Standing ovation for design for new Volunteer Park amphitheater, still questions about museum expansion

Members of the Capitol Hill community spoke with Owen Richards Architects and the Volunteer Park Trust on April 6 at the Volunteer Park Conservatory (Image:)

Members of the Capitol Hill community spoke with Owen Richards Architects and the Volunteer Park Trust about the new amphitheater designs on April 6 at the Volunteer Park Conservatory (Image: Grace Kramer for CHS)

By Grace Kramer, UW News Lab / Special to CHS

The Volunteer Park amphitheater renovation project is drawing closer to approval and residents gathered Thursday night to discuss the proposed designs.

Owen Richards Architects and the Volunteer Park Trust invited the community for an open house on the proposed designs for the Volunteer Park amphitheater and there were lots of opinions, especially about another Volunteer Park renovation project, the Seattle Asian Art Museum expansion.

“It’s the first design I’ve seen in Seattle recently that’s actually an improvement,”  said Marge Mackinnon, a Capitol Hill resident, about the new amphitheater.

The SAAM expansion, on the other hand?

“There are lots of art museums in Seattle,” said Mackinnon, “To destroy part of the park sucks.”

This isn’t the first time that the public has had a chance to see the amphitheater’s proposed designs. ORA Architects and the Volunteer Park Trust, as part of the terms of their funding grant from the Neighborhood Matching Fund, have been required to keep the design process transparent. They’ve done many public meetings and open houses so that the community can provide feedback on their designs.

Owen Richards, founder and principal architect with ORA, has worked on other projects like Chihuly Garden and Glass. He said that when he holds public events for buildings and structures he’s nervous because changes in a neighborhood are typically emotionally charged, but he doesn’t feel that way about the Volunteer Park amphitheater.

“At this point we’ve talked so much with the public it doesn’t feel controversial,” he said. 

That sentiment was echoed around the open house that night as most people were enthusiastic about the new amphitheater.

That enthusiasm is a contrast to another planned project within the park, the proposed Seattle Asian Art Museum renovation and expansion that will add about 3,600 square feet to the back of the 84-year-old museum building. The proposed changes to the amphitheater have been developing since 2014. The amphitheater renovation is planned to cost $3 to $4 million, and will relocate the amphitheater as well as add a roof, handrails for accessibility and updated bathrooms. Both the amphitheater and SAAM expansion are a part of a longer initiative to renovate the landmark Volunteer Park.

David James, who has lived in Capitol Hill for over 35 years, said he loves the new design  of the amphitheater – especially the roof.

“It’s got curvature to it and yet it has direction and shape,” said James.

“Someone actually came up to us and told us it looked like a retail awning!” said Emily Perchlik, an architect on the project. “But he was nice about it.”

Thursday, the Seattle Asian Art Museum expansion received far less praise.

“I don’t have a backyard,” said Jill Passmore, a 20-year Capitol Hill resident, “and one foot of this park lost is too much for me.” Passmore refers to herself as proudly NIMBY about this issue.

Charles Ragen, who has lived across the street from Volunteer Park since he was a child, is skeptical about the SAAM project.

“I think a lot of it was done behind closed doors,” he said. “I’m all for the renovation but it feels like the expansion is a violation of public trust.”

The proposed addition would trade the museum’s prior art deco style for a more modern look that would allow museum visitors to overlook the park through huge panes of glass, which some said would be a problem for birds flying through the 48-acre park.

“I think it’s an invitation to trouble. I’m not a hippie or a bird lover, but I’m worried about birds flying into the new facade,” said Ragen.

Even people more positive on the expansion of SAAM felt it wasn’t communicated well to residents and frequenters of the park.

“I don’t think they were trying to pull a quickie, they wanted to have something ready when they revealed it to the public,” said Doug Bayley, who is on the committee for both projects and a former member of the Volunteer Park Trust.

Others in the trust agree. They say the difference in the reception to the two renovation projects is due to the different ways they were presented to the public. Brian Giddens, current chair of the Volunteer Park Trust steering committee, said that because of grants the amphitheater received early on, they were required to present their ideas to the public more than the SAAM.

“Overall, it’s been a very iterative project,” said Giddens. He says this public interaction positively impacted the design.

James, who supports the expansion, says the other reason for the public reaction to the projects is because of the sheer space involved.

“The Asian Art Museum proposed addition is much more intrusive than this little amphitheater is,” James said. “That’s why most of the people who oppose it don’t like it.”

A lot of people at Thursday’s open house were more focused on how the museum would impact the landscape of the park. Audrey Van Horne, a 60-year Capitol Hill resident who was an architect on the previous renovation for the Volunteer Park Conservatory in the mid-90s, focused more on what both renovations could offer to park goers, calling both projects a benefit to the public.

“The museum gives young people a chance to express themselves,” she said, “and now they’ll have more room for that.” The trick for the SAAM to get more support, she said, is for the museum to build a community of people who want to see the park continue to change and thrive.

If you have any feedback about the amphitheater renovation, you can call or text ORA Architects at (206) 899-0121. You can also submit feedback to the Seattle Asian Art Museum on their proposed expansion at


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10 thoughts on “Standing ovation for design for new Volunteer Park amphitheater, still questions about museum expansion

  1. Nice article, and it sums up the feelings I’ve heard expressed at the Open House, as well as on the street. However, some of the things attributed to me never passed my lips. The following quote may reflect my thoughts, but I never said anything like it-“Mackinnon loves to see Shakespeare in the Park at the current amphitheater and thinks its new placement and roof will be better for performers and audiences.” That’s bad reporting.

    • Sorry to see this, Marge. The UW News Lab takes its reporting and oversight of student reporters very seriously. I’ll check with them about the points you raise. It’s possible there was an error in editing or notes. In meantime, I’ll remove the anecdote.

  2. This is very inaccurate reporting, apparently offered with the imprimatur of the UW School of Communications. A bit of context: Prompted by discussion of the SAM expansion on this blog, a petition supporting the expansion was started and now has 1379 signers. (See CHS, “A look at all sides in Seattle Asian Art Museum expansion debate”, Dec. 16, 2016, comment by Brian Grant) The posting above only reports comments adverse to the SAM project, as if it faced only opposition from the community. Given the very substantial community support for the SAM project, it’s difficult to believe that not one person supporting the SAM project was at the amphitheater meeting. Even if that were so, it’s very poor journalism to publish reports like this which only cover opposition to a project that has very substantial community support, which is well known to the blog’s publisher.

    I do realize this is a blog, not a newspaper, and doesn’t always follow journalistic standards like reporting both sides of a story. It’s nevertheless been a valuable community resource as it’s touched off some great discussions. But Is this kind of one-sided reporting what they’re teaching at UW School of Communications these days? If so, alas.

    • I edited this piece and don’t agree with your overcooked assessment. The reporter recorded what she heard and the report makes no effort to suggest a full survey of every person who attended. You’ve been a caustic contributor of comments over the years with frequent secondary points about how this is only a blog, etc. I don’t know you but I’ve definitely come to decide your comments are as much about grinding an axe as anything. I, therefore, don’t worry about dismissing your criticisms and I’ll advise our reporter to do the same. I’m certain there would be a way to contribute the same points and information without the disproportionate attack.

    • Lordy. As the mom of two Journalism students I have to say your post is just mean. You can give constructive criticism – which helps writers in the long run – without being so unpleasant.

  3. Wow. I am also quoted here and am misquoted. Like completely misquoted. It’s really sort of shocking. Can we get this corrected?

  4. Justin – are you saying that there is audio recording for these quotes? I would be really surprised! I have never said I was proudly anything, and what I did say was that I’ve never, in my life HAD a backyard.