The Seattle Center is looking to remake the Center House food court, attracting "destination" restaurants in time for the 2012 celebration of the World's Fair's 50th anniversary. But with nearly every existing concessionaire's lease expiring early next year, the project has drawn only one bidder, and the deadline for proposals passed this week.
"We would have loved to have more" bidders, said Jill Crary, redevelopment manager for the Center. "But we understood that this is a tough economy to be looking at this. And we're excited to look at the one that we have."
The bidder, Lancer Hospitality of Minnesota, already runs concessions at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, and the Northwest Trek wildlife park in Pierce County. Glenn Baron, founder of the 30-year-old company, was surprised to learn Thursday (Dec. 9) that he had no competition.
"The vision that the city has is very exciting," Baron said. "I think there is a lot of potential opportunity.” Neither he nor Crary would discuss the details of Lancer's bid. Crary said the bid did not arrive until Wednesday (Dec. 8), the final day for submissions, and she had not had time to go through it or discuss with the bidder any proprietary information that might need redacting. Baron deferred to the city to decide when and how to release details. He did say his proposal named local restaurants as partners, but he would not name them.
The food-court news comes as the Center works to build excitement for the 50th anniversary of the 1962 World's Fair, planning events and special exhibits for 2012. On Thursday, the city announced it would open a nearly 200-foot-tall "observation wheel" — like a Ferris Wheel of sorts — on the grounds next to the Space Needle next April. And officials have been in talks for over a year to place a Dale Chihuly glass museum where the Fun Forest kiddie rides have long stood, a controversial idea that is now under review in Mayor Mike McGinn's office.
Remaking the food court — which now houses a mix of fast-food chains, a candy store, a Starbucks, and one bistro — has long been a goal of the city's. The Center's "Century 21 Master Plan," adopted by the City Council in 2008, envisioned the Center House transformed:
Thick concrete walls are opened up. Restaurants and cafes punctuate the outer edge with outdoor seating in warm months, an outward presence and access year-round.
The central atrium roof is replaced with glass, allowing light and views of the Space Needle into the core of the building. The roof level is a public promenade, offering views of the campus and downtown skyline. A destination restaurant sits on the north end of the roof level.
With the upcoming commemoration of the World's Fair, which gave birth to the Seattle Center and Space Needle, the city has put the project on something of a front burner, publishing a Request for Proposals (RFP) in September. Even at that point, the clock was ticking faster than city officials had hoped. A timeline written in February suggested an RFP should be issued in May, bids due in July and a contract signed in September. Construction was set to begin in June of 2011 and be completed by March 2012.
A revised schedule calls for an operator to be selected by Jan. 25 and operations to begin in May 2012. It doesn't specify a date for construction to begin.
"The schedule's very tight," Crary said. "But the hope was the 50th anniversary would incentivize an interested food service provider to … get it done."
Leases for nearly all of the food court's 17 tenants are set to expire in early 2011. Starbucks' lease is good until 2015, and Subway had the option to extend its lease for five years beyond 2011, but it recently declined that option, saying it would prefer to negotiate with the winning bidder for the Center House project, according to city documents.
Rent records recently released by the Center show at least some of the food-court operators are struggling. The Center House Bistro & Bar, the only full-service restaurant in the Center House, owes $46,865 in back rent. Bubbles Inc. candy story owes more than $22,000.
The city initially required bidders to be prepared to rebuild the food-court area, which occupies the second floor of the Center House, in preparation for fancier restaurants to move in. The contractor would have received $2 million in city money to defray expenses. But after issuing the RFP, the plan was changed to say the city would make the improvements itself, up to the $2 million threshold. Beyond that, the contractor has to pay for any tenant improvements.
The Request for Proposals states that the new operator must run "at least three full-service restaurants ranging in size from 3,000-7,000 square feet each, plus access to view dining patios/decks." The document does allow for negotiation, though, "with proper reasoning and justification."
Baron, whose company runs high-end restaurants in Minnesota in addition to more fast-food-oriented operations, said he believes the job is doable, even given the tight timeframe. “Our vision is really not dramatically different than what the city has had and what would be done. We would see ourselves as the entitiy that would execute the vision."
But the city has a lot of work to do — even assuming it likes Baron's proposal — and even then, it seems to be facing a summer of 2011 without food service at the city's central playground.
Do city officials have a backup plan?
"What's the best way to answer that for you?" Crary wondered aloud. "Master-plan enhancements are already working their way through the city Landmarks Board. So we're moving forward with that." And, she added, if necessary the city could look at extending the leases of the pizza, sandwich, and Thai counters that now serve hordes of tourists, hungry kids, and their parents.