Why we should transform Seattle Center from a theater district to a park

The 50th anniversary of the World's Fair is approaching, and there's no better time to acknowledge a mistake of historic levels in urban planning.

Crosscut archive image.

The courtyard at the Intiman Theatre at Seattle Center.

The 50th anniversary of the World's Fair is approaching, and there's no better time to acknowledge a mistake of historic levels in urban planning.

Is it really a great idea to cluster the arts and theater venues in one spot as Seattle has done at Seattle Center?  

It works to have a theater district in places like New York and London, where you have really great and rapid public transit. But in Seattle, and at the Seattle Center, such a concentration doesn’t work. It just creates another traffic nightmare and a boring wall of buildings without context alongside a five-lane highway. 

The concentration of theaters at Seattle Center is a wonderful example of the 1962 Robert Moses-era method of urban planning, a style that most enlightened cities have tried to forget. Urban planning of that era was rationalism run amok. All housing here. All industry there. All retail over there. And everything connected or dis-connected by massive highways that are impassable to pedestrians. 

Jane Jacobs (Death and Life of American Cities) rightly saw that this so-called urban planning was both boring and dehumanizing. It didn't build cities, it destroyed them. In the name of efficiency, it sacrificed all that make cities interesting and exciting, which is mixed use. 

In many parts of Seattle today, renewal does feature this kind of mixed use. The most exciting neighborhoods have housing, retail, commercial, public buildings, and parks cheek-by-jowl. One thinks of Columbia City and Fremont, for example. The least exciting are those, like the Pill Hill section of Capital Hill, that have been overtaken by one type of institution, in this case vast, sprawling hospital-medical centers. 

Meanwhile, the “theater district” at Seattle Center is largely uninviting for pedestrians, remains a traffic nightmare, and doesn’t really take advantage of lower Queen Anne’s potential in any interesting or integrated way. 

Seattle Center reflects its origins in the era of hyper-rationalist urban planning, while Seattle itself has made steps toward new urbanism. Let’s celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1962 World’s Fair and Seattle Center by de-constructing the Center, at least a little.

Instead of cramming in new ventures like Teatro ZinZanni with the others, put it somewhere else and encourage new theaters to locate in other areas proximate to light rail. I suspect that part of what’s making it tough for Intiman and the Seattle Rep is that people have to fight through the traffic to get there, going both directions, and decide, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

If people do go, they pay a premium for parking. It all adds up to limiting theater to the “haves” and cutting out the “have-nots.”  

Let Seattle Center morph gradually into an urban park for the many new housing units nearby. Finance some of this by selling off parts of the Center for new housing, hotels, shops, and restaurants, re-urbanizing the district. At the same time, decentralize theater in Seattle and let various theaters forge an identity with different neighborhoods.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.