Seattle Center Monorail, by zargoman

Last week, the Seattle city council unanimously agreed to move forward on including a Dale Chihuly exhibit to replace the old Fun Forest as part of Seattle Center’s redevelopment plans.  The move was praised by the Seattle Times along with numerous city leaders who felt warmly at what a Chihuly exhibit could do for the Center:

“The past sixteen months of negotiations have shown that good public process can lead to good public policy,” said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, chair of the Parks and Seattle Center Committee. “Seattle will have another world class attraction and Seattle Center will be further invigorated through art, music and a creative new family play space.”

I’m not convinced that Seattle Center’s problem is really the lack of a “world class attraction.”  If anything, this rhetoric of revitalizing the area by luring in even more attractions seems to ignore the common failures often associated with public urban spaces.  There’s much much more to the Center’s dearth of activity than just a “missing piece” or an obsolete amusement park.

More below the jump.

The problem with Seattle Center is that it’s too much of a tourist draw and too little of an attractive urban space useful to Seattlelites on a daily basis.  Big events like Bumbershoot and the Bite are great for bringing in the occasional crowd but on any normal given day, the grounds are pathetically lackluster.  It doesn’t help that transit in the area is shoddy; worse still is the fact that the monorail doesn’t take ORCA, which only perpetuates its novelty brand.

Two of the more common reasons I hear behind the Center’s fall by the wayside has been either a lack of open space or lack of attractions to bring in visitors.  This is pretty contrived thinking, considering that Seattle Center is pretty much comprised of nothing but open space and attractions.  The real issue, often ignored by politics and press, is the absence of diverse land uses, both within and without, to support a constant flow of activity that can even justify the amount of open space the Center currently has.

Two years ago, I blogged this for the Seattle P-I:

If the city wants to get serious about making Seattle Center the “center of Seattle,” then its time to rezone the infill areas, forget about buffer zoning, incentivize developers to build new mixed-use buildings, liven up the surrounding neighborhoods, and start giving tourists and visitors the option to walk between Downtown and the center.

Following that sentiment, I can see a few other things that would be useful in revamping the Center:

  • Upzone surrounding neighborhoods.  This includes Denny, which is famed for its parking lots and low-density land uses.  Keeping the infill areas the way they are isn’t worth a pretty view of downtown from the Space Needle.  And honestly, there are better views in the city.
  • Less “attractions” and more everyday amenities.  How often do you go watch a live basketball game, see an opera, visit a science center, ascend an observation tower, or walk inside a glass museum?  Exactly.
  • Reinstate the grid.  Create pathways that line up and interconnect with the existing street grid.  People should be able to get from Harrison to Harrison and from 4th to 4th with line of sight.  One of the best ways to get people to come into the Center and use the space is to give them the ability to walk through it.
  • Don’t make stupid transit decisions, like building a mega transportation hub that requires buses to meander into a garage, drastically compromising any quality of service.  Incorporating the monorail into the ORCA partnership wouldn’t be a bad idea as well.

Ultimately, I don’t really see the value in bringing in an exhibit that likely won’t get the same visitor twice in a month.  Twenty or thirty years down the road, we’ll just end up looking for a new attraction to grace Seattle Center with the same old talk of revitalization and reinvigoration.

131 Replies to “Visiting the Seattle Center Dilemma”

  1. I don’t know what more you can do, transit-wise, to serve the Center. It has routes on all sides of the campus and those routes reach SPU, Queen Anne, Ballard, Magnolia, Wallingford, Northgate, U District, Sand Point, Downtown Seattle, Capitol Hill, Central District, First Hill, Mt Baker Station and there are even 2 OWL routes that serve it.

    1. The fact that they’re on all sides of the campus, rather than through a central point, is a big part of the problem.

      1. That’s the fundamental problem with the Center. It’s a giant brick in the middle of our street grid, with no attractive pedestrian frontage to the south.

      2. It amuses me that the city “gets this” to some extent — witness the recent zoning incentives to break up superblocks in the I.D. — but seems blind to it in the context of the biggest superblock in Seattle, which they control. I don’t expect them to bulldoze anything tomorrow, but I do expect them to at least express the desire for human-scale grid connectivity as a long-term goal.

      3. I would think that we would prefer to have a cluster of transit nodes surrounding the center, some of which could be located within the center grounds itself. I’m not sure that you really want to break-up the grounds with roads, unless they were transit/ped-only lanes or a below-grade transit line…

      4. My mention of a grid was mostly for pedestrians. Being able to see where you’re going is vital; I don’t think we need more roads in the Seattle Center.

        I’m puzzled generally when I see people advocating big off-street transit centers in the city. The street grid will handle it just fine provided you set the streets up right, and the surrounding land use is compatible. The U-District and Queen Anne work like that. There may be more space and better flow in the TC, but by the time the bus has looped around you’d have been better waiting on the street. That’s what’s so galling about the Mount Baker TC: the transfer would have been better had just they built bus bulbs and a signalized crosswalk and taken a block of parking nearby for the layovers.

    2. The center doesn’t efficiently serve West Seattle via transit and I suspect it doesn’t matter to many people who don’t live in West Seattle-in and out of city and king county government: I once tried taking public transit to the center and between the #21 (which arrived about 20-25 later than its approximate arrival time) and the monorail, it took somewhere about an hour and fifty minutes to get to the center. Which means that driving usually entails paying between $10 and $20 for parking in QA with the occasional pilfering of a free spot that could be used by a neighborhood resident.

      Our mass transit paradigm in West Seattle, unfortunately, is geared primarily to get people downtown and few places south of us period.

      1. West Seattle routes are through routed with north Seattle routes that go past the Center; no transfer is required; routes 54 and 55 become Route 5; routes 21, 22, and 56 become routes 15 or 18; a key trasfer point is on 3rd Avenue at Virginia Street; all 3rd Avenue patterns stop there; at Virgina Street, routes 1, 2, 3, 4, 13, 15, 16, and 18 serve the Center and routes 5 and 358 get close.

  2. Didn’t the Center House used to be more mall-like circa 1990? Bringing back retail stores would probably work wonders. I’m not thinking national chains as much as local niche retailers.

    1. Yes, the upstairs of the Center House used to have some shops. I think I recall them basically closing one by one and the space being taken over by whatever is up there now.

    2. There’s a massive dirt pit under the Center House that was designed to be a public pool. That would sure attract locals to the site, if they finished building it.

    1. I live within walking distance of the Space Needle. I have been there three times in my *life*. It’s exemplary of Sherwin’s point.

      1. And I’m sure the average Manhattanite doesn’t visit the Statue of Liberty on a regular basis, but it’s still a world-class attraction.

      2. I’m a few blocks away and go up every couple months. Great way to see what’s happening around town.

    2. Seeing that the view from the Needle is only decent for three months a year, its not really worth going up more than once.

      1. I think what people are forgetting is that the views OF the Space Needle are even more important than the views FROM the Space Needle. I don’t want my view of the Space Needle blocked by 20, 25-story buildings close to it. The Space Needle is an icon of the city/region and I want to be able to see it from all over the place, not blocked in every direction. Leave the high buildings for downtown/Belltown/First Hill but spare lower Queen Anne. Can you imagine if the Eiffel Tower had residential towers surrounding it in the name of density?

      2. Cinesea, the “I don’t want xxxx blocking my view” argument in the center city is causing sprawl. Directly.

      3. Cinesea,

        The Space Needle is 520 feet tall, or 600 if you count the antenna. This makes it the 6th tallest building in Seattle if you count the spire, or the 11th if you don’t.

        In contrast, much of the surrounding area is currently *zero* feet high.

        Suppose that the Seattle Center area was rezoned for 85 feet. That’s low enough so that the lower-level banquet deck would still have an unobstructed view. I can’t see any way that would count as obscuring the view.

        And yet, 85-foot zoning would allow for 6-7 story mixed-use buildings, meaning lots of new homes, stores, and businesses.

      4. I agree with groan, ben. I don’t want ugly skyscrapers blocking the space needle for the name of density. Continuous blocks of midrises will be just as dense in this case. Paris density is what we need and they don’t have a residential skyscraper. Also, until some cultural shift towards families moving into apartments or condos, skyscrapers full of studios and 1 bedroom apartments in denny triangle won’t stop sprawl. Because people who rent or buy studios and 1 bedroom don’t want to live in the suburbs anyway.

      5. Read the recent posts regarding Pioneer Square and their comment threads. Every yuppie who moves into a studio or 1-bedroom is one that doesn’t move into less dense housing, freeing up space in less and less dense areas down the line until you do curb sprawl to some extent.

      6. The SLU upzones top out at 300′, by the way, but people still complain about blocked views from some certain intersection or whatever.

      7. We don’t really need studios and one bedrooms. Well, we do, but not as badly as we need 2 bedroom units. Just look at rental prices for proof of the demand; the extra wall that turns a 1 bd into a 2 bd seems to bump the rent-per-ft² up by at least 25%.

        Not having that second bedroom to repurpose as an office or study is a dealbreaker for our yuppie couples and upwardly-mobile singles. The most successful condo towers are full of 2bd units for this reason.

      1. There’s almost no incentive to do that and almost no reward. The corridor between Westlake Mall and PPM needs more walking, not less. Businesses that depend on tourism benefit from having a walkshed around the monorail for people getting to the market and retail stores.

    1. And I’d like to see it extended to Mercer Street between 1st Ave N. and Queen Annne Avenue N.

      1. Not quite sure what purpose the Blanchard station would serve. Extending it elevated into the Lower Queen Anne neighborhood would be most unpopular. I don’t think either are worth the effort except as part of an organized built-out to Ballard — a project that, I believe, was tried before.

      2. Just thought I’d mention a plug for that “crazy” idea of aerial Gondolas or Trams. Seattle Center to South Queen Anne and the top of Queen Anne are great candidates for such a system.

    2. I’d like to see them extend the monorail to Freemont and then Ballard. It would be cheaper than tunneling the Light rail line, and it would be less expensive than elevating the Light Rail.

  3. OT a bit. Oh to have Pine Street closed to internal combustion engines from 7th to 1st, as should have been done in 1988 when Westlake Center opened.

      1. The Pine Street closure extended for all of one frigging block, which somehow was thought to cause the demise of Frederick & Nelson. It was quite different from the State Street Mall, which extended for about 2/3 of a mile and included at least 6 department stores.

        The Pine closure did cause some funky bus routings, but it was a relatively small part of what was going on with downtown retail and retail in general in the 80s and 90s.

  4. Upzoning surrounding neighborhoods will help demand the other points. Commuter pedestrians walking across the Center, for instance, will encourage better uses and better paths.

    Of course, with your upzone, if you provide parking, you won’t cause those commuter pedestrians.

  5. The Center was a fun place to be at times in the mid 90s, but I concur that there isn’t anything of interest now that gains my attention; with the addition of another useless Chihuly glass booth I’m inclined to take my visiting friends and family elsewhere.

    Furthermore, the complete absence of covered walkways in this town and the Center leaves many people inside other places doing nothing. How hard is it to figure out that if they had more coverings over many of the downtown streets and at the Center that it would give more incentive to the public to get out more often.

      1. Many, many thanks! I think John Kiester summed up Mr. Chihuly nicely…

      2. When the first earthquake hits that knocks all those glass figurines to the floor, I will laugh as his fortunes shatter into millions of worthless shards, and weep for what we could have had instead: and engaging, active space built for Seattleites, not mythical tourists dying to fork over their cash to a private individual.

    1. Seriously, it rains 9 months of the year here, why aren’t there more covered walkways in this town? I was at the Seattle Center last weekend for the March of Dimes walk and several of us teams were huddled under that one covered walkway that runs on the east side of the fountain waiting for the walk to start (mercifully, it stopped raining just as the walk started). That was the only covered area anywhere around the start of the walk.

      1. You must be new here. Seattle folks are used to standing in the rain. Those waterproof jackets with hoods aren’t just for looks.

        It’s a point of honor here that sidewalks are generally open to the elements. Or at least developers cheap out on an enclosed gutter system to ensure a cold splash every twenty feet.

  6. I’d rather they shoot it down 99 to Woodland park and Bitter lake, THEN down to the ID if we are rubbing magic lamps here.

    So you are saying tearing down the Key Arena will save the center? Because to have direct line of site from Harrison to Harrison you would have to tear down the center. I would honestly be ok with that for the most part, put some grass playfields in its place. If it cant be made into an entertainment center, then make into Central Park. Tear down the Key and Memorial Stadium and the old Mercer Arena! Put in public playfields and ponds! Heck buy out KCTS and put and garden and playground there. Put the Burke in the Center House.

    However I would still love to see the Key redone to attract basketball and/or hockey back to Seattle ( yeah I know, being a good seattle liberal, I should abhor that idea and scream and yell that the money should be used for performance art in stuffy 3rd story walkups- but I dont)

    1. Actually minor league hockey would work in the Key, since the Major Junior team is now in Kent… Good winter tenant. But the NBA will never return to the Center. Maybe elsewhere in Seattle, but I think the next arena will be Eastside

      1. I think an arena would work very well on the eastside. However I do not see it happening in Bellevue, the bulk of the civic leadership there seems focused on keeping people OUT of Bellevue.

    2. To be fair, 2nd has a pedestrian route that runs clean through the center with no interruptions, as does Thomas. I’m not sure how making Harrison a through-way (one block north of Thomas) would make it that much more pedestrian-friendly.

    3. I would like to see the Seattle Center Arena refurbished not only for arts/ cultural events-live music-but also for sports–the Rat City Rollergirls have been a very good draw at the Key–about 5-6K, which is not bad considering there is no sports media promotion of roller derby and the center arena would be a good convenient cheaper option for them to hold bouts (particularly to host a National or Regional Roller Derby tournament–its a coming big thing derby is).

      Bringing the Washington Stealth indoor lacrosse team to the Key might also be a good idea to bring more foot traffic to the center and more business for the local restaurants and bars.

      1. It’d also help the Stealth – they’re always going to seem fourth-class at best, and nonexistent even to people who know about them, cooped up in Everett.

      2. I wouldn’t tell that to the women who play it and the people who watch it, if I were you.

      3. Unless you’re saying roller derby actually isn’t scripted, I wouldn’t tell that to the people who have given their bodies and in some cases their lives to wrestling!

      4. Memorial Stadium is a gem. Maybe it should be transitioned to the Center instead of the School District. If Seattle were half as pointy ball obsessed as Texas that venue would float the rest of the Center debt. How is it we’re still QB central?

        All of the alternate sports would draw people into the “Seattle Center”. As it sits it’s events in Everett, Sandpoint, etc. Lot’s of other locals are involved in these type of grass roots events (like bands).

        I’m old enough to remember when soccer was a fringe event; as in only the Canadian kid in the neighborhood knew anything about it. One thing the “Seattle brand” has going for it is FRINGE… partly because of all them damn furinerrs.

      5. Memorial stadium isn’t likely to change hands anytime soon.

        It was deeded to the district for $1 by the City back in the 40’s under the condition that it must “continue to be used as a public athletic stadium”. I think at the time, the city didn’t want to pay to maintain it, but didn’t want the athletic space to disappear either, and so this arrangement was born. The district is not going to stop using it as an athletic stadium, so there’s no easy way for the city to forcibly take it back.

        Fast forward to present day. The school district has made it clear they’re completely unwilling to give Memorial Stadium back to the City unless they’re given a site for a replacement stadium. Even though the district has athletic fields at all their schools, none of them have room for significant spectator seating, so they still need a centrally located stadium for events.

        They’d be perfectly happy with a smaller one. High-school sporting events regularly filled Memorial to its 12,000 capacity as recently as the 1960’s, but these days a 5000 seat facility can satisfy the most demanding of the district’s needs. Before the Gates Foundation went in across the street, the City was planning to give them a chunk of land over there for the stadium. Now they don’t have a site, so the current plan is to put it in what’s currently the parking lot to the East Memorial Stadium, on top of the massive “transportation hub” structure Sherwin mentions in the article.

        That land was bought and paid for by the District separately from the stadium gift, though, so they’re not willing to move forward unless the City pays for the construction; otherwise they’re just giving up Memorial Stadium and receiving… nothing. And, so far as I know, the plan is still completely unfunded on the City side. Building sports facilities has always been a low priority for the City.

      6. Thanks for the history on Memorial Stadium. I don’t really care who owns it as long as it gets used. Sad to know that decades ago it was at capacity. I’d like to see the people return rather than downsize the stadium. Maybe it’s due in part due to pro sports now being in Seattle. Part of the problem with the School District running the show is they are limited in what they can do. They can’t really put the money into promoting non public school events and even if they do allow them I’d be willing to bet there are restrictions on things, like selling beer, that make it hard to turn a profit or even attract other events. Didn’t they run the Highland Games there? I’m pretty sure it gets used for other events but I can’t thing of any off the top of my head.

  7. Let me offer an alternative viewpoint about the center now that I have children. It turns out on a rainy day its an excellent place for entertaining kids. Between the fountains, the children museum, the science center and the center house you can quite easily occupy small children for the entire day.

    If I were recommending improvements to the center I would focus on that strength and try to extend it further.


    1. I’m not disputing that the Center might have something like a day trip to offer to families. But how often do you plan on taking your kids there? The best urban spaces are those that are used by people on a daily basis.

      1. A lot of homeless use the center house as a day shelter, so I guess that’s a success

      2. Well we personally probably go about once every 3-4 weeks esp. in the winter. Even the best urban spaces are not used by the same people everyday so you have to multiply this by all the families that also do the same. Since I have no hard data, anecdotally the center house is always pretty crowded at lunch time with other kids as well as all the other spaces we visit.

        The open spaces are much less used in the winter but how much do you expect to see when its cold and raining?


      3. The open spaces are much less used in the winter but how much do you expect to see when its cold and raining?

        This is Seattle. “Cold and raining” describes our climate 9 months of the year. It was raining earlier this morning, and it’s still cold, and it’s May!

        Forget about the buildings for a second. The open space in Seattle Center could be put to a whole ton of more productive, *year-round* uses. Instead, it sits idle.

        For example, consider the following changes:

        – Reconnect the grid: 2nd, 4th, 6th, Thomas, Republican, and Nob Hill are good candidates.
        – In place of the green space on the reconnected streets, build 6-story mixed-use buildings.

        Your kids can still have the fun day out they always do… in fact, even more so, because inevitably some of the ground-level shops in the new buildings will realize that you’re a frequent visitor and cater to you (or people like you). And, again, the space actually gets put to use, rather than sitting empty or near-empty for most of the year.
        – Reconnect 4th

    2. I agree with most of the points above and think the center could be drastically improved. However, it does have a few regular daily uses.

      My older daughter has taken two excellent classes at the Seattle Children’s Theater, and they also have a preschool there. That’s a 2-3 times per week. There are similar classes at the ballet.

      There is the Center School, a Seattle Public School alternative (i.e., non-geographic) high school.

      And of course lots of people commute right through just because it’s more on the way.

    3. When I was out of work taking care of my kid I’d go there almost daily – they’d often set up toddler cars in front of the stage, there’s the children’s museum, there’s that little art project just to the right of the stage. Plus the number of cultural events seem endless – walk in to the Center House any given day and you’ll likely see some cultural group singing and dancing on stage. And on less rainy days we’d go see a high school football game, or once a wiener dog race. I’m very thankful it’s a 15 minute walk from my house.

      That said, much of the rest of the Center could use a dose of replanning.

      1. Maybe they just need to do a better job of advertising? This is exactly the sort of stuff that I think is needed but seems to lack critical mass.

  8. Thank you, great post. Have been a lifelong tourist of the center, first as child living in Bremerton being brought by my parents or on science field trips, later as a teenager coming over on the ferry with friends and now living in Federal, Way, bringing my own children, parking in Tukwilla if there’s space and riding the link and monorail in unless parking’s full, then we’ll drive to the center, park, and ride the monorail and link the other way. It’s totally a tourist attraction. And removing the Fun Forest removes my daughter’s favorite part. We’ll probably be more inclined to go to Westlake or Pike Place to hang out now.

    I recently read “City: Rediscovering Center” after a recommendation here or another Seattle blog and it’s so true – this isn’t really a place for people who live in Seattle to regularly enjoy.

    1. “I recently read “City: Rediscovering Center” after a recommendation here or another Seattle blog and it’s so true – this isn’t really a place for people who live in Seattle to regularly enjoy.”

      Most Seattlites regularly enjoy our local parks, especially the biggers ones like Seward, Magnuson, Discovery, and Carkeek. The Center has always struck me as a bizarre cross of NYC’s Lincoln Center ( opera house, etc ) and a rundown Coney Island

      1. I saw something that compared the Center to Lincoln Center, MSG, and Central Park all rolled into one. I think it was an exhibit on the Center makeover in the Center House.

  9. It doesn’t help that Mercer is about to become an expressway between Western and Aurora, with sidewalks and bus lanes removed for much of the length, if the Queen Anne Transportation Committee has its way.

    Bus lines may be altered to not go on Mercer, for starters.

    Lights may be synchronized for east-west SOV movement.

    There may be limited pedestrian crossings of Mercer west of the Seattle Center. But hey, that would at least funnel pedestrians closer to the Seattle Center if they are trying to get around Mercer.

    1. I agree that Alternative #5 for Mercer West was by far the worst option and is a terrible mistake.

      But where do you get the idea that sidewalks and bus lanes will be removed for “much of the length between Elliott and Aurora”?

      From what I understand, the alternative calls for no sidewalks on the West Mercer Place portion between Elliot and 5th Ave W. The section between Queen Anne Ave and Aurora will definitely have sidewalks.

      1. I didn’t mean that sidewalks would be removed on Aurora, just the western section of Mercer.

        Hopefully, if the DBT happens, the portion of Aurora south of the tunnel entrance can be turned back into a gridded, neighborhood-friendly street, with bus lanes for the Line E. We may be in for a fight getting bus lanes on any portion of Aurora.

      2. I would love to hear a thoughtful argument as to why Alternative #5 is “by far the worse” and is a “huge mistake”. I live at 5th Ave W and Mercer and endorsed this option at the SDOT open house. It is by far the least intrusive to W. Mercer Pl. Other options involved constructing a huge wall at lower Kinnear Park to accomodate the widening of W. Mercer Pl. and many involved extending the merge lane FURTHER up the street and into Lower Queen Anne. SDOT is forcing the community to choose an option, and option #5 happens to give trip time reductions at the lowest cost and is the least intrusive to LQA. How is this “by far the worst”?

        Also, no sidewalks are being removed on W Mercer, as Brent asserts.

      3. Kevin,

        Option 5 is the only one that doesn’t have sidewalks. I realize it is also the cheapest option, next to not building the DBT at all. So, if you’re okay with not being able to walk down to Elliott, so be it.

        Would you be fine with moving the Line D down to Denny, so that it can have a bus lane and signal priority?

      4. Brent – I was just trying to clear up the misinformation that Option 5 is somehow removing sidewalks. It is doing no such thing. Currently the sidewalk situation on W. Mercer Pl. is far less than ideal. However, it certainly has not stopped me from walking up and down it. The people at FOLKPark (Friends of Lower Kinnear) are revitalizing the park and making it a great pedestrian connection to Interbay/Amgen Bridge, etc. With that in mind, I do not necessarily see the need to spend the extra millions of dollars to build out the southside retaining wall to accommodate a sidewalk.

        In regards to the D Line – none of the other 4 options included transit lane accommodations, so why is that part of this discussion? The only items within SDOT’s planning scope are the northbound turn and merge lanes, sidewalks, and bike lanes. Option 5 very effectively relocates the uphill merge lane to Elliot Way.

      5. Kevin,

        I appreciate the clarification, and am delighted to hear that the neighbors are building a foot path at a fraction of the cost of a sidewalk!

        I’m still concerned about the QATC’s letter to SDOT calling for removal of the BAT lane south of Mercer Place (which isn’t part of any option). Could you track down the committee’s reason for requesting that?

        Thanks for engaging this blog. I hope to hear more from you!

    2. I was talk about Mercer. Where did you get the idea that Mercer between Elliot and Aurora would not have sidewalks for large stretches? I was of the understanding that what the QATC voted about was the area near West Mercer Place and Elliot. Mercer between Queen Anne Ave and Aurora should still have sidewalks, from what I can understand.

    1. “Development on the scale of New York City’s Rockefeller Center”

      Oh my!

      1. I dunno, that’s totally reasonable. They’re saying, “We’ve owned this property in the very center of our city for 120 years, and we don’t want to get rid if it until we know it will have a huge impact on the city.” Hopefully they can get a contract rezone to allow for pretty tall buildings to go with it.

      2. It sounds a bit grandiose. But as long as they don’t build something horrible like a 250′ Ballard Landmark, I’m down with it.

      3. How about two dozen 500-1000′ buildings, with mixed office, retail at the base, and residential? Suddenly developers would have no demand for new development in Samammish…

      4. The plan is to build it out over 30 years, so it’s not like you’d get Rockefeller Center tomorrow.

        I love the idea.

  10. Hmm, the [10MB PDF] new master plan has a few decent ideas, like a bar and connecting Republican St.

    Harrison is tricky since it would take relocating KeyArena.

    Personally I think the best chance for good mixed use would be along the 5th Ave N edge after Broad St gets vacated.

    1. I think the area near 5th and Broad has a lot of TOD potential with the monorail station, especially if the street grid gets reconnected across Aurora, could be an extention of SLU between Denny, Aurora, Mercer, and the Center.

  11. “The problem with Seattle Center is that it’s too much of a tourist draw and too little of an attractive urban space useful to Seattlelites on a daily basis.”

    That’s it in a nutshell. I like the Seattle Center and I’ve been going there for events for 40 years. It’s a nice place for events, but people don’t attend events regularly. 360 days out of the year it’s an afterthought for most locals. So it ends up tragically underused. In general, what it needs is fewer attractions and more regular amenities, plus nearby development.

    1. Just rooting around more: the Seattle center claims to get 12 million visitors a year on its web site which works out to about an average of ~32k a day. There were other references to surveys showing approximately 8 visits per year for local residents.

      Whether this is tragically underused is a judgment call but I wouldn’t write off its current programming completely.


      1. I suspect the attendance is quite bumpy vs. an even distribution. I wonder if you took out Bumbershoot, Folklife, and perhaps the Bite of Seattle ( 9 total days), what the average patronage was…

  12. Sherwin

    I think we are stretching things a little to make this subject part of a transit blog, but whatever, it is still an interesting subject. Of course, we could have had a monorail going through the Center and beyond, but that dream faded a few years back.

    I think the Seattle Center definitely needs upgrading, but not so that it becomes ordinary. It was never conceived with that view in mind – none of the World’s Fairs were as I understand them. They coalesce around the extraordinary and expectations of future progress, even if many of the ideas come to seem ordinary as time moves on.

    The plans are great for opening up Center House and I like Chihuly’s plans for the center grounds. It is a difficult area to expand because it is hemmed in on all sides, but for the most part, it works just fine. It would be nice to add something like a Shakespearian Globe Theater (with a retractable roof) but for the most part, I don’t see the Center as a place that we need to visit daily or even weekly. It is an event place, not a park to stroll in.

    1. Tim, this blog exists because we all want to see land use change. That’s why we support transit, not the other way around.

      1. Funny, last I checked it’s the Seattle Transit Blog. I’m sure there are plenty of people who just want to see their buses get better and couldn’t give a rat’s ass about “land use”.

        I think part of the problem is that the Center does not quite add up to the sum of its parts. You have a tourist attraction, and a city park, and a food court, and a few museums, and a sports arena, and a football stadium, and an opera house, and a couple of theatres, and (for a little while) an amusement park, and the only times when it comes together are during big events like Bumbershoot, Folklife, or the event it was originally designed for, the World’s Fair.

        If the Center wasn’t just a bunch of attractions that happened to be near each other, I wouldn’t be hearing such suggestions as “connect the street grid through” or “build mixed-use on site” that sound to me like they would destroy the Center’s identity.

        The question that probably should be asked is, how do we take all the various pieces that the Center has, and integrate them into a coherent whole that people will inhabit 365 days a year?

      2. Tim, this blog exists because we all want to see land use change.

        Or not; preaching to the choir is a limited audience :=

      3. “we all want to see land use change”.
        well, maybe not quite ALL of us. Darwin was a land use planner too.

  13. I’ve lived in Seattle all my life (except when I went back east for college) and I can’t remember a time when Seattle WASN’T having this conversation about Seattle Center. We’ll probably still be having it when my kids are my age, and when their kids are my age.

    Here’s what I think: Seattle has always been a city of neighborhoods. If I live in Wallingford, for example, I’m probably going to shop at the grocery store in Wallingford, eat at the restaurants in Wallingford, and go to the movie theater in Wallingford (unless it’s not showing the movie I want, then I’ll pop over to the next neighborhood–the U District–and see what’s on at the Metro). I’m not going to take the time to go all the way down to Seattle Center to hang out at a coffee shop, I’m going to go to the one up the street. And I’m sure as heck not going to drag my kids on a bus for 20 minutes just so they can run around on a big lawn by the fountain, when I have a lovely park in my neighborhood.

    So, I don’t think it’s worth it to put a ton of resources into making Seattle Center some kind of destination for locals, who frankly have plenty of cool places to hang out close to home. (What’s better than using transit to get around? Being able to walk to your destination!) But having a place like Seattle Center where you only go for attractions doesn’t seem like a bad thing to me. Not that I like the Chihuly museum idea (my son is almost 4, I won’t be going there for at least another 10 years), but the overall concept of having it be an attraction-filled space is not a problem to me given how great many of our neighborhoods are.

    Not that I have a problem with upzoning or improving transit access or any of that good stuff, and I hate the idea of the Chihuly museum as much as anybody else with small children. I’m just saying, I don’t think spending a ton of resources turning Seattle Center into some kind of draw for locals is really worth it.

    1. You seem to forget that a lot of people live in Belltown and Lower Queen Anne, right next to the Seattle Center. Moreover, while I’m generally inclined to believe that Seattle has plenty of parks, there are none in Belltown unless you consider the Olympic Sculpture Park to be one, which I do not.

      1. I agree that Belltown could use a park (that dog park on 3rd and Bell certainly doesn’t cut it, nor does planting a few trees along Bell). And it could use a real grocery store, while we’re at it. This is what happens to a neighborhood when it’s slapped together by developers in the middle of a real estate boom–you get tons of apartments/condos, and practically no communal space. But that doesn’t mean Seattle Center needs to be turned into a city-wide draw just so Belltown gets a park.

        Lower Queen Anne is already a very vibrant neighborhood with tons of great restaurants and shops (and a decent grocery store), and just a couple blocks up the hill are some lovely parks.

        Again, I’m not saying having an urban center that draws locals is a bad thing, and I’m not opposed to improving transit around there or upzoning around it. I just don’t think it’s worth the resources it would take to turn Seattle Center into the kind of draw we’re talking about, when there are so many fantastic neighborhoods in this town.

      2. I don’t think Seattle Center needs to be turned into a city-wide draw just so Belltown gets a park. Lesser improvements should suffice for that.

      3. Once the AWV comes down, it’s footprint from the waterfront to the Battery Street tunnel will be an easy target for park space, in particular the block from Bell to Battery. It’s a full 2/3rds of a city block, currently unusable, that will suddenly become available. It’s on a mild slope (for Seattle), but some terracing will both make it more usable and give some opportunities for landscape art. And food carts, I hope.

    2. You don’t have to spend any resources to let people build around Seattle Center – and once you build, the people who come live there will ask for the improvements that matter to them.

      1. See, that makes sense to me. I’m just saying, there’s a lot of transit improvements I’d rather see the city spend money on rather than on doing stuff to rebuild/revamp Seattle Center. Do the zoning, sure, and then see what kind of changes to the Center make sense.

  14. So what’s happening with this mega transportation hub? It’s the first I’ve heard of it. The main bus connection to Seattle Center is on the west side where the most buses are, and that’ll be more so when RapidRide D is running. The buses on the east side where the hub’s supposed to be are frequent in the daytime but not in the evening. The east-west streetcar is not on any of the streetcar plans I’ve seen so it must not be coming for decades.

    1. The path of the Line D may need to be altered because of the Mercer St channelization (assuming SDOT’s Option 5 — the one with no sidewalks, bike lanes, or bus lane — wins).

    2. That would give another reason to push teh D out to Elliott so it’ll get to Ballard faster. :) If people are only going to Seattle Center occasionally, it’s not worth adding ten minutes to the trip to make every bus stop there. If there’s a stop at 3rd & Denny, that’s close enough.

  15. The main problem with Seattle Center is that it’s essentially a walled fortress plopped down inside a neighborhood. The juxtiposition is very jarring. From the inside, you feel as if your in a theme park. From the outside your in a classic old time Seattle neighborhood.

    The point of a “World’s Fair” is to showcase the future…not archive it.

    All of Puget Sound was supposed to be the Seattle Center — a clean, open parklike setting with people moving technology, walkable streets, art and entertainment in a green open low rise environment.

    Where’s our jetpacks?

    1. “in a green open low rise environment” doesn’t provide the economic engine you need to pay for infrastructure and create jobs.

      1. Seems like a lot of people are at work in Kent.

        Which has farms (green), two story commercial buildings and low impact “infrastructure” consisting of personal and group transit systems.

        In someways, the Seattle Center is a like a modern suburb embedded in the heart of the “city”. Maybe it will spread and grow like a virus, relieving the citizenry of density.

    2. “All of Puget Sound was supposed to be the Seattle Center — a clean, open parklike setting with people moving technology, walkable streets, art and entertainment in a green open low rise environment.”

      Speaking of theme parks, that sounds like EPCOT.

      1. Yes, Walter Disney was also a futuristic planner. He designed to show people how it could be, one version of the future.

        I’m not insisting that we lost our way by not creating the Bauhausian dream city, or the Imagineered playgroun-cum-town, I’m just saying these parks were meant to demonstrate an entirely new way of living and designing.

        One of my old haunts was the Flushing Meadows World’s Fair Grounds (both from 1938-39 and 1964-65). My desire was always to live there, and have a place near the “Pool of Industry” and be able to walk around the Unisphere and take the people movers to the Hall of Science.

        What would we do for work? How would we get the food into the fair every day? All these questions we are still trying to answer…

      2. Between this and the notion of the Seattle Center being a future model of low-density urbanism, I am actually ROFLing.

    3. In addition to the perception of walls, don’t forget the arterial moats of Mercer, Fifth Ave., Denny and Broad Street that almost surround the Seattle Center. Not only do these streets bring car-based visitors to Seattle Center, they do a pretty good job of isolating it from adjacent neighborhoods. The ginormous parking structures along Mercer and the soon to be occupied Gates Foundation Campus are additional limited use facilities that isolate the center from the everyday hustle and bustle of the surrounding neighborhoods.
      The nicest neighborhood interface that the center has is on the west side where there are a couple of streets before you hit Queen Anne Avenue.

  16. Can someone clarify what the latest vote re: Mercer West Alternative #5 by the QATC means exactly?

    Does it mean that large stretches of Mercer between Queen Anne and Aurora will not have sidewalks and bus lanes? Or is it just related to the area near West Mercer Place and Elliot?

    1. It’s kind of off-topic on this thread, but I must admit, I’d be interested in a guest post on this. Maybe encourage some comments to SDOT on the subject?

    2. Agree it is off-topic, but I’ll say a few sentences to clear things up. I get frustrated by misinformation. Please see my reply earlier in this thread, but:

      The vote to endorse Option #5 deals ONLY with the W. Mercer Pl. alternatives that SDOT presented to the community (steep grade of Mercer between Elliot and 5th Ave W). This endorsement does NOT remove sidewalks along any stretch of Mercer. The part that folks are getting hung up on is that Option #5 does not create any new sidewalk along W. Mercer Pl. as part of the plan. To create a new sidewalk, SDOT would need to build a large retaining wall at a large cost. Lower Kinnear Park is being improved immensely and will provide a really nice pedestrian connection between the Lower Queen Anne neighborhood and Interbay/Amgen Bridge. This fact mostly negates the need for us to spend millions of dollars building a sidewalk on the small stretch of W. Mercer Pl. that currently lacks one.

  17. I know I’m late to this party but I I think the conversation lacks an important point. Fixing Seattle Center is a common refrain here in Seattle but I really think the first step of defining the problem has been lost in this argument. Why exactly is the current state of Seattle Center a problem?

    – Other than the fun forest has there been a glut of failing businesses at the center?

    – Have the arts institutions (Opera, Ballet, Science Center, etc.) seen a comprehensive decline in visitors that can be blamed on location (rather than just attraction failures within the institutions themselves, i.e. the loss of the Sonics)?

    – Has there been a rise in crimes at Seattle Center?

    – Have any festivals decided to go elsewhere other than for space constraint reasons?

    Sure, there are some things that can be improved. Walking access could be improved by connecting Republican. More development around the area would be generally good as well, but as others have pointed out, a lack of height isn’t the problem because most of the land is incredibly underutilized anyway.

    1. Raising height limits increases options for private developers, and increases the odds they will more fully utilize the property. But zoning also has to be done appropriately. As Ben pointed out, we have very little housing in mid-downtown because the land was zoned not to allow it.

      But more importantly, we need more mixed-use building: Business on the bottom and residences on top.

      Until we give developers more leeway to build up and build mixed, the only profitable uses of the properties will be bars and adult shops.

      1. Fair point but far from any “problem” with Seattle Center. However, as I’ve said before, raising heights does nothing to address the demand problem, which is the underlying reason for a lack of development.

        More height cuts the average cost per unit for developers and makes building more profitable. It does not make the neighborhood a more attractive place to live, with vibrant streets, cute boutiques, and all the other things that come with picture perfect communities. It is a fallacy to assume that tall buildings and density mean great neighborhoods.

        If the idea is to catalyze vibrancy and spark demand for housing in the area, the city would do much better to work very closely with the Clise family to push development and to start investing in infrastructure and amenities in the area. Then we can talk about raising height limits.

      2. “It is a fallacy to assume that tall buildings and density mean great neighborhoods.”

        No, but they certainly help get people to live and work in a place, which is the first step. I agree, though, that it’s not really the problem in the area surrounding the Center. My biggest gripe is the lack of attractive pedestrian frontage on the south and east, and the lack of straight pedestrian walkways that draw you in. Those aren’t really things fix can fix now, though.

      3. There is pent-up demand for in-city housing, Josh. That’s why people who might want to live in the city are stuck buying homes on picture-perfect cul-de-sacs in increasingly distant suburbs. I know a few of them. They buy a house on a cul-de-sac, and then realize they are up a creek without a paddle if they don’t have one car per household member.

        The City of Seattle’s height limits and non-residential zoning are a primary cause of suburban sprawl. The city, on paper, says one of their goals is to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, but between building more freeways and keeping people from moving into the city, the city is doing the exact opposite of what it preaches.

        Amenities? You mean, like the Seattle Center? How much amenities need to be in place before you allow residential housing on a scale appropriate to an inner-city neighborhood?

        Build the amenity businesses on the first and second floor, and the apartments or condos above, and you’ll have a pretty darn livable neighborhood. Build one-floor single-family homes, and you’ll be lucky to have amenities within walking distance, not to mention no bus service.

        I’m curious, what neighborhood would you consider to be “picture-perfect”?

  18. Yeah, another chewy exhibit. Can’t wait for the grass growing and paint drying draws that are sure to follow. As for something that would bring me back several times a year (besides stuff that used to be there == bring back the Mad Mouse!) a little credit to the possibility live music in Seattle might possibly have a chance at making a small impact. Following that; rock throwing would be #1 on my list following this announcement. I’ll just delete the rest of my cynical remarks :-/

    1. The best thing I can say about the Chihuly museum compromise is that it got KEXP a permanent home. Of course, that somewhat illustrates the problem: KEXP is very much a Seattle icon and worthy of civic support, but their DJ’s would work just as well from an old factory in Georgetown as from the Seattle Center. A radio station isn’t a crowd pleaser.

      1. Part of the KEXP plan, IIRC, was to have live music on-site pretty regularly. Assuming that part of the plan hasn’t been dropped, part of the “berlin wall” building north of Key Arena is going to become a small performance space that KEXP will broadcast live shows from.

  19. Letting pedestrians cross Aurora when it’s underground will be a big improvement. More density in the neighborhoods around the Center will be important. Building rail to Ballard will help if it passes close enough.

    I live near the Center and like how it is, though I’d certainly turn the stadium into a park with a grandstand et al as they’ve planned.

  20. Walt Disney’s true plan for EPCOT was amazing. To bad he past away to early. :(

  21. Why not pursue a vision that is as offbeat and unique as Seattle? What about embracing the outdoor ethic of Seattle? I could see a tennis facility, equestrian center, indoor outdoor climbing walls, the arts, etc. all living on the grounds. There could be so many uses! That would bring the locals in, and that’s what makes a public space thrive. The Space Needle is for tourists, and sporting events are one offs. If you’ve ever been to the South Street Seaport in NYC, you’ll see a great place that has been ruined by tourist only shops and attractions. The locals never go there, it blows. No, think about the local needs and what city dwellers would like to DO, and you’ll avoid having the Center stay a perpetual tourist trap. In other words, let’s make a large scale real urban park we missed out on the first time around.

  22. The new exhibit will appeal to a narrower slice of the population than the Fun Forest did and I think it will be a net loss to the City of Seattle tax-wise. The latter not only appealed to kids and, for tax revenue purposes, parents with kids, but post kids or even childless some of us enjoyed walking through there and seeing and hearing the gleeful children having fun.

  23. I currently ride the monorail once a year but I go to Center House events about once a week in the summer months. If the monorail accepted the ORCA I’d ride it once a week. The monorail could still have a booth to collect from tourist but the rest of us could just transfer from Link/511 to the monorail to get to the center.

  24. It seems as if with grid streets, you want to turn Seattle Center back into a neighborhood. I think that would be awful.

    You say there is enough green space there; I disagree with that. Most of Seattle Center is buildings and concrete; there are no great lawns or open space.

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