Seattle Center is a civic underachiever, a neglected orphan at City Hall. That may soon change, as a dynamic and widely respected new leader, Marshall Foster, is about to take the reins at the Center. But does the Center want to be led, and does it have the financial resources to start achieving again?
The Center is the tattered remnant of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, a high moment in Seattle civic history. Two important pivots at the Center suggest why it has become such a mishmash. One was in 1988 when Mayor Charles Royer presented the commercialized proposals cooked up by the Disney Imagineers. That ambitious proposal met a firestorm of public disapproval and sank from sight. One lesson of what Royer called “his Vietnam” was to dream small at the Center and avoid political explosions.
The other pivot was the 2006 effort by Center Director Virginia Anderson to seek a bond issue to fund badly needed improvements at the financially strapped Center. A dynamo, Anderson came from the development sector and was a builder who brought about the Gates Foundation complex alongside the Center and the Experience Music Project. But the Center never polled well enough to risk a bond issue, as Anderson hoped, and Key Arena was a steady drain of resources. In 2006, Anderson resigned, and her deputy, Robert Nellams, took over a stubbed agenda.
Nellams, who retires next month, has been quietly effective and is well liked by Center occupants whom he served well. He helped the Chihuly Museum to arrive (tossing aside Anderson’s master plan for the Center), induced the School Board to raise the money to renovate the sagging Memorial Stadium, and got a private developer, Oak View, to transform (and privatize) the Climate Pledge Arena for hockey and touring rock shows.
Foster, who has a handsome list of accomplishments in big projects (he’s the city’s planning director and supervises the Waterfront Park), has just been named the interim director of Seattle Center. Sources say he’s a shoo-in for the permanent position, after the pro-forma national search, which is being chaired by Sung Yang, a prominent member of the influential Seattle Center Foundation.
So the planets are lined up, at last, for significant progress at the neglected Center. Foster will have many thorny issues on his plate, but he has a good track record at dealing with such dilemmas. Among the challenges:
Site a station for Sound Transit. The rail-transit agency prefers building an underground station (5-10 years for construction) near the Seattle Rep in the northwest corner of the Center. That would mean a big and long-lasting impact (noise and vibration) on at least five arts organizations crowded into that corner (the Rep, KEXP, Cornish Playhouse, Seattle International Film Festival, and the Vera Project). One solution is to move the proposed Center/Queen Anne station westward by a few blocks. Another is to sacrifice the Rep’s site for the underground station and then build a new theater atop the station, presumably funded by Sound Transit. Meanwhile, Sound Transit is another of the potent forces dictating Seattle Center directions — the others being the Space Needle and Oak View. All this transportation planning compounds the problems of traffic and parking caused by the new Climate Pledge Arena.
Cornish Playhouse. The old home of the Rep and Intiman Theatre today is lightly used by Cornish College. Once again, nobody is able to pay for the needed modernization of the building.
Memorial Stadium. The $60 million school bond issue passed, but the money is dedicated to an athletic field. Dreams of a performance space, perhaps run by Oak View, bump into the Center’s usual problem: no money for big capital improvements, at a time when arts groups are financially strained.
The KCTS site. The valuable northeast corner of the Center is occupied by KCTS/Crosscut, but that tenant’s lease has expired and they are moving to First Hill. Outgoing director Robert Nellams hopes the site can be developed into a money-maker (such as a hotel), but as usual there is no shortage of low-rent ideas for the location.
Pacific Science Center. Here’s another awkward legacy building locked up in landmark status and never designed to be a museum. Its infrastructure is 1962-vintage, so badly in need of an upgrade. Seattle Center does not own the Science Center (originally built as the U.S. Pavilion, and designed by Minoru Yamasaki), and it’s not clear how to repurpose the popular complex. One idea floated by the Science Center director Will Daugherty is to drain the pools surrounding the famous arches and install marshes and other naturalistic displays.
As the Science Center proposal suggests, Foster will face serious structural problems. One is how little the Center actually controls, given all the privatization of recent years. The Science Center and the Space Needle are not owned by the Center, and others have been essentially spun off to tenants who can come up with the money to build and renovate their spaces. Another problem is how many of these buildings are haunted by legacy architecture and protective constituents. Many of the buildings and grounds are badly in need of upgrading, and many are occupied by budget-strapped arts groups who pay low rents.
In short, Seattle Center has become a place where dreams go to die, and where directors soon learn to aspire modestly. One temptation in all this is to encourage more privatization, particularly by Oak View (a powerful entertainment company). Another path would be to keep the Center as a low-rent facility that aligns with the city’s goal for more varied, populist entertainment. A third scenario is to join the civic parade to tourism as one last card the city can play in reviving its downtown and tax coffers. A fourth is to spin the Center off to a public development authority or to a nonprofit society (as happened with the Zoo and the Aquarium) that raises donations and calls the tune.
Fortunately, Foster is adept at solving these complex problems and avoiding civic quicksand. We’ll see if this civic maestro has arrived too late, or just in time.