Over the past year, the company that operates the Space Needle has been quietly working with Seattle Center to develop plans for a private, 44,550-square-foot Dale Chihuly glass museum to be placed where the skeletal remains of the Fun Forest amusement park now reside. The Space Needle and Chihuly are pushing hard for this project; they even hired two PR firms and one lobbying group to foist it on the public. But the public overwhelmingly dislikes the idea.
We know this because, during a long process that concluded in 2008, city planners held roughly 60 public meetings to determine what Seattle residents wanted from Seattle Center. What they wanted, overwhelmingly, was more open green space. Seattle Center is public land, and so planners created a Seattle Center Master Plan that called for the former Fun Forest to be replaced with an open lawn—accessible to everyone.
Sure, all that master planning concluded in 2008, a year before the Chihuly museum was even a glimmer in the eye of moneyed Seattle. But we also know the public is opposed to this new, privately funded plan to allow a for-profit museum that would be owned by the Wright family, which owns the Space Needle, to suck up two acres of the Center's remaining 21 acres of public land. (Entering the Chihuly museum would cost $14.) Seattle City Council member Sally Bagshaw, chair of the Parks & Seattle Center Committee, has received over 500 e-mails to date about the project, with three-quarters of these constituents against the plan. Other council members have reported a similarly negative response.
Asked in late March how he'll address the now-divergent visions for the land, Mayor Mike McGinn said, "Whatever we decide, we are not going to do something the public doesn't like."
Well, Mayor, the public has been clear in its opposition. Don't build something the public doesn't like. CIENNA MADRID
In politics, there's a term of art for what the backers of the Chihuly museum have been up to as they try to make it appear that there's a groundswell of public support for their project. That term is "astroturfing."
When the pro-museum forces hire public-relations people to stack the audience at a big public meeting (as they did on March 29), and when they offer "fans" on Facebook $25 gift cards to the Space Needle restaurant in exchange for joining their group, it's all part of a time-tested gambit: If you don't have real grassroots support, but you do have money, well, you just go out and buy yourself some astroturf.
Or, in this case, glasstroturf.
Then, all according to plan, you describe that glasstroturf as a grassroots movement, make sure everyone in your network gives his or her "honest opinion," and pray for articles like the one that appeared in the Seattle Times on March 30, which reported that the PR-firm-sculpted audience at that March 29 public meeting showed "overwhelming support" for the proposed museum.
Thankfully, after The Stranger pointed out just how much glasstroturfing has been deployed to create the impression of "overwhelming support," the Times published a follow-up story on April 1 that explored the pro-Chihuly-museum PR offensive and noted that it's not fooling members of the Seattle City Council. As Council Member Jean Godden understatedly told the Times, the impression created at that public meeting was "a little bit slanted." ELI SANDERS
Profits from a Chihuly museum seem likely to be spent against Seattle's interests. Jeffrey Wright—chair of the company that operates the Space Needle, patriarch of the wealthy Wright family, and an extravagant political donor—has given over $50,000 to conservative Republican candidates and Republican Party organizations in the past several years.
According to records held by the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission and the campaign-tracking website Open Secrets, Wright gave $5,000 to George W. Bush and $4,500 to Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi—candidates Seattle voters resoundingly rejected. (To be fair, Wright also gave $1,500 to Democrat Chris Gregoire in 2007, but that was less than what he gave to her Republican challenger.) He's also contributed money to the election campaigns of Republican attorney general Rob McKenna, Eastside Republican congressman Dave Reichert, and King County executive candidate Susan Hutchison.
Why should Mr. Wright's politics matter? They shouldn't. But Wright's business is injecting itself into the city's politics and running a campaign to use public land in a way that would boost Wright's future profits (while calling the whole endeavor a "gift" to Seattleites). It makes sense to find out who would really benefit from this for-profit enterprise—and, as it turns out, one beneficiary could well be conservative politicians whom Seattleites overwhelmingly oppose. DOMINIC HOLDEN
There are virtually no Seattle artists among the 1,700 fans on the Chihuly at the Needle page on Facebook—certainly not a scientific study, but a decent place to see names and aggregated opinions. Meanwhile, several prominent artists are fans on the artist-run Anybody but Chihuly at the Needle page on Facebook (1,500 fans), including Matt Sellars, DK Pan, Cheryl dos Remedios, Bob Rini, Timea Tihanyi, and Eirik Johnson.
"I think that a lot of the feeling among artists is driven by anger at what Chihuly's success means to art in general," says John Boylan, who has been organizing public conversations about art in the city for years. "That success means a triumph of a compelling but very narrow vision of beauty, and a triumph of a sense that successful art does not need to especially challenge the imagination, the mind, or social norms."
Artists especially object to the prospect of a fixed, unchanging display. They argue—convincingly—that the proposal is about money, not meaning. "Since those facilities are public, there has to be a better case made for public benefit, beyond vague promises of a good rent," artist Christian French wrote to the city council. "Nowhere here is a real argument for how the rest of Seattle and the region stand to gain on a meaningful level."
It's not about Chihuly, French added: "Impassioned arguments about the man and his work are, in this matter, red herrings." JEN GRAVES
Following an uproar about a lack of public involvement in the planning for the Chihuly museum, Seattle Center will begin accepting bids in mid-April from all companies that want to do something with the former Fun Forest site. But already, the committee tasked with considering bids appears to be tilted in favor of the proposed Chihuly museum.
The review panel will include members from both the Seattle Center Advisory Commission and the Century 21 Committee, says Seattle Center spokeswoman Deborah Daoust, as well as individuals recommended from both the city council and the mayor's office.
The problem is, members of the Seattle Center Advisory Commission and the Century 21 Committee have already endorsed the Chihuly museum project. For example, Century 21 Committee cochair Jan Levy spoke in favor of it at a March 30 meeting; her fellow cochair is Jeffrey Wright, Space Needle owner and would-be owner of the museum. Levy also serves on the Seattle Center Advisory Commission. Robert Nellams, director of Seattle Center, also spoke in favor of the project.
It's unclear how many people will sit on the panel that is to consider bids for the land. But, whoever they are, they should be impartial. Certainly, people involved with Seattle Center, the Space Needle, or the Century 21 Committee should recuse themselves. CIENNA MADRID
Here's a question: If the proposed Chihuly museum will really be such a tourist draw, and if it's really going to be paying the claimed above-market rate of $11 per square foot to rent space at Seattle Center—well, why not rent some different space and make more money off the project for its profit-seeking backers?
Seattle Center may have an inconvenient little master plan that calls for the proposed Chihuly site to be open public space with no entry fee, but there's no shortage of spots in Seattle where Chihuly and his backers could do whatever they damn well please with no messy public process, no master plan to tangle with, and, ultimately, cheaper rent.
David Goldstein at the blog Horsesass.org has proposed three alternative sites: the vacant space above Seattle Art Museum in the downtown WaMu Center; any of the many parking lots around Seattle Center, sites that are begging for interesting redevelopment; or somewhere in Pioneer Square, a neighborhood already home to many galleries and in general begging for revitalization.
That's just the tip of the iceberg in a city awash in commercial spaces to rent, holes left by stalled or abandoned megaprojects, and poorly developed parcels in need of new ideas. There's nothing inherently wrong with a private Chihuly museum, but people clearly don't want it on the public lawn. So get a real-estate agent, Space Needle, and then get back to us about why Seattle Center is really, truly the only spot in the city where this thing could go. ELI SANDERS
The Chihuly museum is a crappy solution to a real problem: Seattle Center needs money. The Center—which has a hand in putting on nearly 500 free concerts, movies, and other events on the 72-acre site each year—acts as a landlord (with all a landlord's obligations) to Intiman, the Seattle Rep, the Children's Theatre, McCaw Hall, and 40 other buildings. And it runs programs like Teen Tix, which gets city adolescents into theaters, museums, and concert halls for $5 a pop. This year, it expects to facilitate the sale of 8,000 tickets to On the Boards, the ballet, Seattle International Film Festival, and so on. In short, a part of the city's cultural vitality is tied to the economic vitality of Seattle Center.
But revenue streams to the Center have dried up in the past few years, including the Fun Forest, whose annual payments have fallen from $700,000 to around $200,000—not to mention drastic city budget cuts that have yet to be finalized. And just turning the Fun Forest into a lawn will cost millions of dollars.
Seattle should not have to make a deal with the devil—a culturally bankrupt vanity project on public land—to keep programs like Teen Tix running. (We're a little less concerned about the fate of the annual Weiner Dog Rally.) The Seattle Center could get tenants into vacant rental spaces, raise parking rates, and book more concerts into KeyArena. But while we fight against the Chihuly museum, it's worth remembering that Seattle Center will have to find some money somewhere. BRENDAN KILEY
This story has been updated since its original publication.