Time to Re-Imagine Seattle Center?

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New York’s Lincoln Center is losing its president, Henry Timms, after only five years. Moreover, Lincoln Center, the paradigm for such culture-center parks as Seattle Center, is shifting, at least in the summer, to what Alex Ross in The New Yorker calls “a swerve toward pop.” A big disco ball now symbolically festoons the main courtyard of the Center. The Mostly Mozart Festival will terminate this year after 57 years, and Lincoln Center will start a series of programs (hip-hop, social dance, comedy) called “Summer for the City.” 

One wonders if these big performing arts centers, like Seattle Center, have reached their pull-date or will soon shift from high to commercial culture? To be sure, Seattle Center was always a more populist blend of attractions, particularly sports arenas, than the strictly cultural centers such as Lincoln Center and D.C.’s Kennedy Center.

One curious aspect at Lincoln Center is that it just spent $550 million to refurbish the longtime acoustically-challenged David Geffen Hall, home to the New York Philharmonic. Meanwhile classical orchestras such as Seattle’s are tilting toward movie-related programming and pop-inflected performances. Such fare may be better suited to other venues than an expensive symphony or opera palace. 

These multi-arts cultural centers were mostly created in the 1960s, as was Seattle Center, once home of the Ballet, the Opera, and (before it moved downtown) the Symphony. They are expensive to build and maintain, and hard to manage with so many independent organizations. As they add sports and festivals and tourist magnets, parking and access and mission clarity get stressed. 

They may also become unmanageable: Lincoln Center is the landlord for the Philharmonic, the Met Opera, Juilliard, and New York City Ballet, but the Center management has little control over those large institutions with their separate boards, labor contracts, and missions. At the Kennedy Center, the management presents and controls the arts organizations, which adds layers of management to the friction. Prior to the Center Craze, arts organizations were scattered among their own buildings and neighborhoods, as once was the urbanist pattern in Seattle.

Gerard Schwarz, longtime conductor of the Seattle Symphony (1985-2011), was music director for Mostly Mozart Festival during what Alex Ross calls “the doldrum years.” Schwarz feuded with the Center’s artistic director Jane Moss, who replaced Schwarz with Louis Langree in 2002, who has earned much more admiring reviews. 

Seattle Center also has political problems, stemming from the ungainly combination of tenants, and the city’s (and foundations’) shift from funding the high arts to social issues and greater access. The Center is now transforming itself into broader attractions (Climate Pledge Arena, Chihuly Gardens and Glass, and soon a modernized soccer and football field). Private entities, as at the Space Needle and the Arena, now have more sway.

Furthermore, many of the buildings at Seattle Center date back to the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and now face serious and costly updates to infrastructure, including handicapped access, and energy-related improvements. Some buildings, like the Pacific Science Center, once designed for World’s Fair exhibits, are awkwardly arranged for museum purposes. Others are too large for current audiences. The Center House, carved out of an armory and once the home of the defunct Group Theatre and Book-It Theatre, remains an unwieldy sore thumb smack in the middle of the Center. 

Attempts to plan for the growth of Seattle Center have given way to ad-hoc modifications. Like Lincoln Center, it was originally a neighborhood clearance effort to demolish and upgrade a shabby neighborhood and to build a culture and sports center at Uncle Sam’s expense. One early plan for what to do with the 74-acre Center after the Fair was to turn it into a park. Instead, various mayors wedged in arts and other facilities somewhat randomly. 

With the new, respected Center director, Marshall Foster, there may be a chance to create a more orderly and sustainable Center, but the money is now short and much of the Center has been handed over to independent owners (Chihuly, Science Center, Space Needle, Climate Pledge Arena, the Gates Foundation, and the now-vacant KCTS building).

My Post Alley colleague Doug McLennan has a suggestion for a new agenda for Seattle Center. Use the hodge podge and embrace the messiness. Lack of cohesion can be an opportunity to accommodate more creative uses by converting single-use facilities such as the Cornish Playhouse (formerly Intiman’s home) to multi-use spaces with multiple tenants and projects at subsidized rents for emerging, rent-pressed groups. Another opportunity may lie with the sprawling Pacific Science Center, which could be partly converted to arts and education uses.

Maker space projects around the country have turned urban sites into hives of activity and community-building. Traditional uses of theater campuses leave buildings empty for much of the time and locked up by single-use groups. Seattle Center’s eclectic inventory of spaces might prove to be a trove of opportunity if reimagined by the city in this fashion. 

Even so, it may be too late, and the bloom is off the rose for these arts centers with their upmarket audiences and wedding-cake palaces. Keep in mind that Seattle mayors have been wary of the political blowback these centers can create when threatened with change. When Mayor Charles Royer in the 1980s hired the Disney Imagineers to design a fun-filled new Center, the uproar was such that Royer called it “my Vietnam.” As a result, the temptation has been to appoint a director who keeps the lid on, coddles powerful constituencies, and doesn’t jump the line by proposing a levy to repair the aged buildings.

The new director, Marshall Foster, has a strong reputation for overseeing complex projects (Climate Pledge Arena, Waterfront Park), so he may be the rare leader finally to make coherent sense of the dissonant Seattle Center. It is a time of rethinking Seattle arts and downtown attractions, though I fear we have waited too long. 

David Brewster
David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

5 COMMENTS

  1. When Royer was mayor, it was only a couple of decades removed from the World’s Fair of ’62 and I think the Center was much more vital than what we have now.
    I remember, before I moved here permanently, visiting Bumbershoot and loving the vibe, just being there with all the live music and such.
    Now, it’s a much different era, we mostly go for concerts and sporting events.

  2. My memory of Bumbershoot apparently was around the tail end of its first era. Free, pretty low budget, no really famous acts – some came from far away and were well known to the small minority of people who cared about such things, but naturally the low budget favored the local arts. It was great. Sounds to me like the policy advocated here could be pointing in that direction.

  3. Having been forced to pay LIDs on the South Lake Union Streetcar (an expensive toy) and the Waterfront Park (where are the trees/grass) for alleged ‘special benefits’ which in reality do not exist downtown residents are fed up with Foster. Triple net lease tax on these projects have also resulted in many small businesses leaving downtown. Not for profits who own their own buildings like FareStart have been also forced to pay the LIDs.
    The school stadium needs to be replaced and the Science Center needs to be re-thought. Let changes unfold as needed and when they can be afforded. Good luck with final price of the fatuous Waterfront project, maintenance and security – send the bill to Foster!

  4. Yes on all the suggestions (more tenants in existing facilities, alternative uses for the Science Center etc). Ditto for embracing the messiness. Bring back the original Bumbershoot vibe, keeping the Center lively with — what? — strolling troubadors, food trucks, impromptu street theater. Make it the city’s stage: a fun place to visit, rain or shine

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