With approvals on expansion, schools-friendly lease, Seattle Asian Art Museum set for 2019 reopening after $54M overhaul

Closed for renovation (Image: Alize Asplund)

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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22 thoughts on “With approvals on expansion, schools-friendly lease, Seattle Asian Art Museum set for 2019 reopening after $54M overhaul

  1. Jonathan’s objections to SAAM don’t merit print here. According to a thread that he started last summer and that his bitter neighbors perpetuated into this month, Jonathan is worried about parking. Can you imagine the horror of a Volunteer Park and SAAM tourist parking in front of your expensive home? Jonathan can, and he’s been trying to use that as leverage for months. Ignore the appeals to park design and the corpse of Olmsted. The objections are about preserving the purportedly personal parking places in proximity to the park.

    I can provide citations from NextDoor in case anyone is curious.

    • Didn’t you see that Jonathan’s lived here for 20 years, Bob? According to recent public testimony sessions, people* who have lived in one place for more than 20 years have absolute power over that place.

      * Other than Native American, Black, and Asian residents, as which Jonathan has yet to self-identify

    • I live near the park and am really excited about the expansion. Having SAAM in the park is a great asset, and now it will be more accessible based on the updated hours and additional free entry days. There are lots of other efforts to make the open spaces in the park more enjoyable. And I hope all of it together attracts more people and activities to the park – it makes the park that much better. I’ll trade all that for an occasional tough parking day anytime.

    • Nice article by Alize!

      I do not use street parking and rarely drive at all. I have pointed out the insufficiency of parking, but that does not mean it is my primary motive.

      I was particularly concerned that Volunteer Park’s lower loop road, closed since 2009, might be reopened to provide additional parking for the museum. However I was happy to receive an assurance last August from the Superintendent’s office that the lower loop road would not be reopened.

  2. I am Seattle native, I did NOT support this, there wasn’t a need for it, Growth for the sake of growth, yeah we know all about that. This facility has charmed and engaged people for many decades. Where was the problem? To be frank they are what they are, they don’t draw massive crowds now, and they won’t after this misguided upgrade. I prefer OPEN space.

  3. On behalf of Resident and Bob Knudson, I would like to thank Jonathan for remaining classy in what was obviously a heartfelt effort to fight for something important to him. We’ve all learned a lot from him. I hope he self-identifies as a mensch, because he is one.

    • I agree with John. Such personal attacks have no place here. Citizens involving themselves in what is happening in their city is a GOOD thing! We should be delighted that people like Jonathan and others from PVP got involved. I believe their involvement led to concessions such as additional free days. Those were not on the table in the beginning of this process (although I would still argue that SAM fought hard for it NOT to be a public process and it really wasn’t a much of a public process), so let’s not pretend that they are a gift from SAM. They were fought for.

    • Please do not speak on my behalf. I agree that it is a healthy thing for a city when citizens fight for what they believe in, so I give some Jonathan and PVP some credit for that. But in the end they were a tiny group which obstructed a project which the vast majority of Seattleites are in favor of, and that is not something to be admired.

    • @Bob, you may not realize this but PVP gathered 1,300 + signatures in 3 petitions against this expansion. We were not a small group opposing. Brian Grant’s petition, which used SAM’s members email list to sign were only something like 60 or so signers more. This doesn’t speak well for SAM as having a vast majority behind them. What SAM had behind them were bought politicians

    • @U Sheilan:

      Well then you have approximately 0.18% of Seattle residents (700,000) that also have equal say into what happens with their park system. That is a rounding error, not a consensus.

    • @Fairley:
      Well the point is Seattle residents didn’t get to vote on the issue. In 1997 I-42 was passed to protect parks and green spaces from something like this happening. Just because they used a loop hole doesn’t mean it was an ethical. They should have asked the people of Seattle on a ballot what they wanted for their park.

    • @U Sheilan:

      The first section of Initiative 42:

      “Section 1. All lands and facilities held now or in the future by The City of Seattle for park and recreation purposes, whether designated as park, park boulevard, or open space, shall be preserved for such use; and no such land or facility shall be sold, transferred, or changed from park use to another usage, unless the City shall first hold a public hearing regarding the necessity of such a transaction and than enact an ordinance finding that the transaction is necessary because there is no reasonable and practical alternative and the City shall at the same time or before receive in exchange land or a facility of equivalent or better size, value, location and usefulness in the vicinity, serving the same community and the same park purposes.”

      I would think they met that requirement to a T. The City has covered it’s bases, especially since the building and land still belong to the City.

      One could argue semantics that Seattle is changing 3,000 SF (approximately 0.15% of Volunteer Park) from park use without receiving an equal size portion of land of similar use. But (1) Seattle owns everything there already, so there’s no one to transfer from or two, (2) the museum is a park amenity that I would think fits the general use of Volunteer Park and (3) it wouldn’t make sense to acquire an additional 3,000 SF of shady, unused park space elsewhere.

      The real fun part is yet to come. As you are probably aware, Section 2 of I-42 allows for this battle to be elevated to the Superior Court, which I’m sure the anti-SAAM group is already planning, now that the Council has officially approved the expansion. I don’t see the Courts ruling any different, however.

    • @Fairly: One could argue that SAAM is not a park amenity or park recreation. Why isn’t the museum free? One could argue it is the spirit of I-42 which is being trampled.

    • @U Sheilan: The spirit of I-42 was not to prevent an 85 year old museum from expanding into a tiny portion of a park (again, 0.15%: a rounding error). You should really read the history of I-42 to understand the reason for its passage before you try to hide behind it.

      And amenities that you have to pay admission for exist in public parks across the City, the State, the Country and the World. A lot of these amenities are run by private contractors. In this case, the private contractor is a not-for-profit entity. A lot of other park amenities are run by for-profit entities, so why the anger at this one?

    • @Fairly the one’s who are hiding behind something are SAM and supporters. Otherwise this deal would not have happened in secret and the public would have been allowed to have their say.

  4. Volunteer Park belongs to the people of Seattle. It is the peoples money being spent on this expansion and free rent for SAAM for the next 55 years. The people should have had a say about this and not left the decision in the hands of government and politicians.

  5. @ Fairly Obvious
    You’re joking, right? No alternatives were presented. We are stuck with an unimaginative expansion that will endanger the priceless trees to its east. I can walk in that area of the park whenever I like… but I won’t have access to the museum.

    • It has been pointed out again and again that almost no one uses that area of the park. The museum expansion will be a much better use of the space. I have not seen anything to indicate that any trees will have to be removed….if this does happen, it would only be one or two.

  6. It’s also @fairly obvious that park dimensions include large sections of road, buildings, wooded areas, playground, tennis and a huge ass fenced off reservoir. As a portion of open green space, the land being repurposed to concrete is actually significant. I mean, as a percentage of the population, you are much less than a rounding error, but we still love you.