Food & Culture

A New Vision of Seattle Center Comes into View

From a new high school to a refurbished KeyArena, Knute Berger sees visions under way for the next evolution of Seattle Center

By Knute Berger April 1, 2017


This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Despite a new administration in the “other” Washington that is pursuing trade and immigration policies antithetical to ones that have helped make this free-trade, diverse and immigrant-friendly city a success, Seattle remains optimistic about the future. We’re still measuring success by the number of cranes on the skyline (more than 60), Amazon is on a hiring binge, and even Trump’s people are considering opening a luxury hotel in town to piggyback on our success. Short of taking a hit from a North Korean nuke, our growth and urban optimism seem unshakable.

One sign of that is the plan brewing—once again—for a Seattle Center refresh: our age-old, do-it-yourself rec-room remodel that never quite gets finished. I was struck recently by the durability of the concept of the Center, but also by how its refurbishment always seems to be on our civic to-do list (the last big plan was unveiled in 2008). I recently saw a map of the Center site published in 1950 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer—a dozen years before the Seattle World’s Fair that transformed it. The concept features Memorial Stadium, an opera house, a theater, the armory, the arena, an art museum and a tall, pointy needle right in the middle. In short, it’s remarkably like what was actually built in 1962, and has many of the puzzle pieces we’re dealing with today.

But what is the Center the center of? For half a century, it has been detached from downtown, spreading over 74 acres at the foot of Queen Anne Hill, connected by a futuristic monorail through the no man’s land of the Denny Regrade. Few would say it was ever the center of civic life. Attempts to revitalize it over the decades have been legion, and have involved nearly every mayor since Gordon Clinton in the ’60s to Ed Murray today.

Growth is changing the dynamic, however. Downtown is on the move, expanding and poised to surround the Center. The office and residential high-rises of the Denny Triangle, Belltown and South Lake Union are maturing colonies of the urban core. The Gates Foundation is next door. Upzoning is planned around the Center grounds. The land on Mercer Street that borders the Center, where Teatro ZinZanni has operated in a tent, has been sold for a new development. The city is looking at possible redevelopment of the sites where Memorial Stadium and the studios of KCTS-TV now stand. Not far away, high-tech businesses are locating near Interbay. The Center is finally in the middle of urban growth, not an appendage.

Mayor Ed Murray has appointed Deputy Mayor Kate Joncas, formerly of the Seattle Downtown Association, to look to the future of the Center campus and to explore the possibilities of creating a new grand vision. We should know more this spring. There has been talk of locating a high school at the Memorial Stadium site. Open space advocates have long wanted that land for more open space, but it is owned by Seattle Public Schools, which has been reluctant to let it go. One concept has been to build a structure with parking underneath and a large outdoor amphitheater on top. Redevelopment of some kind there seems inevitable. Many would like to see the Center more connected to neighborhood needs; building a high school or even housing would satisfy that. Others would like to see a more park-like Center that is better integrated with its surroundings—a neighborhood, not a campus.

Mayor Murray has also put KeyArena in play by soliciting proposals to refurbish it to NBA and NHL standards to make it viable for professional basketball and hockey. It makes sense for the city to explore this, although it puts it in competition with Chris Hansen’s proposed SoDo arena. If the Key—I prefer its original name, the Coliseum—is viable, it would utilize city-owned land, reduce costs and prevent the Coliseum from becoming a white elephant in competition with a better arena across town. We should know more in mid-April, when the proposals from prospective developers are due.

Spaces Belltown Reception

IWG Flexible Workspaces Foster Transformational Change | Sponsored

IWG’s hybrid model boost productivity, profits and employee happiness.

IWG is the world’s largest provider of flexible workspace, with 3,500 locations operating under brands including Regus, Spaces and HQ across 120 countries. Its network is unrivaled in its reach, which extends beyond central business districts to suburban and rural areas, where employees have an unparalleled choice of locations in the heart of their local…


Sponsored | How COVID-19 Changed College Admissions

What Every High School Parent and Student Should Know

After last year’s unusual college admission season, parents of high school juniors and seniors have more questions than ever about applying to college during COVID-19. The global pandemic has created a new landscape for students currently applying for college, says college counselor Kelly Herrington.  “When people ask me how COVID-19 has changed college admissions, I…


All Eyes on Seattle

A note from the editor

The new Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington.


News Round Up: The West Seattle Bridge is Falling Down, Falling Down…

Plus: Some farmers markets are reopening and Pride weekend is going virtual

The West Seattle Bridge is closed until further notice.


How Climate Activist Jamie Margolin Plans to Save the World (and Graduate High School)

"There’s no pride in doing the bare minimum, and there’s no pride in standing in the center when there are two clear sides: life or death.”

Climate activist Jamie Margolin in the Naneum Ridge State Forest, at the site of the Snag Canyon Fire. Started by lightning in 2014, the wildfire burned approximately 12,660 acres and 22 structures, including homes and cabins


Meet a Local Activist Fighting for Justice for Sexual Assault Survivors

Leah Griffin helps guide the creation of laws that intimately impact rape survivors in Washington state

This article appears in print in the March 2020 issue. Click here to subscribe.Sitting in the window of a café on a rainy Saturday, wearing a sweater with rainbow trim, Leah Griffin greets me with a hug and a smile. It’s a day off from her full-time job as a school librarian in North Seattle, but Griffin has…