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Tension at the Center

Seattle Center has always been cursed—bad luck, bad architecture, maggots. Everybody's fighting over its future. Now is our chance to get it right.

Tension at the Center

Illustrations by Kris Chau

One thousand dollars in 1962 means almost $7,000 today. It would mean even more to a 19-year-old with a pregnant wife and a job at an auto-parts store. This 19-year-old's name was Sal Durante and he was worried that his wife, back home in Brooklyn, would go into labor while he was here, standing under a Ferris wheel at the Seattle World's Fair, waiting to make a thousand-dollar catch.

A year earlier in Yankee Stadium, he'd caught Roger Maris's 61st home run, the ball that broke Babe Ruth's record. The next morning, a picture of Sal in a pompadour and T-shirt, surrounded by grabby hands, ran in newspapers across the country.

Now, in Seattle, Sal was wearing a suit, a tie, and a baseball glove. He knew his picture would be in local papers tomorrow. He caught one practice ball. Laughing, he caught the second behind his back. The photographers lifted their cameras and the crowd went silent. Someone gave a signal. The ball—the one that mattered—dropped from the top of the Ferris wheel, fell through the air, bounced off the heel of Sal's glove, and landed on the ground. He turned away, about to cry.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Seattle Center has always been fucked. From the early settlers mistakenly calling it "Potlatch Meadows" because they thought natives gathered there for mysterious ceremonies (natives actually gathered there to snare low-flying ducks) to John Wayne dismissing the abstract sculpture in front of Intiman Theatre ("What's that supposed to be? An airplane crash?") to Prince Philip of England complaining about the paint job on the Space Needle, the history of Seattle Center is a fog of haplessness, misunderstanding, and grief.

Even 1962, the Center's glory year, was a series of embarrassments. The Seattle World's Fair opened 22 minutes late because somebody lost the keys to the front gate. Elvis Presley's celebrity arrival was weirdly quiet—it happened to be the first day of school. On October 22, the Pacific Science Center greeted its first visitor, a disappointed man who'd mistakenly shown up for the fair the day after it closed.

Today, from any approach, Seattle Center looks gray and grim, like a Soviet housing project, protected from the rest of the city by walls of stained concrete, wide pavement moats, and fast cars. Just getting in is like playing a round of Frogger.

Once you're in, it's not much better. The Center House still looks like the armory it was in 1939—the walls are several feet thick and house a tacky food court (where, in the early 1980s, maggots started raining from the ceiling: Pigeons had gotten into the crawl space, died, and rotted). Fun Forest is a monument to peeling paint and bored carnies. Mercer Arena sulks in a corner, abandoned after the 2001 earthquake because the Center couldn't afford seismic renovations. The Northwest Rooms are a cement warren. Intiman looks like a cinderblock. The beige-tiled Children's Theatre might have been airlifted from Miami Beach; Memorial Stadium, from Pyongyang.

On the sunniest day possible, gray is the predominant color.

In the middle of this, David Heurtel's pink button-up shirt is a small rebellion. It goes with his square-frame glasses and floppy black hair. Heurtel was originally hired as the Center's marketing director and is now its deputy director. Before coming to Seattle, he was an entertainment attorney in Montreal. He's a little unctuous, practiced in the art of calculated familiarity, addressing people he's just met like they're old friends. We're sitting in his office in the Center House, steps away from an Orange Julius. He has his feet up on a table covered in avalanches of paper.

"Brendan," he says, "we have to keep the Center relevant."

The infinitive seems disingenuous. "To make" would be more accurate.

Like employees of public attractions everywhere, Heurtel is paid to say: Things are sunny! Things are great! Bring the kids and have yourself a real nice time! But he knows better. He's a smart guy, with good ideas. And, quietly, he's improving the place.

Recent developments at the Center have Heurtel's name all over them. Vera Project, the all-ages music club that turned one of the dingy Northwest Rooms into a full-fledged music venue in March, cites Heurtel as one of the authors of its move to the Center. So does the Seattle International Film Festival, which just opened a year-round cinema in McCaw Hall. As you might have read in newspapers or seen on TV, the Center is preparing for an overhaul, and members of the Century 21 Committee, which is overseeing it, tend to defer questions by saying, "You should probably talk to David." (They never suggest I speak with Robert Nellams, the director of Seattle Center and Heurtel's boss. Nellams was the deputy under longtime director Virginia Anderson. When people talk about the past, they talk about Anderson; when they talk about the future, they talk about Heurtel. They almost never talk about Nellams.)

"Seattle Center has to keep up with the changing face of the city," Heurtel explains. Nearby neighborhoods that used to be depopulated zones are growing toward the Center. Lower Queen Anne has gone from nondescript to respectable. Belltown is gentrifying and still growing. South Lake Union is going through mitosis.

"And there's the demographic shift," Heurtel says. "Seattle is the second most childless city in America. There are young, single professionals moving into the nearby neighborhoods, and empty nesters, boomers moving back into the city. Fewer than 20 percent of Seattle households have kids—the Center needs to add programming for them."

Exactly. The Center needs to make itself relevant.

Seattle's Mudroom

It's hard to think of Seattle Center for too long, hard to hold it in your head. Even as a concept, there's nothing to cling to. Here's the unambitious slogan on its website: "Create Your Seattle Center Experience!" Has a slogan ever set the bar any lower? How is it possible to go somewhere and not have an experience? It was called "Seattle's Living Room" for a while, and now it's called "The Nation's Best Gathering Place," which—well, the mind fills with counterexamples.

And it's intimidatingly complicated. Its 30 organizations are like tenant farmers and each has its own eccentric contract with the landlord. They share theories about what the coming overhaul might bring or take away, they gossip about who's behind on rent (Intiman, the Children's Museum, Fun Forest), they wring their hands about who's going to get screwed if the Northwest Rooms get torn down and the Center House gets gutted.

The future is everyone's favorite topic. There are rumors of other organizations (911 Media Arts, KEXP) following Vera and SIFF into the Center, complementing the august theaters, opera, and ballet. Between the new and the old there are predictable little frictions. SIFF, for example, has to pop its popcorn in its South Lake Union offices and drive it over to its new theater in McCaw Hall. "Maybe they're afraid that with the popcorn smell wafting through the [opera] hall, the philistines will march right in," laughs Holden Payne, SIFF's director of operations.

"But everything else is going great," he adds. "As someone who's lived in Seattle for 20 years, I'm excited by everything that's happening down at the Center."

The Future

What's happening is a physical renovation. It's a two-year process that started in late 2006 with the Century 21 Committee (appointed by the mayor to plan renovations) and continues with URS Corp (a private business that will review the environmental impact of the plans), the city council (who will tinker with the plans), the mayor (who, mindful of his legacy, will surely tinker), and, eventually, voters, who will vote on whatever the plans have been tinkered into in November of 2008.

Between now and then, there's a whole cast of supporting characters, all with their own interests: Bumbershoot, the Seattle school district, the veterans' lobby, the open-space lobby, newspaper columnists, reactionaries, and crazies.

By the time the plan goes to voters, it will be pretty much set—whether it's knocking down everything to build a giant sandbox (not an actual proposal), or flooding KeyArena and turning it into a giant fish tank (proposed during one of Century 21's public meetings), or letting Disney take over and make it a theme park (seriously considered in the late 1980s), or tearing down Memorial Stadium and replacing it with a huge lawn and an amphitheater (an actual proposal and easily the best).

But Seattle politicians and planners are not known for their resolve and vision. It's reasonable to worry that this lengthy process, with so many chances for revision, will produce a Frankenstein design, a misshapen hybrid that nobody likes. Then we'll be stuck with the same Seattle Center identity crisis we've always had.

The reimagining begins with Century 21, the renovation committee named after the Seattle World's Fair. Even calling it Century 21 forms a kind of conceptual loop-de-loop: The future of Seattle Center begins with a committee named for a past that named itself for an imaginary future.

Step One: Four Not-So-Radical Plans

In April of this year, Century 21 publicized four plans for the future of Seattle Center. The proposals took Century 21's 17 members—union representatives, architects, Center tenants, local business owners—eight months to come up with.

They aren't that radical.

In fact, they haven't changed substantially since April 2006, eight months before Century 21 called its first meeting, when a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article summarized the findings of a different mayor-appointed task force: "Modernize the Seattle Center's stuck-in-the-'60s Center House, revamp the funky Fun Forest, demolish Memorial Stadium, fix up the Monorail and give Mercer Arena to the Seattle Opera for storage."

Plan one is: Do nothing. Plan four is: Do a little something. Plans two and three are incremental compromises between the nothing and the something and are hardly worth discussing.

What's worth discussing—worth fighting for—is plan four:

• Cut down Fun Forest. Make the whole thing go away.

• Renovate the Center House. Replace its feet-thick armory walls with glass, build a fancy-ish restaurant up top and some cheaper cafes on the bottom, make the whole thing less a food court and more a place you'd want to be.

• Demolish Memorial Stadium (which the Seattle school district owns and doesn't necessarily want to sell).

• Build a medium-size amphitheater where Memorial Stadium used to be, with a huge underground parking lot. (Parking is a major source of revenue for the Center—Intiman's managing director estimates theater audiences give more money to the Center in parking than the theaters do in rent.)

• Demolish most of the Northwest Rooms.

• Add a few buildings where the Northwest Rooms used to be, and a "thin building" near McCaw Hall, to take in the dozen or so groups who currently squat in the Center House.

• Lawn. Lots and lots of lawn.

The Revenge of the Lawn

Bumbershoot producer Heather Smith is probably more worried than she says about Century 21's vision of open green space. From across the dark wood table in One Reel's conference room, her voice takes on a protective urgency when she talks about the threat of the lawn. Smith started at One Reel when there were just 14 employees. Now, 14 years later, there are over 200. "I've got my PhD in Bumbershoot," she says.

The plan to level Memorial Stadium, Smith says, could be catastrophic for Bumbershoot: The three-day festival, which happens during Labor Day weekend, brings in 50,000 people each day—43,000 of whom pass through Memorial Stadium. Bumbershoot stakes its survival on big acts in a big venue and, in recent years, has pushed more of its energy and money into netting superstars like Kanye West, Wu-Tang Clan, and the Shins.

Smith says the proposed replacement amphitheater doesn't begin to match the capacity of Memorial Stadium. Of course, Bumbershoot matters in a way that Festál and Bite of Seattle don't. Bumbershoot is the one thing at Seattle Center, other than the Space Needle, with a national reputation. ("One Reel uses it 3 days out of 365," Heurtel counters. "One Reel must be heard, but so must other valid options.")

A map of Century 21's fourth proposal recently began circulating around One Reel's offices. A copy of it, modified with alarming yellow boxes, was leaked to me by an employee. Over the remodeled Center House: "Loss of 192 seats." Over the remodeled Fisher Pavilion: "Loss of 3,300 to 3,600 seats." Over the lawn where Memorial Stadium used to be: "Loss of 16,000 seats."

One Reel is also shaken because Summer Nights at the Pier, its financial safety net, has fallen apart, making it more dependent on Bumbershoot than ever. (One Reel hoped to move the Nights concert series to Seattle Center; the Center said no.) And competition is tougher every year, including the annual Labor Day concerts Dave Matthews is now doing at the Gorge. "When I started here 14 years ago," Smith says, "our only competition was the Ellensburg Rodeo."

But, Smith says with a shrug and a smile, razing Memorial Stadium won't be easy—the school district might not let it go. "We've had about four mayors who've wanted to make that happen. It hasn't happened so far."

Nobody from the city has approached the school district about buying Memorial Stadium. "The first we heard about it was in the papers," says school district counsel Ron English. The last English remembers, the stadium was valued at over $50 million, but that estimate is five years old. Since then, real-estate prices have strapped on jetpacks and shot into the sky. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, $50 million in 2002 means almost $58 million today.

Step Two: The Willy Wonka Mystery Box

If you were in an uncharitable mood, you might describe the work done in the Seattle office of URS Corp as the Most Boring Stuff Ever.

URS is an international engineering firm, and the people in its downtown Seattle offices are engineers employed to write environmental impact statements—inches-thick reports in three-ring binders about what local construction projects will do to the world around them. They study noise pollution, traffic disruption, and effects on wetlands and underground streams and frogs and flowers and so on.

Sometimes, they suffer fools.

"When we were working on the convention center, somebody was convinced there was a spring running under Spring Street," said URS vice president Katy Chaney. "They thought that's how Spring Street got its name. They said we had to find and daylight it. We looked, but there was nothing there. People just get ideas."

Chaney and her engineers are the anatomists of the city, the people who understand its bones, ligaments, and arteries. They study how, say, tearing down Memorial Stadium and replacing it with an underground parking garage will change traffic, meaning they study how long it takes you to get to your job, meaning their studies determine what time you need to wake up in the morning. URS is a Willy Wonka Mystery Box: Plans go in one way, come out another way, and suddenly your morning commute is 15 minutes shorter.

So when Chaney is sitting at a stoplight and the wait is interminable, is she ever tempted to call it in and get that changed?

“I live five blocks from here,” Chaney says. “I walk.”

Worth noting: The anatomists of the city don’t drive. Eighty percent of URS’s employees walk or take transit.

The environmental impact statement for Seattle Center doesn't look difficult: no wetlands, no endangered species, just traffic patterns and noise pollution. "We'll try to steer them toward the best options," Chaney says. "They're just trying to find ways to get more people to come to the Center."

And what are the best options? She doesn't know. The study isn't done yet.

Once it is done, URS's report will be snapped into binders and sent to the mayor and the city council. They'll look at those best options and make their tweaks. Then, in November 2008, Seattle will vote on whether to fund whatever the plan has become between now and then.

Friends of the Lawn

David Brewster founded the Seattle Weekly in 1976, modeling it on the New Yorker. He founded Town Hall in 1989, modeling it on New York City's Town Hall. In 2006, he founded Friends of the Green, an organization that's pushing for Seattle Center to be more like Central Park.

He wants to see renovations above and beyond those in Century 21's proposals, and he might have the connections and influence to succeed. Brewster and his group of citizen lobbyists want to tear down (in his words, "edit out") even more buildings than Century 21 proposes—the Center House for starters, and maybe, in an ideal world, KeyArena. But they'll settle for making the latter an open-air pavilion.

Brewster's care for the city is sincere and patrician. Sometimes he sounds like an aristocrat: "The city council tends to be populist and nostalgic—you build in this low-rent quality about the Center that for some people, like [council president] Nick Licata, looks like a social service, a kind of dayroom."

Other times, he sounds like a populist: "Parks are free! They're marvels of democratic mixing."

In both modes, he scoffs at provincial weaknesses: "The one big political entity, Bumbershoot, has been pissed off by Seattle Center. But there is dithering over all the little users"—the Center School, Theater Puget Sound, the Frankfurter—"in the Center House. Instead of rationalizing that things should stay there because they're there, there should be a comprehensive urban design with a new theory."

Brewster's new theory is actually an antique fantasy, and an attractive one: a Seattle equivalent of Central Park or Boston Common, with nice buildings pulled right up to the edge, and developers and residents paying voluntary fees to fund "a more park-like Center," like the Central Park Conservancy.

"For over 20 years, the Central Park Conservancy has been raising money apartment building by apartment building," Brewster says. Today, the voluntary Conservancy largely pays for Central Park, employing four out of five of its maintenance and operations workers.

Of course, a voluntary conservancy would be good for Seattle Center—according to its financial office, only 25 to 30 percent of the Center's budget comes from the city. The rest has to be scrounged: rent (when tenants can pay it), grounds fees, parking, cuts of ticket revenue from Bumbershoot. This summer, there are Toyota banners hanging on lampposts, pimping a new kind of truck to passersby. The Center has to make money somehow.

Developers might see sense in Brewster's conservancy—their donations would be tax-deductible investments. An improved, "more park-like Center" would kick up the value of their condos, apartments, and even offices. Want ads, like one for a bookkeeper at Zenith, list "convenient location near Seattle Center" as a benefit, along with "competitive pay" and "casual dress."

But developers might not be so farsighted. New York's Conservancy formed in 1980, but only got off the ground years later when muggings, vandalism, and the Central Park jogger—who was raped and beaten almost to death—became symbols for a city gone feral, and galvanized citizens to take charge where government failed. Until we have a Seattle Center jogger, the Seattle Center cause will be one of irritation, not urgency.

A Park for People from Elsewhere

Newspaper and TV coverage of proposals for Seattle Center has taken a strong stand for inertia—for doing nothing.

Ken Schram, who gets paid by a TV station to be cranky about things, hates the idea of a more park-like Center: "More lawn? Big yawn." (Hee haw!) Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large: "The new shouldn't trample too heavily on the old... our family memories are all over the place." Seattle Times columnist Joni Balter: "I think it would be a mistake for Seattle Center to become a boring, passive park... [Seattle Center] can improve without pretending to be someplace else." The Post-Intelligencer hasn't opined much beyond its mixed-message editorial "Be Bold, Be Frugal."

But the columnists charmed by the status quo—how is that even possible?—are strangely out of sync with the rest of the city: A survey conducted by Seattle Center showed that, in 2005, only one quarter of its visitors came from inside the city. One quarter came from somewhere else in King County. One half came from outside the county. Seattle Center is a park for people from elsewhere.

If the Center is going to become—not remain, become—relevant, it has to drop the posture it's adopted since 1962: tarting itself up for tourists so they'll come to the Space Needle to pay $16 to be told that the elevators they're riding in drop at 14 feet per second, the same speed as a raindrop. (If it's raining, "the visual effect makes it look like you're watching snow fall as you come down," said Basil Harris, a local actor who used to work at the Space Needle. "It's nice. Although I've had many an argument with guests who were convinced they were looking at snow falling. In August.")

Seattle Center is 72 acres. Volunteer Park is 40 acres, Luxembourg Garden in Paris is 60 acres, Boston Common is 50 acres.

Imagine what the city could do with 72 acres.

Imagine less concrete and more park. Imagine an amphitheater—where Memorial Stadium is now—showing live broadcasts of the ballet or opera happening simultaneously in McCaw Hall while you sit in the grass and watch with a bottle of wine. Imagine a park surrounded by concert halls, rock clubs, cafes, movie theaters, theater theaters. Imagine a Seattle Center where you actually want to linger.

The Center needs to transcend, not preserve, its past.

Now is our chance to get it right. recommended

brendan@thestranger.com

 

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