Art museum’s expansion faces review amid opposition from Volunteer Park neighbors

As officials try to help steer a planned $49 million overhaul and expansion of Volunteer Park’s 83-year-old Seattle Asian Art Museum toward a 2019 celebration of a new life for the cultural center, residents of the wealthy neighborhoods surrounding the park have rallied to oppose the plan as it enters a key environmental review.

From protectvolunteerpark.org, a citizen-created site dedicated to stopping the expansion of the museum:

Send comment letters to PRC@seattle.gov and be sure to reference Master Use Project # 3024753. You can also enter this number at this City web site to see project documents. In commenting on an environmental review, it is helpful to reference questions from the SEPA Environmental Checklist such as: What views in the immediate vicinity would be altered or obstructed? Would the proposed project displace any existing recreational uses? What measures do you propose to avoid, minimize or mitigate for deliberate impacts to historic structures or cultural resources?

As of Monday, around twenty letter writers had answered the call. You can see some of their thoughts above. And here, below. The good news is you, too, can be a Seattle Asian Art Museum Master Use Permit commenter — your email to PRC@seattle.gov referencing project #3024753 is due by Wednesday, November 30th. UPDATE: The city has been petitioned to hold a public meeting on the land use approval. It has been scheduled for December 15th at Miller Community Center. In the meantime, you can continue to provide public comment via email or at the upcoming meeting.

CHS attended the most recent community meeting discussing the project from the Seattle Art Museum in collaboration with Seattle Parks and Recreation on November 19. The session helped answer a few questions and provided a forum for community members to voice concerns and opinions on the proposed project to extend the Asian Art Museum into Volunteer Park.

The planned fall 2017 project would expand the Asian Art Museum 3,600 square feet into the park from the east side of the 1933 historic building. The museum aims to add more display space to represent South Asia and India as well as fix infrastructure issues including a climate control system, seismic upgrades, and making the museum ADA accessible, Seattle Art Museum director Kimerly Rorschach said.

“It’s not surprising there are some people, especially in the immediate neighborhood of Volunteer Park, who don’t like the idea of any expansion into the park,” Rorschach said. “I certainly understand that and we’ve tried to be as thoughtful and as modest about that as possible in our proposal.”

The project could be part of a decade of work lined up for the park’s features as the early 20th century elements of the much-loved green space age and require costly upgrades and replacement.

The proposed SAAM project is estimated to cost $49 million. According to Rorschach, 60% will come from private donors, 20% from earned revenue like admissions, and the last 20% from their endowment fund and other sources.

UPDATE 11/30/2016: Here is how the city breaks down the budget for the project from minutes from a parks board meeting (PDF) shared with us by Jonathan in the comments, below. A 2014 agreement approved by the City Council reactivated million of city funds for the project — funds first set aside as part of the 2008 parks levy. In the just signed 2017-2018 budget, the city has allocated $14 million from those funds to go toward the project.

screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-8-23-17-am

Some residents were concerned with increased traffic the expansion could bring. The museum currently sees an average of 80,000 visitors every year and think the expansion would increase visitors to 100,000, Rorschach said.

“Our mission is not to enrich ourselves,” Rorschach said. “We’re not trying to draw a jillion more people, we are trying to serve the audiences we have better and grow them appropriately to the size of the facility.”

Members of the community at the latest session were divided in their opinions of the expansion, with some voicing concern about the lack of input from surrounding neighbors.

Elisabeth Humphreys has been a resident in the neighborhood for five years and was concerned about the impact the expansion would have on nature in the park, she said.

“It will tear my heart out to see all the construction,” Humphreys said. “They [SAM] don’t care about the community. The way to win in this environmental situation is to build programs that help people not infrastructure that is profit-motivated.”

Other community members were open to the idea of the expansion. Bob Corwin, a neighbor in support of the project, spoke during the community event.

“There is anger a lot of anger here,” Corwin said to the crowd. “I saw from the first meeting, the museum is at a fork in the road. I’ve followed from the beginning the design process, and as far as I’m concerned, they’ve done very well in confiding with us.”

The community forums are held in high regard when planning, Rorschach said. For example, the original plan of the expansion was to include a landscape terrace area with a seating for both museum patrons and the public. However, after concern from community members that it didn’t match “the Olmsted vision,” the museum withdrew the idea.

“To some, but maybe not to all, the museum expansion is a great addition to the park,” she said.

Rorschach might be right. CHS also found two letters from neighbors supporting the project:

Maybe after Wednesday, officials will find more.

An additional meeting will take place Saturday, December 10 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum from 1:00 to 2:30 PM. For more information, check out seattleartmuseum.org/inspire.

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26 thoughts on “Art museum’s expansion faces review amid opposition from Volunteer Park neighbors

  1. People in Seattle will complain about anything. The area behind the museum is awful and this makes it look better with a modest expansion. If you really want to get passionate with something about Volunteer Park, how about doing something with the reservoir and the awful giant fence around it.

  2. Happily something is being done about the reservoir. A seismic study is due to be finished in 2017 and determine whether it can be taken offline.

    http://www.seattle.gov/util/cs/groups/public/@spu/@water/documents/webcontent/1_053731.pdf

    The document notes, “If SPU were to proceed with decommissioning the reservoir, Seattle Parks and Recreation would conduct a thorough process to determine the best future parks and recreation use of the property. This process would include many opportunities for public involvement and feedback.”

    It is not so surprising that the public would wish to be involved in deciding what is to be built in our park using our money.

    All of these capital projects compete with each other: Expanding the museum, working on the reservoir, major maintenance of the water tower (and everything else constituting the $267 million Parks major maintenance backlog). There are priority decisions to be made. Bravo for having the public involved.

    • The funds for the museum expansion are not coming at the expense of the park. The article states, “According to Rorschach, 60% will come from private donors, 20% from earned revenue like admissions, and the last 20% from their endowment fund and other sources.” I don’t see anything about public funds being used so there’s no prioritization decisions to be made between the two. Nice try, though.

    • That is an error or misunderstanding, public funds are very much involved. The project funding was described in a City memo last month as follows.

      $49M estimated Project Budget, from the following sources:
      $19.0M Requested from the city of Seattle as part of Mayor’s Capital Improvement
      Program
      $2.0M in original Funding from Seattle for Design and Planning
      $5.0M in estimated Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits
      $1.5M Requested from Washington State Building for the Arts – To be confirmed
      $1.4M from King County
      $20.1M in Private Contributions

      http://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/ParksAndRecreation/Minutes/2015/2016%2010-27%20BPC%20Minutes%20APPROVED.pdf

    • P.S. My comment about the reservoir was in reply to a comment which has apparently been deleted now. I didn’t know it was possible to delete one’s comments on CHS or did this happen as an accident?

      To those who fear the building becoming derelict, remember that SAM leases this City-owned building at a cost of $0, with the City also paying for utilities, maintenance and custodial services. So, (A) I can’t see SAM walking away from this deal. (B) If they do walk away, the building becomes derelict only to the extent the City is unwilling to extend such favoritism to other institutions providing value for the community. Which admittedly is a possibility since it is unclear why SAM is currently the recipient of such generous favors.

    • re: reservoir comment you were replying to, I’m not showing any comment removed by CHS from this thread. I’d be interested to know more about what you saw if you have the inclination and time — email chs at capitolhillseattle.com?

  3. Gee, has the author identified those horrible people in the “wealthy neighborhoods surrounding the park” to be sure they are outed and harassed? Does the author assume the only letter writers voicing concern are “wealthy neighbors?” Those letter writers, (I doubt they are all wealthy or solely from the surrounding neighborhood) should be allowed to voice their concern without being jumped on.

    If you want to make a snide comment about people that live near the park, remember this: they pay exorbitant property taxes, many in the neighborhood volunteer to clean the park, and are very good stewards of the area and therefore might have be worried about how the museum project will affect the park they love.

    There is not a lot of green space left in this city.

    • omg, wealthy people around the park need to get off the cross with their “exorbitant property taxes” whining. they new the value of the property when they purchased it and could have easily determined how much it would cost them in taxes to live there.

      and, “not a lot of green space”? we are talking less than 1% of the available park space. i guarantee that you wouldn’t miss it. like when the park neighbors to the west encroached on park land to expand their backyards. did you miss that space then?

      lastly, i checked out the screenshots of the letters and didn’t see a single piece of personally identifiable information in them. so how are these people being “called out”? besides, if someone is so passionate about keeping this tiny little patch of unused park the way it is, why wouldn’t they be willing to own up to it?

  4. I wrote to support the expansion as well. The Asian Art Museum is jam-packed full of treasures (not to mention the Museum itself being an architectural treasure), much of which has to remain buried in storage for lack of adequate display space. The lawn behind is not particularly used by park-goers, compared to the rest of the park. In fact, the one time it *was* used was to make a dog-park — that promptly killed every blade of grass in it, while denying other park-goers any use or enjoyment. This addition won’t block any of the park’s iconic features; it’s actually a very unobtrusive addition. I have no doubt that when it’s finally finished and has been around a while, folks will wonder why there was any complaining in the first place.

  5. I am one of those living in large house near the park. I pay about 28K in property taxes! I LOVE the expansion and have made my support known. Likewise my partner. This is not a NIMBY issue so much as irrational fear of god knows what by a few vocal opponents who are quite emotive but their point escapes me. I enter the park past the blight of the current east side of the museum. It is dark, the victim of bad past structural changes, has a useless loading dock, ugly outside stairwell and few people ever there in a highly shaded area. The actual encroachment footprint is literally less than a quarter of a percent of the 44 or so acres of the park. This is a solid win for the city and neighborhood. Believe me, nobody on my affluent street has said anything about this being bad for our property or quality of life. The contrary is the case. We will have a visual amenity where none presently exists, a better museum and a point of pride. We are lucky as a city to have donors who can afford to update the museum rather than it become a dead building, which is certainly the case in many less prosperous cities.
    And I fully agree that the reservoir is well worth our attention. It won’t be covered unless they decide that it is needed for drinking water, due to the high cost of cover. It might be needed for fire protection in which case the water remains. If decommissioned, it could be removed and landscaped. But if we are stuck with open water, the ugly chain link fence needs to go, and we have to figure out a way to make it beautiful while being mindful of safety. I walked it the other day and came to the conclusion that it is potentially dangerous as a pond or people friendly watering hole, because the walls are steep and there is no slope. A person who can’t swim who ends up in that water will be lost. I profess my lack of imagination and am hopeful that quality landscape architects can repurpose this in a way that would add several acres to this treasure of a park.

  6. This has nothing to do with NIMBY or wealth or museum hating. It’s not even about city money. It’s about parks. Trees, views, green spaces. What SAAM wants to build is big. What they already have is huge. The parks advocates aren’t anti-art, they are pro open space.
    Personally, I’d like to see the museum demolished and the park returned to it’s original landscaping. The back of the museum is ugly because it sure is. People might love the building, but it’s hard to love it as a lightless tomb in the middle of a landscaped park.
    At least tear off the tasteless mid-century additions and return the building to it’s original design. And then add a few windows why don’t ya.

  7. Here’s my hot take: to the vocal minority of opponents, this isn’t about green space or parks or museum hating, but it is very much about NIMBY; to the extent that updating and improving a cultural institution very well may draw an increased flow of visitors to this secluded corner of the Hill and put unreasonable pressure on parking spaces and elbow room, and clog up the landscape with undesirable or uncouth humans hitherto unmotivated to wander into this uncluttered and genteel domain.

    • The Capitol Hill Blog contributor’s favorite insult to people having an opposing view, “NIMBY”. What is bad about having a sense of community, caring about your neighborhood. The attitude of some here seems to be less than charitable, more like give me what I want and screw them.

  8. I have the feeling that it is only a vocal handful of neighbors who are objecting to this project. I truly don’t understand why they are doing so. The addition is well-designed and will add some much-needed display space, in addition to structural updating, and will occupy very little park space in an area which is underutilized and not very attractive.

    • Hoo boy these people sure are riled up on nextdoor.

      The only objection they raise that I find the least bit compelling is that construction will be disruptive in the park. But cry me a river, everyone else in Seattle lives next to a disruptive construction site too.

    • Hi, since you said you didn’t understand I will try to summarize our issues briefly. Volunteer Park is a world-famous work of landscape art, listed as “nationally significant” (unlike the museum) which is the highest classification, and legally protected from adverse impacts. “Underutilized” is a value judgment. The Olmsted Brothers intentionally designed landscapes with some areas more secluded for quiet enjoyment of nature, with other areas more social. The whole park is not supposed to be crowded. The back of the museum building is currently not beautiful but that is not a reason to impose additional adverse impacts on the Olmsted designed landscape. If the building’s appearance could be improved with its present footprint, that would be fine.

      Nobody objects to the structural updating (seismic/HVAC). However the additions are not designed to fit well with the park. The east addition is a 49 foot tall box, taller and more imposing than any other face of the building (because its foot extends downhill), designed primarily for realizing nice views from within. There was no serious public involvement process in the needs assessment and design, as required by City policy. True public notification (signs/mailings) began only toward the end of October 2016.

      The design does not prioritize “much-needed display space”. There is a new gallery but there will also be a loss of display space in the historic Garden Court, which will have most of its South Asian art removed in order to be converted into a “connecting” aka rental space. Multiple new functions are being added to the building: conservation lab, function rooms separated from education rooms, and glassed in “park lobby” (with lots of natural light which prevents the display of most types of art). The missing public involvement process has allowed SAM to make these decisions unilaterally without any need to explain its dismissal of the many possible alternatives. Hope that helps…

    • @jonathan mark

      Some of us still don’t understand.

      To your first point about “significance”: Yes, the park itself is registered nationally as a “historic place” but so is the museum; as of this year – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seattle_Asian_Art_Museum.

      Regarding your point about adverse impacts, please clarify what these adverse impacts will be by allowing the expansion. Do you mean that the park will become crowded with more people patronizing the museum? Museum officials have already stated that they only expect yearly attendance to grow by about 10K; that’s less than 200 additional people per week. So I think the Olmstead brothers’ intent is still there. But you are correct, the usage of .25% of park land for this expansion is a value judgement that many in city government and the community think is a worthwhile trade-off.

      About public notification, from this post on this very blog – http://www.capitolhillseattle.com/2016/09/seattle-asian-art-museum-puts-its-latest-expansion-designs-on-display/ – there were public meetings that began in September on 9/29, then again on 10/15 and 11/19. With public comments being accepted until 11/30 and a final meeting on 12/10. Seems like there’s plenty of opportunity to weigh in on this before a planned 2/2017 construction start.

      Lastly, I’m curious; how many of the neighbors of the park, that oppose this expansion, are ones that encroached on park land a few years back – http://www.capitolhillseattle.com/2010/05/slog-federal-ave-homeowners-using-volunteer-park-as-private-backyards/?

      Is this a case of sour grapes because some of you were forced to remove your hot tubs and zip lines? Back in 2010 there was 2,800 sq feet of park land (compared to 3,600 sq feet for the museum expansion) that private property owners were using as their own. Where were the neighborhood complaints about losing park land then?

      Personally, I don’t see that you all have a compelling argument and I hope more of the neighborhood writes in to support the expansion; as I have done.

    • Sure, good questions,
      The point about significance is a bit technical and maybe I didn’t need to get into it. Volunteer Park and the Museum are both listed in the National Register but Volunteer Park is registered with “National” status which is the highest level (although not however being on the list of National Historic Landmarks which is different).

      By adverse impacts I primarily mean the impact on landscape views. People all over east Volunteer Park (and even on the front porch of the Conservatory) will see this tall boxy structure that blocks the previous view of plants, trees, lawn, and sky. The Olmsted brothers had a phrase for this in 1910: “The landscape ceases to be a naturalistic park landscape, and becomes a building landscape.” There is also the footprint area that will no longer be available for public use (and is the top of a sledding hill), and an exceptional beech tree becoming half-enclosed by the building and shaded in winter.

      Regarding public involvement, Parks public involvement policy requires that the public be involved at the beginning of the design process, not merely commenting on one design (as here) or even choosing between two or three. The public needed to be consulted about the very necessity for this addition. Also there are very specific requirements for public notification which were not met. The meetings were run by SAM, promoted primarily to SAM’s constituency, and were listed as being about only “renovation”, not expansion (until people began to protest).

      That is an interesting theory that the opponents are motivated by anger over having to remove their park encroachments. I actually did get a letter that some old fenceposts and wire had to come out, but it was a simple matter to pull them up. I hadn’t known how they got there (for all I knew they were part of the park) and I was fine with the encroachments being removed. That area of the park is nicer now. Over 400 people have signed our petition (mostly park users) and I guarantee they were not all encroaching property owners. No, I am motivated because I like the park and sometimes it needs the people nearby to stand up and speak for it when it is threatened with harm, and this is one of those times.

    • @Jonathan Mark

      Thanks, Jonathan for that clarification.

      I think we can all agree that both the park and the museum building are historically significant and recognized as such; regardless of official titles.

      But I disagree with your assessment of the adverse impacts. The views that likely would be most impacted would be from those walking from the northeast entrance of the park towards the water tower (and I feel they’d be improved over the blank back wall of the building that’s there now). The views of the addition from the Conservatory would mostly be blocked by the Copper Beech, European Beech and Yoshina Cherry trees (per this – http://crow.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Screen-Shot-2016-09-29-at-9.58.00-PM.png); not counting the numerous shrubs dotting the landscape.

      I did a Google Maps street-view look-up of Highland Dr. running through the park, and from the statue all i could see was a small corner of the existing building’s peaked roof. Of course it looks like the images were taken in the spring when all the trees were leafed out; so it might be more noticeable in the late fall/winter. Additionally I would note that the expansion is shorter than the peaked roof of the existing structure.

      I can’t speak to public involvement outside of the September-to-present meetings. Sounds like this improvement was funded by a 2008 levy, delayed, reactivated in 2014 and was part of the budget for 2017/18. After reading the Parks’ policies on public involvement it seems they, and not SAM, dropped the ball on getting input in the 2008/2014 approvals; or at very minimum, didn’t spell out the impacts their budgetary asks would have on users of the park. So it seems this is more on Parks than it is on SAM.

      But when all’s said, I personally don’t see an issue with relinquishing 3,600 square feet (about the size of a med-to-large home) to provide greater connection to the park from the museum as well as affording our city the opportunity to better care for, and possibly showcase, more art. To me the trade-off is fair.

  9. Parks and museums coexist beautifully in Paris, Amsterdam and other European cities. It brings people to both spaces to enjoy them in community. Americans are simply afraid of the co-mingling of large #s of people. I vote for progressive modernization every time. Everyone has the right to have their voice heard. That, too, would be progress.

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