For years, it was an abandoned gas station sitting on a small toxic site across from Boeing Field. Now, after nearly 15 years of disheartening environmental studies, ongoing soil cleanup, and lots of fundraising and perseverance, it has reopened as Mini Mart City Park. This new pocket park and cultural center (with its inaugural art exhibit currently on view), in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood, is described by its founders as “a place for the arts, education, environmental action and community collaboration.” Not only that, with its built-in soil remediation system, the building continues to clean the earth under it.
Who is behind this challenging, enterprising, much-anticipated project? The artistic trio of SuttonBeresCuller — John Sutton, Ben Beres and Zac Culler — who are known for their smart and irreverent art installations and performances such as constructing and inhabiting a small island that floated around Lake Washington in 2005. In the decades since they started collaborating in 2000, while also working on their individual art practices, they have exhibited internationally, and created public sculptures such as the recently unveiled “The Wanderer,” a gigantic sea serpent whose cablelike head rears up from Google’s building in South Lake Union.
SuttonBeresCuller clearly has an impressive track record of innovative thinking about social interaction and public space. But nothing could have prepared them for this saga. The total project cost is just over $2.3 million, which includes land acquisition, environmental assessment, construction, and the first two years of programming and operations. They have raised $2 million to date and will continue to fundraise for the final details of construction and for future programming and operations.
Art to transform community spaces
Way back in 2005, they had the idea to rehabilitate a derelict property, using art as a metaphorical and practical strategy for transforming community spaces. In 2008, after years of searching for a suitable site, they heard about a list of vacated gas stations created by Emery Bayley, a brownfields manager for Environmental Coalition of South Seattle. Bayley helped them identify this rundown, corner lot and with subsequent years of assessment and advice. Sensing that the reviving neighborhood was right for their project, SuttonBeresCuller leased the property and eventually formed a nonprofit organization, which purchased the site.
According to Bayley, Mini Mart City Park, even though it was one of the smallest sites, has been one of the major successes of the King County Brownfields Program, which provides funding and guidance for the redevelopment of polluted areas. Bayley states that SuttonBeresCuller “took something with no value — a site full of junk — and turned it into a jewel, something of real value to the community.” He adds that revitalizing an old gas station is a rare and difficult thing to do, saying, “The tenacity of these artists was a marvelous thing to behold. They got a handle on the whole picture and kept pushing. Artists are often the first to do new things, to see things differently.”
Tenacity and vision were needed all along the way. Discovering that the old building itself couldn’t be saved was particularly tough. The goal had been to rehabilitate the original clapboarded structure but it was too far gone, with blackberry bushes and asbestos embedded in the rickety, lead-painted walls. The architects at goCstudio worked with them to design a brand-new, highly flexible space for environmental education and the arts.
On a recent tour of the site, the three artists expressed their excitement and relief about finally being open to the public. In Sutton’s words, “It feels terrifying and great. We’re really excited to see how it’s come to life and how different artists, different curators, different projects, will transform and inform its future.”
They pointed out the fresh landscaping, the multiple power sources for performances and projections. They threw open large windows and doors, revealed outdoor and interior spaces for temporary art installations, and climbed the stairs to the green roof and deck. It’s not a huge site, but it feels open and adaptable.
“As artists designing space,” Beres states, “it’s been really helpful in generating all these possibilities because we think about what we would want if we were presented with this kind of opportunity. We’re able to start relationships with artists and say, ‘What do you want to do? Where do you want to put it?’” Beres smiles, recalling moments when “people realize that it’s not just four gallery walls.”
MMCP complements the neighborhood’s mix of industrial buildings and bungalow homes and sits comfortably within the lot, with ample land around it, living up to its name as a City Park. The other part of the name — Mini Mart — references local histories of fuel stations and convenience markets, and playfully suggests that this is one-stop shopping for art and environmental ideas. Inside the new space, there is a wall of marketlike shelving, currently displaying some of the cleverly packaged, canned dirt that they sell in their fundraising efforts.
The building nods nicely to the past, with its off-white, bevel siding and flat roof that juts out over a concrete island, a place where sculptures will reside instead of gas pumps. Sutton states, “It’s a modern building. But there are so many clues from the old one, like the size of the front windows being proportionately the same. Those things hearken back to the history of the site.”
A continual cleanup system
That history — and the ground itself — is interlaced with the area’s industrial past. Surrounding parts of the Duwamish Valley have been deemed a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency and testing from this particular lot, which was once a fuel-storage facility, revealed petroleum contaminants in the subsurface at concentrations greater than Washington’s cleanup levels.
During our walk-through, they opened the door to the mechanical room, revealing pumps and pipes — an air-sparge and soil vapor extraction remediation system — that chugged away, injecting oxygen deep below the surface and removing residual contaminants. Planning a continuing cleanup system into the structure was an innovative solution that allowed the project to move forward.
Beres states that some environmental consultants “recommended a very cut and dry approach, like ‘first you do this and then you do that,’ but that would have taken even longer. We’re artists — problem-solving is what we do — so, together with the experts, we came up with these solutions.”
Other environmentally conscious design elements include a drain system that channels rainwater from the roof into the landscaping and artistic fencing embellished with cross-section images of the soil and the chemical formula for petroleum.
The SuttonBeresCuller trio repeatedly express their appreciation for the numerous consultants, funders and neighbors who’ve supported and informed the project. Just a glance at the “Our Team” page on their website reveals the faces and logos of dozens of community members, businesses, and cultural, environmental, and political groups, such as 4Culture, the Seattle Parks Foundation, and the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps, who created the first of many murals for the site.
“This isn’t something that any one of us could have come up with on our own,” Culler states. “It’s been truly collaborative. Every time we’ve started to lose steam over the last 14 years, someone steps in, breathes new life in and gives us the extra push that we need.”
Inaugural art exhibition
Collaboration, of course, has been the cornerstone of the trio’s work together and now that Mini Mart City Park is up and running, they’re eager to see how it grows into a new arts ecosystem with other visionaries taking the lead. For the inaugural art exhibition, they gave over the space to guest curator Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud, who had been looking for a venue to show art by emerging Black artists with Seattle connections.
Mahmoud, a University of Washington theater professor involved in many arts, writing and activist circles, says she was “super excited to work in this space due to its location, history and intent. In working with John Sutton, Ben Beres and Zac Culler, and other board members including Jordan Monez, I found an incredible group of people deeply committed to this space as a community incubator for arts, creativity, experimentation and community.”
The exhibition, titled “After the Quiet: On Black Figures and Folds,” features work in various media by Adetola Abatan, Sam Cremer, Xavier Kelley and Ruth Zekariase. Their vibrant work fills the largest room of MMCP and expands into personal and cultural histories. In a curatorial statement, Mahmoud writes, “The exhibition asks: in 2022, how do folds and figures represent and imagine the everyday, quiet, and beyond in Black life?”
For SuttonBeresCuller, it is important to open up the space to many ideas, artists and community members, and they were thrilled to work with Mahmoud and this exhibition, which will be on view until Feb. 19 (including the Feb. 12 Georgetown Art Attack).
This is the vision that kept them going for so long, in the face of so many setbacks. That eventually there would be a welcoming, flexible, multi-arts venue that cleans the earth and connects people. A place where community can engage with art of the present, consider the neighborhood’s past, and look forward to many possibilities. It’s open for service now.