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Seattle Asian Art Museum work only part of what could be decade of big Volunteer Park projects

With reporting by Ari Cetron

The $49 million project to upgrade, overhaul, and expand the Seattle Asian Art Museum could be just part of a decade or more of projects to upgrade the much-loved but aging features of Capitol Hill’s Volunteer Park.

In October, Seattle Public Utilities said it is moving on with some needed short term repairs for the park’s iconic water tower but officials are starting to pull together a plan for a massive, multimillion dollar seismic overhaul of the landmarks-protected, 1906-built brick structure.

The summer of 2017 also looms as a milestone for delayed testing to conclude that will determine the fate of the park’s 22-million gallon reservoir. If the reservoir is to be capped and covered with more park land, Cal Anderson’s mid-2000s $20 million budget might look like a bargain.

The Volunteer Park Trust's vision for a possible future for the reservoir

The Volunteer Park Trust’s vision for a possible future for the reservoir

In the schemes of history, this period of Volunteer Park’s existence will hopefully represent a flurry of early life improvements. In 2012, the park celebrated its centennial with an early burst of activity including overhauling its playground and continuing work to restore the Volunteer Park Conservatory. The playground overhaul was completed in 2013. Work was completed on the conservatory in late 2014.

Volunteer Park’s reservoir will remain in limbo until at least next summer. Seattle Public Utilities, which manages both the reservoir and the water tower, took the reservoir out of service in April 2013. At the time, SPU was starting a two-year study to determine if it could be removed from the drinking water system. In September 2015, right around the time that first study was to be wrapping up, SPU started a different study looking at the effect a major earthquake might have on Seattle’s water supply.

In the case of such an event, while electricity which operates pumping stations might go out, gravity should still be working, so having a lot of water at the top of Capitol Hill might prove very useful, not just for drinking, but also for fire suppression.

The seismic study, being conducted by G&E Engineering for $714,000, was supposed to be completed by the end of this year. However, changes to the scope of the project involving a more detailed look at seismic hazards has delayed the testing.

The end result is nothing is happening until the summer of 2017. At that time, SPU expects it should have all the information it needs to make a decision.

In the meantime, a smaller capital project to make needed repairs to crushed drain pipes and settlement around the base of the water tower is being planned. But the tower is lined up for much larger investments. If the park’s reservoir is to go back into service, a large steel tank bolted inside the brick tower needs to be recoated both inside an out, a 2015 assessment revealed. More significantly, the tank and the tower, which has been assigned one of the highest FEMA earthquake risk scores of any masonry building on Capitol Hill, needs to be upgraded to meet seismic codes.

Currently, the water in Volunteer Park is not considered usable for drinking water.  Since the reservoir is not covered, it doesn’t meet health department requirements. The water would still be useful to help the fire department fight fires in the neighborhood, and, of course, makes for a quiet, tranquil — though chain-linked — place to visit in the park.

The seismic suitability is just one of a number of factors SPU will consider for what to do next in this section of the park. It is difficult to predict how much water the city will need in the future. There will certainly be more people. Less certain are the impacts of climate change, and how often it might lead to hot, dry years.

Seattle began covering reservoirs with the Maple Leaf Reservoir in 1995. In 2004, the city covered the Lincoln reservoir, and we now know it as Cal Anderson Park. Local nonprofit the Volunteer Park Trust has dreams of making the area into a reflecting pool/promenade, but that will also have to wait until SPU makes its decision about the reservoir.

In the meantime, neighbors concerned about the loss of park space and impact from construction around the planned SAAM expansion should also start to calculate what will be coming next in the rest of the park. The SAAM project will be the subject of yet another community meeting to discuss the expansion and overhaul on Saturday.

Community meeting: renovation and proposed expansion of the Seattle Asian Art Museum

CHS reported on the latest plans and timeline for the Asian Art Museum project in September. Current plans from LMN Architects call for the addition of a new exhibit and event space on the backside of the museum. The 1933-built Art Deco facade will remain untouched. A glass “park lobby,” also located on the east side of the building is intended to provide a stronger link between the park and the museum.

The current plan is for SAAM to close for two years starting February 27th, 2017 with construction slated to begin by fall. In the interim, the museum will move its entire collection into storage or into SAM downtown.

That work is hoped to coincide with the project to replace the Volunteer Park AmphitheaterORA Architects and Walker Macy Landscape Architects have developed four concepts using feedback from the public and more than 30 performance organizations. The design will include a shelter, backstage space, and bathrooms built into the structure as required by the city.

It’s possible both the new bandshell and the overhauled SAAM will debut together at some point in 2019. By then, it might just be time to start talking about the construction schedule for what comes next for the reservoir and the water tower.

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8 thoughts on “Seattle Asian Art Museum work only part of what could be decade of big Volunteer Park projects

  1. I regret that this beautiful and tranquil public space will be compromised by so many construction projects over the next few years, but I trust that they need doing and the eventual result will be an even better park.

    I am strongly in favor of the Volunteer Park Trust’s vision of a reflecting pool and promenade where the reservoir is now….hopefully that’s what will happen.

  2. Thanks, this is great information.

    I would like to add that there is a deadline of November 30 for the public to comment on the environmental review of the museum expansion. The white MUP signs appeared in late October announcing a comment period of less than 3 weeks. This was extended to 11/30 by written request. has an image of the MUP sign and suggestions for how to comment and request that a full Environmental Impact Statement be required.

    Also I wanted to expand on something. The article notes some of us are concerned about “loss of park space and impact from construction”. Yes, but two other issues are perhaps of even greater importance: (1) The proposed new structure is visually imposing and would intrude into natural landscape views designed by the Olmsted brothers. (2) This expansion plan was formulated without the public process required for planning any development within any Seattle park, much less Volunteer Park which is a designated landmark listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.

    • Yes…this new expansion is way more visually intrusive than the giant blank wall on the back of the museum today. That’s my favorite place in Volunteer Park.

      I frolic and picnic next to the fire escapes and electrical meters. The rest of the expansive greenspace at Volunteer Park is trash compared to that dark corner next to the back of the building. It is a city treasure.

    • Sorry Adam, but the park does not belong to you, me or the other 700,000 tax payers. It belongs to a very small, select group of busy-bodies and they are VERY upset about that tree being removed.

      And you can’t fight them; they don’t work, so they have all the time in the world to steer the public process their way.

    • Adam, Truth, Bob – you clearly have an opinion on the museum expansion vs. park reduction issue, but seriously, outside of snark, what is your view? I don’t think anyone is trying to save a tree or claim the back of the museum is attractive. Some want more art space, some want to protect park land. Some want both. Where do you folks come down on this? I think Mr. Mark is offering information to support his view, which you oppose. What would you, as some of those 700,000 tax payers, like to see happen in Volunteer Park?

  3. It’s interesting that the amphitheater team offered four options using public feedback but the museum folks have, to date, offered exactly one. And they drafted it prior to any public input. Seriously, why is that?