Even ardent defenders of park open space want to see the museum thrive. Are there options for going underground, an effective, art-friendly approach that renowned museums have utilized worldwide?

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OUR art-loving city voted in 2008 to renovate the building housing the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park. Financial constraints put the project on hold, but now, in richer times, museum leaders and their architectural team are ready to roll.

But somewhere along the way a voter-approved “renovation” morphed into a nonapproved “expansion.” Museum advocates, flush with resources, saw a chance to improve a beloved city facility. It was an opportunity to draft a wish list of changes onto what was otherwise a mundane retrofit of an aging building.

The Seattle Parks Department, owners of the building, quietly agreed to let museum leadership begin a low-key campaign to sell the new plan to members. Before consulting the public, the Seattle Art Museum, which operates the Seattle Asian Art Museum, was promising its supporters a new, dramatic, glass-enclosed wing with views into the leafy canopy of the park’s venerable trees. Gradually museum leaders went public, inviting “stakeholders” to “charrettes,” where the results of $2 million in planning saw daylight. There was no alternative offered.

A different view

Former Seattle Times reporter and columnist Glenn Nelson wrote that the museum’s renovation would have little impact on Volunteer Park or the neighborhood: [Stop protesting Seattle Asian Art Museum renovation, Jan. 13, Opinion.] Online: st.news/SAAM

The primary land selected for this project is a portion of meadow in what is a nationally registered historic landmark park. It is open space in the middle of a city surging in population. Dramatic landscape views, remarkable for their integrity, would be severed by a concrete structure the size of a large neighborhood fire station. Yet the Seattle Art Museum, foolishly courting controversy by avoiding broad public dialogue, continues to promote the expansion as “modest.”

Museum attorneys are asking the city council to amend land-use code currently prohibiting any expansion. They also want to define the new wing as a “park use,” like playgrounds and tennis courts, to avoid a city ordinance that explicitly prevents non-park use. They claim it will “activate” the land it envelops; a piece of land larger than 34 of Seattle’s pocket parks.

The city’s Landmarks Board, the Department of Construction and Inspections, citizens’ groups and now the Parks Department are asking hard questions about the need for taking park land. We are seeing a conflict between a landmark building and a landmark park.

One way out of this conflict is for the Seattle Art Museum to alter course, engage the public and seek creative input on how the museum might meet its goals. By clearly stating those goals and letting the public explore new and exciting alternatives, the museum might find itself in the proverbial win-win situation.

A few years ago, the Seattle Asian Art Museum was eager to renovate its landmark building. Now they are threatening to vacate if they can’t have an expansion. What changed? Why is museum failure now imminent?

Even the most ardent defenders of park open space want to see the museum thrive. Are there options for putting programs and storage off-site? What about going underground, an effective and art-friendly approach that renowned museums and architects have utilized worldwide.

Park lovers and museum lovers are one and the same. We have a remarkable museum in a glorious, irreplaceable park. We should be in no rush to do the wrong thing.