What's the Future of the Seattle Center?

Arguing over the Center has become Seattle’s version of the movie Groundhog Day.
Knute Berger  |   October 2012   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
An early concept for the Fairgrounds and Seattle Center from 1957. The architects were part of the world's fair Design Standards Advisory Board. They are (from left to right); Science Center designer Minoru Yamasaki, Lawrence Halprin, the San Francisco landscape architect, and Perry Johanson of NBBJ. In this scheme, the amusement zone (Gay Way, later called the Fun Forest) is envisioned as being on the waterfront.

Seattle Center is a 74-acre Rorschach test in which everyone sees what they want to see. It is Lincoln Center to some; Central Park, Tivoli Gardens or Disneyland to others. It is about Bumbershoot, skateboards, the opera, New Year’s fireworks, the Space Needle, the EMP blob, IMAX shows, the fountain and Folklife. It is public, it is private; it is some kind of crazy hybrid. It’s a civic jewel and an opportunity squandered. It’s too expensive, too tacky; it’s for locals, for tourists. It’s the city’s heart and soul, a regional amenity, a headache.

The multiplicity of visions is nothing new; it’s in the Center’s genes. Scour the newspaper clippings from the 1950s and early ’60s, when the Center was still just a concept, and you’ll find familiar debates between those who wanted to run it like a business and those who wanted it to be purely for public benefit. The Chamber of Commerce, Greater Seattle, Allied Arts, the citizens, architects, planners and the City Council all struggled with what it could and should be. The debate has lasted more than half a century (see: Chihuly Garden and Glass). Arguing over the Center is Seattle’s version of the movie Groundhog Day.

We couldn’t even agree on its name. It was dubbed Seattle Center by the City Council in 1961 in anticipation of its post-fair existence, but some complained that was too generic. When an anonymous committee of PR professionals advised in 1964 that its name be changed to “Puget Gardens,” they were laughed out of town, but typical of Seattle, everyone had their own—and even worse—ideas: “Pacific Park,” “The Century Center,” “The Seattle Green,” “Paul Bunyan Park,” “Evergreen Cultural Center,” “World’s Fair Acres,” “Space Needle View,” “Denny Center.” Some called for a contest to rename it, others suggested (what else?) a public vote. Wisely, the Center’s advisers tabled the name change as a distraction and worked with what they had.

Now, we’re winding up the Next Fifty celebration of the 1962 fair that birthed the Center, and where does it leave us? Seattle Center’s director, Robert Nellams, is a self-described “incrementalist,” a guy who embraces the Center’s tradition of complexity. It isn’t Lincoln Center or Tivoli, it’s unique in the world, a complex ecosystem that, Walt Whitman‒like, contains multitudes: public and private, high and low. He embraces the Center’s multiplicity as its strength, not a weakness.

Nellams is working his way through a list of priorities laid out in a City Council‒approved master plan. Center House has been refurbished, sprouted new eateries (Skillet, Mod Pizza), and been renamed The Armory. There’s new signage on the grounds. Chihuly Garden and Glass is open and getting raves. By the end of the year, Nellams hopes to have the legal framework in place for the redevelopment of Memorial Stadium—which includes creation of an adjacent public green space and parking lot—something that’s been on the to-do list for 50 years. KEXP will be opening its new studios and could even add a café. The Seattle Opera is poised to expand into the moribund Mercer Arena space. A new $1 million children’s art playground is in the works (part of the Chihuly deal). The Center covers about 65 percent of its operational costs through earned revenue; the rest comes from the city’s general fund. Nellams figures that’s a great deal for a public entity, though he recognizes the budget pressures to do more. Capital investments are another thing; it will likely take a major bond issue at some point, but that won’t happen anytime soon.

The goal of the Next Fifty events, Nellams says, has been to forge new community partnerships, and to move public feeling from a sense of “ownership” of the Center, which is strong, to a sense of responsibility for it, which needs a boost. It’s the difference between having feelings and pitching in to make sure the Center has what it needs. Nellams laughs when asked if the Center’s advisory committee has a consensus vision for the future. “When you have 14 type-A personalities around a table....” He shakes his head. The point isn’t unanimity, but balance. “Our goal isn’t to be all things to all people, but to have something for everybody,” he says. That remains the root of the Center and the challenge for those who manage our civic inkblot.

Write editor at large Knute Berger at knute.berger@tigeroak.com. His Mossback column is at crosscut.com.

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