What about Seattle Center?
Last week, Seattle witnessed a holiday miracle. Less than 48 hours after One Reel — the not-for-profit producers of the Bumbershoot Festival, Teatro Zinzanni and other local festivals and theatrical events — announced the cancellation this year’s July 4 fireworks display over Lake Union due to the lack of a presenting sponsor, a hastily-recruited mob of businesses and individuals donated enough funds to save it. There will be $500,000 worth of fireworks exploding over Seattle this Independence Day after all, and these donors should be thanked for lighting the fuse.
I regard this news with something just above indifference; I rarely watch the fireworks above Lake Union, but if the big show somehow keeps kids from blowing up our neighborhoods with illegal fireworks (as some neighborhood organizations have claimed), then yee-haw, let’s release the Kraken. Still, it bothers me a little bit, seeing the city’s businesses directing a laser-focus on something that’ll burn up in one night while there are so many other parts of the city that could use that kind of attention. The obvious things still need fixing: underfunded schools, inadequate public transportation, and neighborhoods that are hemorrhaging businesses and residents. (Been to Pioneer Square lately?) And there are other public cultural institutions that could use some help, financial and otherwise. Like, say, the former World’s Fair grounds at Seattle Center.
Seattle Center is in a kind of zombie state right now. The Fun Forest amusement zone is closing up, and the city’s plan for the 74-acre campus — the revitalization that would make that mishmash of museums, theaters and green space into Seattle’s answer to Central Park — is stalled by the same lack of funds that’s bringing down the schools and buses. In the absence of funds and public will, the Center is in real danger of falling into neglect — or given away piecemeal to private concerns, like the city is doing with Magnuson Park.
The consensus master plan for Seattle Center (viewable in a PDF at this link) would preserve nearly all of the Center’s dominant features: the museums, the Center House, the Horiuchi mural, KeyArena, the International Fountain, the Northwest Rooms (most of them, anyway), the poetry stones, the theaters and performing arts centers along the north side of the campus, and (naturally) the monorail and Space Needle. But the space around these features would be transformed in ways that would make the grounds feel more like a true “city backyard” than an abandoned fairground. Center House would receive a spectacular glass roof. Memorial Stadium would lose its concrete bleachers and become a rolling green amphitheater tailor-made for Bumbershoot. (The memorial wall and football field would be preserved in ingenious ways.) The Center’s existing cultural tenants — SIFF Film Center and the Vera Project, among many others — would benefit from improved parking and access. The whole of the Center would receive a wide brushstroke of natural green: more trees, much more grass. There’s even a plan to bring back the Bubbleator.
It’s an ambitious and well-intentioned plan, but an expensive one — the most recent price tag, $570 million, was computed two years ago — and one that would take twenty years or more to complete if city finances weren’t in the toilet. But that’s a lot of money to spend and a long time to wait, and the city is starting to weaken on the Center plan; starting to go Magnuson. They’re currently considering a proposal to allow the building of a paid-admission gallery showcasing the glass works of Dale Chihuly on part of the vacated Fun Forest land — not a bad idea, but one that would take away of the grassy open space that would open up the Center to the city, and would likely encourage more private interests to make a play for that prime, tourist-friendly real estate. The big public space could end up a small public space, wholly boxed in by pay-to-play attractions.
I wish I had an answer for Seattle Center’s problems or a few billion dollars burning a hole in my pocket, but I don’t. (Truthfully, on the halcyon day that a billion dollars falls into my hands, I’ll probably pull stakes for a house on the Moon or something.) But I can’t help but fall in love with the idea of a Seattle Center I’ll want to visit more than a handful of times a year — a vast green park with ample room for families on picnics, hippies twirling hula-hoops and geeks rocking the Center’s free WiFi. I look at the half-a-million dollars that Seattle’s businesses raised in just two days and I can’t help but wonder: How much of a new, green Seattle Center could we buy for ourselves, if we cared enough?
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