposals under consideration. This "mix and match" approach was mentioned by some of the project backers and by people who offered comments to the RFP Review Panel. It came up so often during the night, gaining steam along the way, that at times it felt like a fait accompli.

Proponents of park land said their plans could accommodate a new studio for nonprofit radio station KEXP; radio station executives, who've submitted a plan of their own, said they'd be willing to talk. Fans of ideas with little money behind them suggested they could be subsidized by money from a Dale Chihuly glass museum; backers of a Chihuly museum expressed openness to that idea.

"We just wanted to bring some energy back to the campus," said Ron Sevart, CEO of the Space Needle, which is working with Chihuly's staff on the museum idea. As Sevart watched a couple hundred people looking over project displays before the hearing, he touted the idea of "finding a way to fit many of these things onto the campus."

A combined approach could help resolve the conflict between the master plan and the city's need to make enough money to pay for the Center's operation. And in terms of shaping the Center's future, a brokered deal is a step forward from early this year, when Seattle Center officials were working privately with Chihuly proponents to OK a museum, without inviting or vetting any other ideas. When those plans finally became public, after months of behind-the-scenes talks, public criticism prompted the Center to step back and issue the RFP.

The RFP Review Panel now will deliberate in closed sessions before making a recommendation to Center director Robert Nellams by the end of August. Nellams will send a recommendation to Mayor Mike McGinn, who is expected to forward a plan to the City Council. Bill Block, chairman of the nine-member group, said panel members may ask project proponents to submit more information, or may meet with proponents to hone projects before issuing a recommendation.

Before it's over, they also may end up playing matchmaker.

Note: This story was edited after initial posting because it incorrectly implied that proponents of a Native American cultural center were open to collaborating with the backers of the Dale Chihuly glass museum.  

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