A once-in-a-generation investment in mass transit is set to bring light-rail transportation to Seattle Center in 2037 and a handful of arts groups on campus are excited about the prospects of their all-ages concerts, film screenings and theater productions becoming easier to get to. That is, if they’re still around to see it.
KEXP and other resident arts organizations are warning that if the project moves forward as currently planned, they could be forced out of their Seattle Center homes.
Last week the flagship Seattle radio station, all-ages music venue the Vera Project, Seattle Rep, Seattle International Film Festival and the Seattle Center Foundation sounded an alarm at City Hall over what they’re calling “a truly existential crisis.” In a letter addressed to Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, the organizations warned that barring “a significant change of course” to the preferred route outlined in a January draft environmental impact statement, the beloved arts groups likely would not be able to survive in their current homes through the lengthy construction period.
“You start pulling away four arts organizations from our campus, then you’re talking about major implications for the very long term,” said Tom Mara, KEXP’s executive director. “And we don’t want to see that happen.”
The core issue is the proposed underground station beneath Republican Street. The site is between Seattle Rep and the north walls of the Vera Project, SIFF and KEXP —that’s where most of the radio station’s studios are. After enduring two years of construction headaches while Climate Pledge Arena was built, the groups say that the noise, vibration and accessibility issues of a lengthier project even closer to their doorsteps would make operating in their current homes “untenable.”
Leaders of KEXP and the Vera Project said building the station would require digging underneath their spaces in the campus’s northwest corridor. They’re also concerned about squeezing a project of that size in the narrow block where bands frequently load into Vera Project and KEXP.
According to Sound Transit, construction on the Republican Street station could last five years or more.
Jane Zalutsky, executive director of the Seattle Center Foundation, reiterated that the organizations are “eager for the access, equity and sustainability benefits that light rail will bring.” They just want city leaders and Sound Transit to understand what’s at stake.
“This is that missing light-rail link that is just so important to transportation in our city, and we need to make sure that people can get to Seattle Center,” Zalutsky said. “So, we’re excited about it. We just need to make sure that at the end of the day Seattle Center comes out stronger and that we don’t lose any of our resident organizations, as that would be a huge loss to the whole region.”
While formal responses to the impact statement, which outlines two possible routes through Seattle Center, aren’t due until next month, the longstanding arts groups wanted to voice their concerns as soon as possible in hopes that alternative solutions can be considered before the Sound Transit Board is expected to take them up during a June meeting. A final decision on which route will be approved is at least another year away, after a final environmental impact statement is published in 2023, a Sound Transit spokesperson said.
Once the Sound Transit board has selected the route, the Federal Transit Administration must sign off on the completion of the environmental review period before the project moves into the design and construction phase, the spokesperson said.
Sound Transit has currently identified the Fifth/Harrison route, which includes that Republican Street station, as the preferred route, though a second option running along Mercer Street a block away is also on the table. The Mercer Street route could potentially alleviate some of KEXP and the Vera Project’s concerns, their leaders said, although they’re hoping other options can be explored.
Compared to the Fifth/Harrison route, the Mercer Street option could cost an additional $100 million or more, would displace roughly 140 more residential units and would impact more historical properties, according to Sound Transit analysis.
A spokesperson for Harrell said the mayor is listening to community members and city staff before making recommendations to the Sound Transit board.
“The Mayor’s Office shares the stakeholders’ support of light rail serving the Seattle Center campus, and their desire for the design to honor the campus and the concentration of arts, cultural, and entertainment organizations that currently thrive there,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Ultimately, following thorough review, the City will provide Sound Transit with detailed [draft environmental impact statement] comments and will share our recommendations to the Sound Transit Board as they consider these issues.”
It’s still early in the review process, and it will be years before the first shovel hits the dirt, but should the Republican Street station ultimately move forward, both KEXP and the Vera Project said they would begin looking for alternative locations.
The prospect of uprooting from the most prosperous homes the Seattle music institutions have ever known — a situation they hope to avoid — would be tough to swallow. KEXP moved into its expansive HQ just seven years ago after a $15 million fundraising campaign. Its public-facing Gathering Space is often abuzz with laptop-clacking workers sipping Caffe Vita coffee outside of the DJ booth, while vinyl browsers sift through Light in the Attic’s record shop and picture-taking tourists wander in through the courtyard after peeping the International Fountain. Before the pandemic, an eclectic mix of bands regularly played free midday sets on the Gathering Space stage before evening gigs at some of Seattle’s top clubs and theaters.
For Vera Project, a nonprofit all-ages music venue and youth program that helps empower the next generation of Seattle’s music and arts scene, Seattle Center is the only stable home they’ve ever had. Born out of a grassroots movement that did away with Seattle’s infamous Teen Dance Ordinance, which made the city an all-ages venue desert in the ’80s and ’90s, Vera Project started organizing shows in the basement of a local union hall before bouncing between temporary spaces.
“We’re a fairly low-funded, community-based nonprofit that needs quite a bit of space because we have a music venue and a screen print shop and a recording studio,” explained Vera’s executive director Ricky Graboski. “In order to do that, we need government-supported, accessible, affordable space and in the city of Seattle in 2022, that space doesn’t exist. So, this is our shot.”
While this particular battle is personal for Graboski and the Vera Project, the nonprofit leader wants to make sure youth and community groups are kept in mind during major development projects like ST3.
“We need to find a balance there that can prioritize the value of cultural institutions — including ours but so many others — while also encouraging appropriate sustainable development and accessibility for our city,” Graboski said.