By Alize Asplund, UW News Lab/Special to CHS
The Seattle City Council unanimously approved Monday two pieces of legislation that open the way for a $54 million overhaul and a new 55-year lease for the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Capitol Hill’s Volunteer Park after years of community meetings and negotiations.
“A lot of what is driving this project is the need to serve audiences that want to participate and the project will allow us with a new education space to serve broader and bigger audiences,” Seattle Art Museum director Kimerly Rorschach said prior to a council committee vote on the plans last week.
Construction on the $54 million project is set to begin as early as February with the overhauled facility projected to open in October 2019, when it will be open to the public 40 hours per week for 50 weeks out of the year under the new deal.
Under the new lease agreement, the reopening of SAAM will include public benefits including four no-admission days a month, a suggested donation to enter the museum, seven in-school art education programs, and free tours and transportation for 75 different school groups.
City Council member Debora Juarez, chair of the Civic Development, Public Assets, and Native Communities committee, thanked Rorschach and the Seattle Art Museum’s for agreeing on a more robust public benefits package for the city’s schools.
According to details of the approved lease (PDF), SAM would provide some $400,000 per year in public benefits as part of its operations of the Asian Art Museum including “free group school tours and transportation to all Seattle Public Schools” and “in-school art education programs where Museum art educators visit classrooms and provide education sessions focusing on Asian art and culture.”
The Seattle Art Museum — which donated the Seattle Asian Art Museum to the City of Seattle in 1931 — and the City of Seattle have been negotiating for more than a year to come up with a new lease for the project.
The council Monday also approved legislation altering city code to allow expansion of a “non conforming” museum inside a city park, a custom patch written specifically for the SAAM expansion that will also limit any future expansion.
Some community members are still opposed to the expansion of the building in the park. Protect Volunteer Park is a group of community members formed by a small group of people who live in the area surrounding the park.
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Jonathan Mark, one of the group’s members who has lived in the area for 20 years, said the group is not only objecting to the expansion onto park lands, but also the expense the project will have on Seattle taxpayers.
“The building is all city-owned, the Seattle Art Museum doesn’t pay anything at all to be there, in fact we pay them, the city makes ongoing payments so it’s kind of like they are already getting a pretty good deal and they want to take more of the parkland.” Jonathan Mark stated Wednesday afternoon before the second to last city council meeting that decided any final bill revisions.
In 1931, the Seattle Art Museum and the City of Seattle came to an agreement to open SAAM. The city agreed to be responsible for servicing and maintaining the building. The building is currently struggling with its current heating system, and it is in need of additional cooling and humidity control, and a new loading dock and art freight elevator. As of today, SAAM has reached 93% of its total fundraising goal at just over $50 million.
In a logistical maneuver, the council gave its blessing to the city agreeing on the framework of the 55-year lease before 2017’s December 31st expiration of some $6 million in Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit that officials expect to utilize on the SAAM expansion project. The council’s “ratify and confirm” procedure allowed an agreement on the lease — with strings attached that the public benefits portion of the plan would be worked in the new year..
Other funding comes from a 2014 city ordinance established that the city would commit $11 million to help fund the restoration of the building, and due to inflation, in 2016 the city committed an additional $5 million to the project. The lease agreement states that the Seattle Art Museum will be responsible for $33 million of the cost of the $54 million project, including $6 million in tax credits which will be deducted from the Seattle Art Museum’s yearly taxes.
Rorschach said that the Seattle Art Museum was well aware of the building’s needs and tried for multiple years to get the ball rolling on the project without much luck.
“Financial times have been hard and we didn’t have the proper funding until now,” said Rorschach, about the delays the project had been facing the last couple of years.
The $54 million SAAM project has been designed to expand the 1933-built museum more than 13,000 square feet by extending the backside of the building 3,600 square feet into the park. The museum will 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. Last February, officials put the museum project back in motion after a brief pause. That month, visitors also said goodbye to SAAM before a planned two-year closure for the construction.
Now that the museum is set to start construction this February, the future of SAAM and Volunteer Park will be based around the new agreement between the City of Seattle and the Seattle Art Museum. The City of Seattle will be responsible for contributing $250,000 per year for the first one to five years, and the Seattle Art Museum will be responsible for creating an annual report on the required public benefits as well as the upkeep of the HVAC and interior historic features.
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