The Space Needle is disappearing from view as development fills in Seattle’s skyline.
I used to hate the Space Needle.
Back when the Sonics (remember them?) were an NBA playoff team in the ’90s, Seattle’s skyline was about as generic as you could get. Except for that spindly-looking thing off to one side, away from the actual buildings. What were the city’s planners thinking?
I lived in Texas and these sentiments were usually stirred during NBA broadcasts when the Sonics hosted the team I root for, the Houston Rockets. Pregame shots would feature aerial views of Seattle, including that pointed (and pointy) testament to the cutting edge of 1962 technology.
Then, in 2002, I moved to Seattle, to Lower Queen Anne, and the Space Needle became more than a landmark and tourist attraction. It became a neighbor. I would step out of my apartment building and see the Olympic Mountains on one side and the Space Needle on the other. It was like living in a postcard.
The Needle didn’t loom, wasn’t imposing, it just sort of stood there, like a very tall landing pad for a UFO. It wasn’t the type of neighbor to get into your business or become a nuisance (though it does blow up pretty good every New Year’s Eve). It was — and is — benign, benevolent, visible from numerous vantage points all over the city.
When we first got here, my wife used it as a point of reference. If she could see the Space Needle, she knew how to find home.
But the relentless development that has spread across the city has made the Space Needle harder to spot. And the closer you are to it, the more difficult it is to see.
I’m not necessarily against such expansion. I find Seattle natives’ disgruntlement almost quaint, having lived in Houston and Dallas, where regularly remaking the landscape is practically a birthright. When there’s nothing in the way but Oklahoma to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, what’s to stop you?
But it was especially dispiriting when my wife and I discovered that the apartments going up across the street from our building have obscured our view of the Needle. To see our neighbor, we’ll have to do more than just walk out on our deck.
I arrived in Seattle just as the transformation was beginning. South Lake Union was still as inviting as an oil spill. But a new apartment building opens over here, a new restaurant over there, and soon the D word is on more lips. Development. Anything that’s not tied down can be torn down.
Seattle isn’t unfamiliar with big companies that have lots of employees, but Microsoft and Boeing were at a safe distance to the east and south. Banks and department stores had a bigger footprint in the city center.
Until Amazon. Now Seattle is the hottest real estate ticket in the country. Neighborhoods get drastic makeovers. White signs are put up in front of familiar but aging structures reading, “This Building Will Soon Be Gone, Replaced by Apartments — Deal With It.” (I’m paraphrasing.)
Watching all this from 605 feet up is the Space Needle. It still has a clear view of us (clouds and rain notwithstanding), but our view of it is endangered. What once was an unobstructed vantage is now blocked by someone’s idea of contemporary architecture that resembles a giant wedge of cheese — and doesn’t even have parking.
The purpose of the World’s Fair that birthed the Needle was to provide a view of the future. That future has long since arrived, but one of its stalwart sentinels is becoming surrounded by a sprawl that is getting beyond the control of a famously indecisive city. It is not the Seattle many people used to know, but it is the Seattle we are having to get used to.
It is the price of progress. But we are seeing more of the price tag. And less of the Space Needle.