THIS year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Seattle Center and the birth of the Space Needle. A half century ago, Seattle Center symbolized what the future of the modern era would look like and how humanity would be a part of it. The Space Needle was our compass, guiding Seattle to the world stage with a vision and promise of spirit of enthusiasm, energy and innovation.
Fifty years later, the 70-acre Seattle Center struggles with financial instability, an underutilized arena and uncertainty of its fate as Seattle’s living legacy. Instead of investing in and protecting this regional treasure, city leaders, in an all-too-familiar theme, punt on making key, macro-level decisions that protect and propel our city forward.
They focus on finding solutions that beg for a problem to solve, and pander to the least common denominator seemingly without a care to securing Seattle’s position as the innovative, technological, futuristic city that was envisioned 50 years ago.
Seattle these days seems like a never-ending episode of “Extreme Makeover”: the Alaskan Way tunnel project; the streets of Pioneer Square; the proposed Sodo arena squeezed into the life-center of our freight corridor; streetcar construction sprawls throughout the city; and the mayor continues to put bike lanes in major roadway corridors without consideration for freight or maritime mobility and the safety of drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.
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These programs will not only compete against each other; they will limit our ability to take care of what we already have, like Seattle Center.
It feels like the working family — trying to drive to work, pay utility bills and property taxes — can’t catch a break.
Think about the impact of utility rates on small employers. Think about mandated leave policies and new hiring requirements. Think about homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages whose property taxes continue to rise. Has a levy ever failed in this city?
Continuous levies to support operational budgets cannot be sustained and do not set a foundation so working families can build economic upward mobility.
Our failure to maintain and preserve Seattle Center 50 years later is a failure of our city to set forth a vision for what our city should be, where our city should go and who our city should serve.
The city needs a comprehensive 20-year plan that clearly outlines priority areas of development with realistic, innovative ways to fund it.
In another scenario, Seattle Center can be renovated to create a new arena with an anchor sports tenant along with housing, public schools, commercial real estate, more convention hotel space and retail development. This type of public-private renovation can lead to a longer-term economic development strategy for the region that simply makes sense.
Such a plan for Seattle Center would make the Lower Queen Anne and Belltown neighborhoods economically sustainable and help provide public education for children.
Such a plan would take advantage of the changes the city is making to the Mercer Mess, leverage the investment developers are planning to make in South Lake Union and highlight the world’s most prestigious foundation.
This kind of smart, strategic planning is what we need for Seattle Center, and the whole city — ideas that bring together economic sustainability, transportation, public safety and access to education.
We are not seeing this leadership from our city’s elected officials.
Instead, we are getting one-off projects that solve narrowly defined problems and pit one interest (freight mobility) against another (sports franchises).
Seattle’s 1962 World Fair called for a 21st-century city. We may have achieved part of that vision, but that is no excuse for fiscal complacency and a lack of vision.
Fifty years later, the world is still watching us. Let’s show them not only what we can do but how we can work together to create a stronger, more sustainable and just future for all citizens of Seattle and the entire Puget Sound region.
Let’s stop the extreme makeover and do a smart makeover.
Albert Shen is a small-business owner in Seattle. He is a trustee for the Seattle Community Colleges and serves on several local nonprofit boards.