We can work this out. The proposed overhaul and expansion of the 83-year-old Seattle Asian Art Museum has become a bone of contention in the neighborhood around Volunteer Park. Another three dozen citizens had their say on the potential environmental impact of the project — including views and park use — Thursday night, adding to the dozens of letters already received on the project from all sides in the argument. During Thursday night’s proceedings, CHS heard arguments in support of the project and others with hopes of scaling it back. Here is a look at both sides.
The meeting on Thursday drew about 40 commenters on the project. A little more than half spoke in favor of the planned fall 2017 project that would expand the Asian Art Museum 3,600 square feet into the park from the east side of the 1933 historic building. The museum plans to add more display space to represent South Asia and India as well as fix infrastructure issues including a climate control system and seismic upgrades, while making the museum ADA accessible.
Here is what we heard from the proponents Thursday night:
- The expansion fits in the Olmsted vision and the museum has engaged the community and made changes based on public input.
- The expansion and climate control will allow the museum to have exhibitions it can’t currently, Charlie Wright, a 20-year Capitol Hill resident, Seattle Art Museum board member and Seattle Parks board member said.
- “I can’t think of more important thing … to do than to help people learn and see the world as others see it,” one speaker said.
- The demand for offerings at the museum has increased and it cannot fulfill its mission without more space, care, conservation, safety and climate control, director and CEO of SAM Kim Rorschach said.
- “It’s going to allow SAAM to take its amazing programming in new directions,” said another speaker.
- “Seattle has become a world-class city, which needs world-class museums,” architectural historian Henry Matthews said. “…This will be one of the most important Asian art museums anywhere.”
- Mary Roberts, who has been an educator for 30 years, supports the project to give teachers more access to Asian art.
- “People have argued for the life of a tree, but I would argue for a piece of my culture,” said Glenn Nelson, a Japanese-American Seattleite.
Of course, there is always another way to look at history. Many opposed to the work also evoked the vision of the original designs for Volunteer Park in their opportunity at the microphone, saying the project does not fit the Olmsted vision. And, unlike most of the proponents who felt the public process around the expansion had been open and well communicated, the recurring theme from those in opposition to the project is that there haven’t been enough public notices and chances to provide input.
Other issues raised Thursday night included:
- Impacts such as sightline, shadows and harm to trees need to be considered.
- Dennis O’Leary, a 53-year neighborhood resident, said the park area near the museum won’t feel as relaxed as the glass expansion will create a “fishbowl in reverse.”
- The museum should move to another neighborhood.
- SAAM hasn’t demonstrated why it needs to expand.
- “I’m also concerned about birds hitting the glass,” one commenter said.
- “The population is exploding. This is not a good time to be taking away green space,” Eliza Davidson said. “… It’s actually a travesty.”
- “This will be a beacon into the park,” said a commenter speaking about the light through the glass addition.
While there will be additional approval from City Hall departments required and a City Council land use code change, the environmental approval of the expansion and overhaul plans is the most significant last hurdle for the $49 million project.