Many Seattle residents have grown up at the community center that the city built next to Green Lake in 1929 — playing basketball, shaping pottery, learning to swim.
Nearly 100 years later, in the heart of a city that also has grown, there’s now a plan to build by the lake once again.
The Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation this month released its conceptual design for a massive new building near the same spot as the existing center and pool, on the east side of the beloved park.
The new complex, according to the initial design by architects from Miller Hull Partnership and Berger Partnership, would triple the space of the worn-out current center — with an upper level overlooking the lake, child care and activity rooms, a vaulted welcome hall, a gym, locker rooms and two pools.
The architects used input from online open houses to sketch out the 90,000-square-foot project, which could cost more than three times as much as the most expensive community center Seattle has ever built.
The latest estimate is $100 million to $120 million for design, engineering and construction, said David Graves, a strategic adviser with the Parks Department. Rainier Beach’s new center and pool, which was completed in 2013, cost $32 million, Graves said.
Construction is probably at least five years away, with more design work to come, and the plan could very well change. Little money has been set aside at this point.
But the conceptual design has thrilled Michael Cuadra, who lives nearby and serves on the community center’s advisory council. Despite its cramped conditions and outdated amenities, the existing center welcomes more than 250,000 visitors annually (during non-pandemic times).
“They’ve designed a beautiful center,” Cuadra said. “When we think about community, that’s what this is — a place where people of any age, race, religion, income and ability can be together.” The Parks Department is also working on a plan to replace the Lake City Community Center, a low-slung building with scant amenities in a growing neighborhood.
Used for generations
Seattle has no singular “central park.” But Green Lake Park, designed in 1908 by the renowned Olmsted Brothers, has long been the city’s most visited public space. The area surrounding the community center includes basketball and tennis courts, playfields and a swimming beach.
Changes have been made to the area over the years, with a boathouse built in 1945, the center’s Evans Pool addition built in 1955 and a playground built in 1969 (which has been renovated since then). Sycamore trees planted in rows in 1929 to create an allée (garden walkway) are still standing.
The outdoor basketball courts are legendary in Seattle’s pickup-hoops scene. Countless kids have taken swim lessons under the distinctive concrete shell that arcs over Evans Pool.
“It’s where people have learned to swim for generations,” said Cuadra, who is active with the neighborhood’s Masons lodge.
The existing center is in bad shape. Case in point: The same day last year that the Parks Department requested bids to design a new complex, the pool had to close for repairs. The building shut down this March when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The Parks Department is taking the opportunity to carry out “stabilization work,” hoping new boilers and ventilation will keep the complex usable until at least 2025, when it could be demolished.
The Parks Department intended to solicit opinions about the new center as usual, via in-person meetings. But the virus scuttled that strategy, so it held online open houses, instead.
In May, the Parks Department asked about six potential locations, including the park’s bathhouse, its golf course and nearby Woodland Park. About 6,600 people visited the May website and about 3,200 answered questions, choosing the current spot as their preferred location.
Then in July, the Parks Department asked about three potential designs: a “park pavilion” option; a “lakeside porch” option near the beach; and an “urban connector” option near the street. About 2,000 visited the July website and about 700 provided input.
The Parks Department sent postcards about the open houses to more than 4,000 addresses in the neighborhood, posted fliers and promoted the websites on social media. Employees at other community centers were enlisted to spread the word.
For both open houses, at least 80% of people who answered said they were white and more than 70% said they were homeowners. In May, only 6% were under age 30. Transportation modes were more diverse, with 39% usually visiting Green Lake’s center by car, 35% by foot, 17% on bikes or skates and 7% by transit.
Andrea Regateiro, who visited the existing center with her toddler almost every day before COVID-19 struck, didn’t have a chance to participate in the open houses, she said last week during a stroll around the lake.
Regateiro will miss the art deco building if it gets demolished. “It needs upkeep, but I wouldn’t tear it down,” she said.
Following the open houses, the city’s architects selected popular elements from each design option to create their plan.
They kept the center in the same spot as today’s building, preserving the park’s playfields and sycamore walkway. But they moved the parking lot closer to the street and the playground closer to the beach. They also added a lakeside porch and huge windows, boosting natural light and views.
The lawn that surrounds the existing playground would disappear. New trees would be planted elsewhere. The outdoor basketball courts would move only slightly, and bocce courts could be added. The complex’s welcome hall would run east-west, bisecting the structure.
The north section of the complex would house the two swimming pools and locker rooms. The south section would house the gym and a hygiene center. Child care and activity rooms would face the lake on two levels.
The design would allow the gym and hygiene center to be used as a bad-weather homeless shelter, Graves said. The gym would still be located next to the outdoor basketball courts, with garage doors that could be raised for indoor-outdoor tournaments, he said.
The project was allocated $1 million this year by City Hall, with that money covering the conceptual design and other early-stage work.
Though the pool’s “eggshell roof” of ultra-thin concrete could be designated as a landmark, the Parks Department expects to demolish the building, Graves said. The new design could incorporate a nod to the historic top, he said.
Yet another open house, available online until Dec. 4, includes a survey about potential amenities, including a waterslide and a climbing wall.
Anna Gomersall, a college student who visited Green Lake last week, said indoor tennis courts would be an asset. Neha Patadia, who stopped by with her children, wants to see programs that connect kids with nature, she said.
Another question is how to raise $120 million. Before the design process led the project to grow in scope, the city assumed the Seattle Park District would pay. The property-tax district was supposed to adopt a new six-year budget this year, perhaps with a higher tax rate. That process was postponed due to COVID-19, and the latest cost estimate means other sources likely will also need to be tapped, Graves said, mentioning grants and municipal bonds.
In 2017, the Parks Department broached the idea of partnering with a nonprofit like the YMCA to help build and run a new Green Lake center. It shelved that strategy after some neighbors raised concerns about privatization.
Some critics may challenge the $120 million price tag, as they did a century ago when City Hall approved a $120,000 bid to construct the current building.
“The City Council is displaying some highfaluting ideas in the so-called fieldhouses which it is building on Park Board property,” a Seattle Times column complained back then.
Supporters can point out how long the existing center has served the neighborhood, and how many lives the new complex could improve. It would draw visitors from across North Seattle, coordinating with smaller centers, Graves said.
“It’s something that’s going to be in service for a long time,” Cuadra said. “It’s something that millions of people are going to enjoy.”
Lake City’s new center, which could house a gym and child care rooms, also will be considered for Park District support next year. City Hall already has earmarked $16.5 million for that project.
Weighing the plan for an exceptional new Green Lake center against needs in other parks across the city “is the next step,” Graves said.