I suppose I should take some satisfaction in the Wright family’s revised proposal for their Chihuly-themed gallery/gift-shop/catering-space in the old Fun Forest site:
As part of the deal, the Wright family proposes spending $2 million to fund and maintain an “Art Playground” somewhere else on the Seattle Center campus. They would invite local artists to design playground equipment inspired by Seattle Center or the 1962 World’s Fair that was held there. They would select four or five winners, build their designs and maintain the structures for 20 years, according to the proposal.
If that’s not a concession to my calls for a Really Kick-Ass Playground, I don’t know what is, and it’s certainly a smart PR move. The Wrights get their for-profit, paid-admission extension to their Space Needle catering facility, and the city gets a new playground… you know… somewhere else. Not that $2 million buys you an awful lot of playground these days, but it’s a concession nonetheless.
Still, my general response to this and the other Fun Forest proposals can be summed up in three words: What’s the rush?
There is a lot to criticize about the way the Seattle Center first introduced the Chihuly proposal as an all but done deal, and then went about hurriedly soliciting additional proposals in response to the initial public uproar, but the most significant problem with the process is the way that it institutionalizes the frame that the Fun Forest redevelopment is something that absolutely has to happen now.
Yes, I know they’d like to have something in place by the Center’s 5oth anniversary in 2012, but it’s hard to justify such a major, long term development for the sake of a symbolic gesture. Likewise, Center staff have argued that they need the income from the property to help subsidize other attractions, but we’re hardly talking about a massive infusion of cash. The new Chihuly proposal promises at least $350,000 a year rent, but the local, family-run business currently operating amusements on the site has repeatedly offered to pay $250,000 a year on a year-to-year lease.
An additional $100,000 a year in rent… that’s all the Center would sacrifice for the sake of giving the city some breathing room to really think through whether yet another private, paid-admission “museum” is the best use of a couple acres of scarce public park land. Yeah, times are tough right now, and revenue is hard to come by, but that makes this exactly the wrong time to rush through this decision.
The Wrights had a year or more to work behind closed doors to come up with their initial proposal, and then still had to go back to the drawing board to respond to public outcry, yet their competitors for the Fun Forest space only had a few weeks to start from scratch. That’s hardly a fair or efficient process, and if, as expected, the Chihuly project is the ultimate winner, this whole exercise can’t help but come of as anything but a sham.
So my advice to the Seattle Center and the City Council is that this is one case where the “Seattle Way” is the best way toward determining the best use of scarce in-city open space. There’s no rush to clear cut this last remaining swath of the Fun Forest, and no compelling reason to push through this privatization of public land at the depths of an economic crisis. If the Chihuly proposal makes sense now, it will still make sense a year from now; in fact, given another year of feedback and push-back, the proposal might even get better.
So please, let’s take the time to do this thing right.