A look at all sides in Seattle Asian Art Museum expansion debate

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.

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47 thoughts on “A look at all sides in Seattle Asian Art Museum expansion debate

    • Only if the two 3-bedroom houses are 49 feet tall, which they cannot be because the zoning limits building heights in the neighborhood to 30 feet. The project’s proponents seek City Council action to modify the code, which is another hurdle for the project, along with Landmarks Board approval. I don’t really agree that the Environmental Review is the last significant hurdle.

      Another speaker last night described the addition’s volume as equivalent to that of 60 shipping containers.

    • The 49 feet tall that Jonathan speaks of is far more imposing when you consider the significant slope down to the east. – and the outward projection of the expansion will exaggerate that to where the building overwhelms that green space.

    • If the museum wishes to be fair on how the expansion will affect the park why not build a mock up of the expansion. The cost of a mock up would be insignificant compared to the project cost. That would show good faith on their part after what has seemed like a stealth project trying to fly unnoticed.

    • @Bob… just because you declare it is modest won’t make it so. No matter how many times I say it is 90 degrees outside does not make it so. Yes it is 90 degrees somewhere in the world. And yes in another setting this size expansion might be considered modest.

    • Many famous museums have expanded and upgraded without changing their footprint by expanding underground. This could be done in the front of the museum under the west patio without taking parkland.

      • With over 2,000,000 square feet of open space, is the loss of those particular 3,360 square feet truly that critical? Doesn’t having another 3,000,000 square feet of open space at Interlaken Park just a few blocks away help? Would saving 3,360 square feet be worth compromising the exquisite historically signficant Carl Gould facade?

    • @Dana, there are many levels to this issue. It is not just about green space. Let my list in no particular importance as they all are important.
      1. Historic landmark Park by Olmsted Brothers with the intent to keep all buildings out or on periphery so if they wanted to expand it wouldn’t change the park atmosphere.
      2. Parkland is supposed to be protected by initiative 42, so that it illegal to use parkland for anything but park use and would require a zoning change to make it legal.
      3. By law the public and discussion are supposed to be included in the early stages of any such proposals which didn’t happen with this project.
      4. The museum is required and has yet to prove why they need to go outside their footprint for renovations. Many museums have this issue and have solved it by expanding underground or moving to where they can expand. Yes this could be done without damaging the facade.
      5. The 50′ high expansion is incredibly intrusive to many of us and takes away from our local neighborhood oasis. We hate the design. We do not see the benefit for park users… only for museum users. The backside of the museum can be beautified without taking parkland.
      6. The museum doesn’t pay rent or utilities and will probably never be viable. No matter how much they protest, it looks like they intend use much of the proposed expansion for social events at the tax payer, park user and non-members expense.

    • @Sheilan. You’re quiet the hypocrite for telling Bob that “just because you declare it is modest won’t make it so” when you yourself declared “It’s not a modest expansion” earlier in the thread. If you’re going to discount somebody’s opinion I hope you’re fulling willing to except that your opinion is discounted as well. As an aside, I’m guessing that you’re posting as more than one person in this thread, to make it look like your crazy opinions have more support than they do.

    • @ Ben

      Real issues are at play here: the growth of a cultural institution vs. the taking of park land. A robust conversation about this could go a long way toward making reasonable decisions. SAM chose the adjective “modest” to use in their public relations materials, mailings, city applications and presentations. Even some officials actively supporting the project are now dropping this term as “value laden” and therefore disingenuous in describing the physical implications of expanding the museum. Educated arguments on both sides can move past “spin” in making a case.
      Choosing expressions to describe people is also relevant here. I know Sheilan. Attacking her personally does not help anyone’s cause. Her views on this are heartfelt. She is earnestly trying to protect a park. Maybe try to admire that while disagreeing with her.

  1. This is a modest expansion. I can’t believe the bizarre statements of the opponents. We are lucky to have the museum and people willing to donate significant sums to improve it and the park. The opponents are relatively few, but disproportionately vocal. You can send comments to prc@seattle.gov for or against.

  2. Think of the poor, hypothetical birds and people who might feel less relaxed by being looked at through a window while they are outside.

  3. The corner of Volunteer Park where the expansion would be located is very lightly used — in fact, the whole portion of the park east of the museum receives very light usage. Many times I’ve walked through there, and there’s no one there at all. It’s virtually never crowded. This modest addition will be a great way to put some of the space to good use.

    The opposition seems to be very anti-art, proposing absurd things like move the museum out of Volunteer Park, depriving our neighborhood of the huge benefit from having a wonderful, world-class place for exhibiting art, as well as useful community meeting spaces. Or even more ridiculous, demanding that the art museum waste money to build a mock-up (apparently at scale), because, the opponent claims, in the middle of a debate on this blog about the project, that someone is trying to sneak through the project, which incidentally, has been announced with several huge posters in the park itself. Or, the really goofy claim that the addition would create a reverse-fish-bowl, whatever that means. Like, when you’re in a public park, it’s important to feel like you’re not being seen by anyone?

    Ready, set, chant: nimby, nimby, nimby!

    • One of the purposes of the park is to *be* large enough that there’s almost always someplace to be kind of alone. Literally, that’s part of the Olmstead design, as a balance to a crowded city.

      (2) This part might be less busy than much of the park because it’s often shaded… by the existing museum. Making the museum taller extends the shaded part, so it affects territory that’s not actually under the footprint.

    • Fully agree. NIMBY and paranoid. The protests are theoretical, with a good dose of fiction as to the scale, the size. No mention of the benefits to improving the structure, which is rather ugly from the back. No mention of the improvements on the fire escape and loading dock. No mention that a great many neighbors are in favor of it. No mention of the fact that the city engages in all sorts of rezones and approvals of much more substantive changes. The park is cared for by many. The museum is one of the caretakers of the park. The opposition continues to make no meaningful case that negates the concrete benefits of the museum upgrade.

      My my, deleting comments of detractors. This is getting personal Sheilan. I considered a positive comment but feared from the past statements and behaviors that my comment would be deleted by those who can’t handle rational discourse. Perhaps someone can start a petition in favor of it. Don’t need to use inflammatory language. I sure hope it is approved, both for the benefits, and to demonstrate that the public is far more than a small group of censoring people. Or is it just one person?

    • Why is your last line an insult?
      Is Donald Trump now the arbiter of our style of discourse?
      Do I call you “Little Marco” because I don’t agree with your position.
      NIMBY, I have lived in this neighborhood for 52 years.
      I walk through Volunteer Park once a week at least.
      I should be subject to your insult and attempts to belittle my concern for a park that is dear to me.
      You don’t want a discourse. You just want to bully your way with insult.

  4. I have taken the challenge and am posting a petition in favor of the project:


    This is my first change.org petition and I see it needs a small number to become more visible. The current petition in opposition has about 250 signatures as I write this.

    I invite you to sign this and share it if you support the museum’s proposal. And your comments are perhaps the most important component of your response.

    • @Shawn… that’s rich. I politely encourage you supporters to get your own petition and I get called a name or a derogatory term. Well stick and stones.

      @love the park and museum… I deleted a comment, which was an anti comment and i encourage you to do the same on your own petition. Petitions are not a place for discourse or at least ours isn’t.

      @ Brian Grant What about your petition… are you going to allow anti-comments?

    • Exactly Tim, and kudos to Brian for taking this on. I have also called attention to a number of fabrications and exaggeration in communications from the opposing camp. Good to see the ship being righted. And great to see respondents pointing out the highly significant global cultural implications of the expansion project.

    • If there are fabrications & exaggerations, can you please point them out and provide corrections using facts? Thank you!

  5. Volunteer Park has over 2,000,000 square feet of open space. The SAAM expansion will only take up about 2,000 square feet or 0.1% of the park area. The arguments against it bases on the loss of such an insignificant loss of green space are non-sensical.

  6. I’ve been an apartment dweller for 35 years and haven’t had a yard since I was a kid, so I may feel differently to others – but as such city parks are my green space.
    The back of SAAM already throws that side of the park into shadow early so of course it’s less used, but it’s still part of the property and the experience of walking the park.
    I’ve read all the details of the proposed plan and I think there is a workaround without building further into the park.
    I of course support all internal upgrades to the building, but not more of SAAM in the park.

  7. @ love the park and museum

    “opposition continues to make no meaningful case that negates the concrete benefits of the museum upgrade”

    Concrete benefits! In a park. Good one!

  8. Volunteer Park and Museum

    I walked through Volunteer Park again last night on the east path behind the Museum – looking at the back of the building and imagining the expansion.
    The building as it stands is imposing. Its height towers over that park space.
    The Saving factor is that it is a quiet facade. It is simply there, and other than just being there it makes no claim on that green space.
    That cannot be said of the proposed expansion. The flying glass view deck, The expanses of glass windows looking out on the green, the further extension of the towering roof line claim ownership by pure force of visual dominance.
    This is more than a simple expansion. This is a egotistical expression, a peacock strutting its feathers, demanding attention at the loss of this quiet green.
    If the museum has to have the expansion and can’t practically accomplish this by other means, then make the expansion facade a quiet, softer expression – lower the height to conforming, eliminate the protruding glass deck, reduce the glass to a minimum.
    This would at least be a nod to the Olmsted concept of park, a retreat from concrete, buildings, the city, a place to connect to nature.

    • Well said Dennis. The museum could also dig out a basement expansion in the front without changing the look of the building and taking parkland. They could get the upgrades and more space and it would be win/win. We object to the peacock taking away our park landscape views. We go to park to get away from buildings.

    • Have you actually looked at the very ugly corner of the museum that would be upgraded by this? Unlike most of the museum facade, it is ugly gray concrete that surrounds a corner of the park where usually no one goes. Your “peacock” analogy sounds good, but it’s certainly not the way I see it, or the way the many other visitors to the park, who avoid this corner, seem to react to the “quiet” facade that doesn’t invite anyone.

  9. May I recommend nearby Interlaken Park, which is actually larger than Volunteer Park at 51.7 acres, for those who wish to experience relatively untouched nature on Capitol Hill. The trails are very nice and one even sees wildlife. One is usually alone there.

    On my bookshelf but as yet unread is a book about Olmsted, by Witold Rybczynski, who is a brilliant writer and architectural historian, whose other books I have enjoyed. The book is referenced here:


    The summaries note that he was a designer of many mixed spaces – many of which were decidedly suffused with structures. Such as Boston’s Back Bay Fenway, The Stanford University Campus, Central Park and many more. Invoking him as a proponent of urban wilderness, which seems to be the case by some on this issue, quite oversimplifies and is inaccurate. In any event, I once hired an architect and the process was iterative – not one-sided with a vision imposed on the client. We the people and visitors to Seattle are the clients of the parks, and in this case, the museum is the client of the design firms retained. Suggesting that the park is to be untouched by change rather than change thoughtfully wrought is a non-starter. Reasonable people can and are disagreeing about specifics on the museum project but Olmsted in his time solved challenges and achieved greatness as a result. Our city is beset by thoughtless projects, in many cases designed to max out a lot, and build with the cheapest materials, achieving immediate eyesore status. Here we are blessed with a legacy project that is carefully designed, costly in part due to high quality materials, and meant to last and have design and artistic merit. What a lost opportunity it would be for all, including those opposed – who might likely forget their current concerns, if this project got away.


    • That is a well thought out comment. The Olmsteds did indeed design many different types of parks, taking into account all aspects of the particular situation. For Volunteer Park, they chose to create a landscape park because of its role in providing a naturalistic respite from the urban density that was already booming in the early 1900’s. It is not a relatively unimproved area like Interlaken, it is a specifically planned and constructed landscape.

      On October 11, 1910, the Olmsted firm explained these distinctions in a letter to Seattle’s park commissioners:

      “Volunteer Park belongs to the class of parks which may be distinguished from ornamental public squares, public gardens and public playgrounds by the designation ‘landscape park’. In a landscape park the planning and improvement of its landscape possibilities should always be the first consideration.”

      I am sorry to have given you the impression that I have abandoned all reason. You say the city is beset by constructions which are eyesores. But for each of those, I’m sure there is somebody who reasonably thinks the form and materials were appropriate for the situation. Maybe we can allow each other the same room for reasonable disagreement.

  10. The Olmsted plan for Volunteer park is already much changed by the SAM building. The eastern side is difficult and has a history of being underused, or the dog wars, and just gloomy. The value of SAM in the park is proven. The renovations and expansion are necessary to the success and well being of the museum. The landscape improvements/ restoration goes a long was to making the best of this area, as well as site lines and the SE entry mess, ADA and lighting. This park belongs to the city and has regional importance, offering culture and recreation for people all over town. Please support our civic park and it’s institutions.

  11. Thank you, Brian, for starting this petition. I have signed and also posted on FB. And please, people, do NOT sign the “Landmark Park Threatened by Government Sellout” petition with the hope of posting a good faith, rational comment in favor of the project. It’s clear from Sheilan’s snarky comment that you will be censored.

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