Bellevue's rendezvous with an urban destiny

Updated: The 'Tateuchi Truce' over the Sound Transit wars on the Eastside made clear what a catalyst for an urbanized Eastside this long-aborning cultural center has become.

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The Bellevue skyline.

Updated: The 'Tateuchi Truce' over the Sound Transit wars on the Eastside made clear what a catalyst for an urbanized Eastside this long-aborning cultural center has become.

One curious player in the recent political battle over bringing Sound Transit to the Eastside was a relatively low-profile proposal for a large performing arts center in Bellevue. The proposal says a lot about the emerging Eastside, and whether it will develop into a full-bore city, not just a burgeoning suburban city. So it was not surprising that the Tateuchi Center, as it is called, has served as a focus for Eastside civic aspirations — and political tugs of war.

The Tateuchi Center is named in honor of a $25 million grant from the foundation created by the late Eastside businessman Atsuhiko Tateuchi and his wife Ina Goodwin Tateuchi, who lives in downtown Bellevue.  Previously the proposal was called PACE, for Performing Arts Center Eastside. The idea for a 2,000-seat concert  and performance facility originally sprang from an idea by Kemper Freeman, the highly influential civic figure and CEO of Bellevue Square. Freeman pledged an $8 million gift of land for the center tucked into the block of the Hyatt Regency Bellevue hotel complex, just northeast of Bellevue Square. (The address is NE 10th and 106th Ave NE.)

The project was originally piloted by Dick Collins, a veteran Seattle consultant in capital campaigns, but fundraising in the early years, beginning 10 years ago, was slow. Five years ago, the effort regrouped, brought in as CEO a highly experienced theater professional, John Haynes, and redesigned the project by adding to the 2,047-seat main auditorium a new 250-seat cabaret-style venue. That 2,000-seat size for the main hall was picked in part not to compete with the larger halls in Seattle such as Benaroya Hall, the Paramount, and McCaw Hall (each around 2,700-3,000 seats), while also being large enough to attract some major stars and shows.

The campaign goal has stayed steady since 2007: $150 million  for all costs in building the facility (including three levels of underground parking), plus another $10 million for an endowment. About $63 million has been pledged. Plans to open in 2013 will likely be pushed back to at least 2015. Projects like this also have considerable economic benefit, and not just in construction jobs. A Hebert Research study of the project estimates an economic benefit of $470 million over 10 years.

But will it open at all? Obviously the recession is not a good time to raise this kind of money. Seattle arts groups are split about the wisdom of a competing performance hall in the Eastside. Some, such as the Ballet, the Symphony, and 5th Avenue Theatre, see the Tateuchi Center as a way to serve their Eastside audiences and cultivate Eastside donors — particularly as travel to downtown Seattle gets more difficult and these patrons curtail their cultural pilgrimmages. Others worry about how a larger hall might siphon off groups that want larger fees, or how it would create competing series to Seattle success stories.

Other skeptics wonder if Bellevue and the Eastside are biting off more than they can chew, not just in raising that kind of money but in having audiences and performance groups to fill it. After all, the Eastside is not exactly a dynamo in building arts facilities. The Bellevue Arts Museum had an embarrassing fall from its original ambitions, scaling back from fine arts to more emphasis on decorative arts. The Bellevue Philharmonic, one of the reasons for a new concert hall, has gone out of business. Kirkland Performance Center has been moderately busy since opening in 1998, though lacking resident companies and only 402 seats. The one thriving and highly professional institution is Village Theater in Issaquah, specializing in musicals. Meydenbauer Center, in a conference center, is mostly for meetings and has compromised musical acoustics.

To be sure, the Eastside now has enormous wealth, though it is mostly new wealth that has not found its way into the arts yet, and those donors who have opened their wallets tends to flow to the highly organized Seattle arts groups. Gifts to Tateuchi so far have been on the cautious side: $2 million each from Microsoft and the City of Bellevue; the Gates Foundation has been more generous, with a $6 million pledge. The Tateuchi gift, a key to restarting the capital campaign, comes from a family that is not woven into the social life of other wealthy patrons the way other major benefactors such as Bagley and Virginia Wright, Jon and Mary Shirley, the McCaws, and the Benaroyas are, so it has not, so far, produced a gusher of other large gifts.

Then there is the question of the hall's design, location, and programming strategy. It has a leading theater architect, Pfeiffer Partners of Los Angeles, who has managed the difficult feat of creating a design that is wedged into the northeast corner of the hotel complex. The space is a little small for a concert hall, acoustically, but it does have lots of underground parking, a superb central location in downtown Bellevue, and the advantage for parties and conferences of all those hotel facilities accessed by an adjoining atrium.

Tateuchi also has the benefit of a leading acoustical firm, Jaffe Holden, the Connecticut-based firm in charge of McCaw Hall's makeover. The hall will have a great variety of performing arts productions — orchestra, chamber music, chorus, opera, dance, touring Broadway shows, popular entertainers, folk, jazz, and lectures — each with its own acoustical needs from "dry" as in speech to reverberant as for orchestras. Most halls split this difference, satisfying neither extreme. Tateuchi will use "digital architecture," deploying hundreds of speakers throughout the hall to artificially increase the reverberation time to as much as 2.2 seconds.

Whether this electronic enhancing (now getting far more sophisticated) will drive off purists is one more question. But Tateuchi will be the most technologically advanced hall in the region, and highly flexible. It will even be wired to allow patrons to deploy their Facebook and Twitter accounts during the performance, drawing younger audiences and spreading the word, real time.

As for the programming strategy, which is key to long-range viability, Haynes says one given is the ability to import Broadway shows, even though they will probably lose money and the supply of such shows (especially given two venues in Seattle, the Paramount and the 5th Ave) is unreliable. The Pacific Northwest Ballet, already with a ballet school on the Eastside, looks most eager of the Seattle groups to have a second home. The changing of the guard at Seattle Symphony has eased the tepid support of previous maestro Gerard Schwarz, so the SSO may also bring a dozen or so programs each year, adapted to Eastside audiences. The Opera, which is shifting its Young Artist performances from Meydenbauer to Meany Hall at the UW, seems much less likely to venture across the lake. That may leave mostly popular programming, meetings, graduations, and celebrity lectures, though Haynes insists "this is a performing ARTS facility."

What may wear down the resistance from Seattle groups is the steady erosion of their Eastside patrons, often amounting to half the Seattle institutions' audiences. Haynes says some studies by Hebert Research a few years ago pointed to a decline in Eastside audiences for major Seattle arts institutions of 9 percent per year. The new tolls on 520, along with increased congestion and parking costs in downtown Seattle, may also move Seattle groups to protect their market share by having significant Eastside programming. Some Seattle groups are already busy creating Eastside programs, hoping to fend off Eastside startups.

And this brings us back to the existential question, in the coming years, as to whether the Eastside, particularly Bellevue, is going to morph into a real city, with its own cultural facilities, basketball team, transit, and nightlife. Haynes likes to tell the story of how St. Paul, 100 years older than Minneapolis, used to scoff at those skyscrapers rising on the horizon to the west as Minneapolis grew rapidly into a dominant sibling of twin cities. "The Eastside is rapidly developing into a counterpoint to Seattle," Haynes believes, a breeder and not just a feeder to regional institutions.

This big question of Bellevue's destiny was woven all through the high-stakes battle over Tim Eyman's Initiative 1125, primarily funded by Kemper Freeman, which would have nixed tolls on the 520 bridge and possibly (after long legal battles) stopped Sound Transit from coming over to the Eastside at all. The initiative lost, but not before it exposed the major fault line of Eastside politics and development plans.

On the one side is Freeman and other downtown Bellevue property owners, wanting to build up downtown Bellevue for both planning reasons (more density) and natural economic self-interest. On the other are advocates, chiefly Microsoft and Wright Runstad and other developer interests, who want to use Sound Transit's Bel-Red corridor (extending northeasterly from downtown Bellevue to the Microsoft campus in Redmond) to spur growth of a much larger "downtown" Bellevue.

For a while, Freeman and Microsoft were in an arms race, each matching the others' donations to the 1125 battle. Then a truce was called, when each of the combatants decided to take the next $1 million they were going to spend on the political battle and pledge that amount to the Tateuchi Center. After all, both Microsoft and Freeman are main backers of the new hall, which would benefit both Freeman's hotel project and downtown properties and Microsoft's very big needs for meeting space.

The "Tateuchi Truce" was also a vivid illustration of how this project, like the Seattle World's Fair of 50 years ago, could be the catalyst for consensus and urban ambition. (On the other hand, it also shows how the center could become a victim of the Eastside's increasingly polarized politics, with certain angry parties not wanting to help "Kemper's Palace," or Freeman himself losing interest.)

Finally, should this region move to a twin cities model, like Minnesota's? Transportation congestion may force it. Economic interests may disinvest in expensive, hassle-full Seattle. An Eastside leader might emerge to pull together the factions and guide an urban emergence. The Eastside might jump into the hockey-basketball-exhibition hall sweepstakes, just across 405 from downtown Bellevue in the old auto row, though most Eastside leaders dread more traffic on 405. The new wealth from the new economy might develop the city-building bug.

You can certainly see this happening in some urban complexes such as Los Angeles, with the Orange County arts center, and D.C. where the Baltimore Orchestra now has an outpost in the Bethesda suburbs. (Auburn comes closest to pulling this off in King County.) To spread the arts, it makes sense to go to where more people live, just as to spread the urbanism philosophy, as Peter Steinbrueck recently argued in Crosscut, it's wise to enlarge the boundaries. Local pride, as with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, can give a boost to new and complementary organizations that the larger city might not be able to muster.

Also keep in mind how "un-suburban" Bellevue has become. Former Bellevue mayor Grant Degginger likes to shake up Seattle urban snobs with these facts about Bellevue: 40.8 percent minority, one-third non U.S.-born, 125,000 population, the second-highest Washington city in assessed value, increasingly Democratic officeholders, and a 58 percent vote for bringing Sound Transit to Bellevue. Microsoft has utterly transformed the Eastside, with its cosmopolitan and well-paid workforce (with thousands now in downtown Bellevue), and its own bus system (second in size only to Metro). The chances for building urban villages and new commercial office space around the Bel-Red corridor transit stations are unmatched in the region.

But if this double-urban center strategy makes sense, it may also make sense to be more gradual, rather than the giant leap that the Tateuchi represents. That more modest approach might come, assuming soul-searching by the impressive board, headed by arts leader and former Eastside Journal publisher Peter Horvitz, if the capital campaign continues at its current slow pace. One important signal of staying power: CEO Haynes, an impressive arts manager with lots of experience in developing new performance complexes in other cities and for universities, has just signed a new three-year contract with Tateuchi Center.

Another important factor is to mesh the Eastside plans with the new guard in Seattle arts organizations and their plans. Seattle arts are facing their own crossroads, with many of them up against borrowing limits, shifting audience tastes, and donor anxieties in this economy. If a few important Seattle groups really buy into the Tateuchi, possibly modified in programming and size, that would release a lot of uneasy donors to the arts who don't want to risk harming Seattle's long-nourished and ambitious arts organizations.

Someone needs to sort this out. Peter Donnelly, long the arts czar for Seattle, is greatly missed. My nominee for the political statesman to get the major players to a common plan: King County Executive Dow Constantine.

This story has been modified by the author, reflecting new information about costs and the original estimates.


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