public space has a price tag


The use of the Fun Forest site at Seattle Center controversy rages on, with the selection of the Chihuly exhibit as the most appropriate of nine proposals submitted. In an ideal world, I, like others, was completely enamored of the Urban Forest open space, that encircling green grove expanding in concentric waves outward from the Space Needle, and felt the walled, private, for-profit one-more-in-the-chain glass exhibit to be a gross intrusion. We in Uptown and in Belltown, especially, are crying out for park space, being about 5 acres short of our 13-plus acre projected need through 2025. That Urban Forest shown in the Seattle Center masterplan images had a mighty appeal.

The problem is that Seattle Center is not a park. It is publicly owned - we own it, via the city - but it has to raise revenue for two-thirds of its funding. We only pay, via taxes to the general fund, one-third of Seattle Center expenses. It's fine to say what we would like there - but we haven't exactly put our money where our mouths are, and what we want isn't going to appear for free. Seattle citizens are more willing to tax themselves for a good cause than in any other city I know - but surely there are limits to such largesse?

We could, with some time and effort, change the purpose and funding of Seattle Center. If we want a park there, a portion might be put under control of the Parks Department - which is severely underfunded as is. All budgets are in shambles right now, but in order to get what we want, we may need to focus on fixing and funding the Parks department, long-term - rather than trying to change or parcel off the governance of Seattle Center, which is its own beast.

The Urban Forest is part of the 20-year time frame of the Seattle Center masterplan, and under that plan would be the last piece scheduled for completion. Until then that site was intended to generate revenue for the other big moves of the plan. Twenty years is a long time, and many of us won't be around to enjoy the Urban Forest, which in twenty years may morph to something else entirely. That's what happens with long-term masterplans; that's why the image is not a "design" per se - just a visualization of concepts and principles of a plan.

Visualizations these days are so realistic, however, that a concept takes on concrete shape and form in our minds. A solid, private exhibit that many of us locally will not enjoy certainly doesn't fit that vision - but bringing the vision to reality has a high price tag. Even with our generous tax levies, we in Seattle rely heavily on public-private partnerships and patrons with deep pockets to help create significant public good. Perhaps we have to let the Wright family, via Chihuly exhibit receipts, help pay for this one. I can only wish it were otherwise.

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