February 9, 2017
Mr. Jesús S. Aguirre
Superintendent Seattle Parks and Recreation
100 Dexter Avenue North Seattle, WA. 98109
RE: Seattle Art Museum’s Response to the Seattle Parks and Recreation Letter concerning the proposed expansion of the Seattle Asian Art Museum
Dear Superintendent Aguirre:
We are writing on behalf of Protect Volunteer Park (PVP), a community group strongly supportive of protecting open space in historic Volunteer Park and in opposition to the Seattle Art Museum’s (SAM) proposed $49 million, 13,650 square foot (16%) expansion of the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) requiring the taking of Volunteer Park land. We appreciated your meeting with representatives of our group (12/13/16) and for providing us with a copy of your letter of Jan. 6 to SAM, in which you ask for a project “pause.” We wish to comment concerning SAM’s January 23, 2017 response to your letter.
Concerning your first question to SAM “How does the expansion support the mission of the museum?”, SAM states, “The Project is fundamentally driven by the SAM’s mission.” SAM believes that the Project is both “the renovation and modest expansion of the museum building [the SAAM]” which cannot be separated. This is not true. The SAAM can be renovated without expanding SAAM and this renovation meets the mission of the SAM. Before any expansion was ever proposed, SAM was prepared to fulfill its mission with a voter-approved renovation.
The SAM indicates that it requires a “modest expansion” of the SAAM “to continue to fulfill its mission.” First, the SAM’s proposed expansion of the SAAM is hardly “modest,” as it would increase the square footage of the SAAM by over 13,650 square feet, which is approximately 16% of its current size. By any standard, this is a substantial expansion. Continued use of the word “modest” by both SAM and Parks is indicative of a lack of candor in publicizing this proposed project.
The SAM states that “without the Project (i.e. renovation and expansion of the SAAM), the condition of the museum building will continue to degrade and become increasingly inadequate to meet basic museum functions, let alone modern museum needs for a variety of spaces.” Again, the SAM is, at best, vague in not defining what it means when referring to “modern museum needs for a variety of spaces.”
The later part of SAM’s answer to this question is particularly disturbing, especially to the many Seattle citizens who voted to pay additional taxes providing millions of dollars to renovate the museum. SAM states “If the Project does not go forward, then the SAM will have to consider other alternatives to operating a museum in the museum building.” Our concern is that SAM is failing to seriously investigate alternatives that would allow the museum to expand without eliminating park land, such as building underground or showing flexibility as to the location of SAAM’ s programs. Furthermore, SAAM has the museum rent free and receives funds for utilities and maintenance. There are not many locations that can match that deal. How did a multi-million-dollar renovation recently deemed adequate to sustain the museum suddenly become insufficient?
Lastly, concerning the issue of museum’s stated mission, we feel obligated to respectfully mention that while a substantial SAM building expansion in Volunteer Park may allow the SAM to continue to fulfill its mission, it should be noted that the citizens of Seattle own Volunteer Park and the building in which the SAM administers the SAAM. Further, the SAM’s use of the SAAM building in Volunteer Park as a city-subsidized tenant is a privilege granted to it by the Seattle and its citizens; it is not a perpetual right nor does the SAM have a right to insist that the SAAM be expanded as part of a mission. Their mission statement is solely that, a statement. While its intentions are commendable, the mission is in no way codified by ordinance. Many citizens find troubling the SAM’s equating (or elevating) its mission and interests with (or above) the public’s interests in maintaining Volunteer Park open space and renovating, not expanding or building underground.
Is SAAM’s business model financially dependent on the expansion? If so, are there alternatives to the expansion that would support them in achieving its financial goals?
Ms. Rorschach’s answer brings into question SAM’s business model. She noted that although SAAM is not financially dependent on the project, they estimate operating costs will increase by $400,000 per year, of which they anticipate a budget shortfall of $180,000. Since a business is unsustainable without a balanced budget, how can the city knowingly endorse this project? Why hasn’t an agreement with the SAM on the operational budget been addressed? Will SAM look to city coffers whenever they run short or is there some guarantee that the $5 million addition to the 2017 Seattle budget is the final cost to taxpayers? As their donor base is being called on to support the project, what guarantee is there that operating costs will be covered after completion? What is the back-up plan if donations don’t materialize?
Significantly, in her reply, Ms. Rorschach declines to answer the second question. To our knowledge no alternatives have been explored.
We ask that the Superintendent proceed with caution in this area based on recent reports of current museum budget in both New York and Los Angeles. (New York Times, Feb. 4.)
What steps will be taken to ensure that underserved communities benefit from the project?
“SAM and the Asian Art Museum currently offer numerous programs and initiatives that benefit traditionally underserved communities.”
This statement raises the following questions:
Of the 4,500 students served, how many students participated in programs at SAAM? Which schools participated in the programs at SAAM? How does SAAM market these programs to schools? Does or has SAAM taken the art to the students in the schools?
Also, how many of the underserved communities SAM contends to support were in any way part of the outreach programs championed as part of the contested planning process for this project? Did the “charrettes” and meetings with “stakeholders” include a broad engagement with varied cultural and demographic groups citywide, as per the mission “benefitting the Seattle region, the Pacific Northwest, and beyond.”
How long has the expansion project been planned?
The relevance of the SAM’s response to this question can’t be overstated. The lack of public record regarding the planning chronology speaks to the most pressing criticisms of transparency and public process. While there is little question the renovation, as originally approved, met high standards for public oversight, history of the recent expansion program remains a case study in backroom governance.
Ms. Rorschach says “The Project” was first conceived “as early as 2006.” She is explicitly referencing the expansion. We can find no public records to support her claim. Perhaps you could ask for an accounting of the project’s history. From our view, extensive public records requests have failed to illuminate how a voter-approved renovation morphed into the current “Project.”
What steps have been taken to assess Initiative 42 to ensure other feasible alternatives that do not expand into parkland have been developed and thoroughly considered?
Because SAM claims that Initiative 42 does not apply to this conversion of parkland, SAM apparently believes that it can avoid the examination and consideration of feasible alternatives that do not expand into park land. We find this an egregious disregard for public intent. We contend that Initiative 42 applies to the taking of park land for the reasons stated below. But SAM needs to examine and consider feasible alternatives that don’t expand into park land to satisfy the State Environmental Policy Act and the Landmark’s Preservation Board as well.
Initiative 42 provides: All park land shall be preserved for park, boulevard or open space use and cannot be sold, transferred or changed from park use to another use, unless: 1) the City holds a public hearing on the necessity of the transaction, and 2) adopts an ordinance finding the transaction is necessary because there is no reasonable and practical alternative and 3) the City receives in exchange a piece of land or facility of equivalent or better size, value, location and usefulness in the vicinity. (Adopted by Ordinance 118477, January 1997)
Furthermore, the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) Guidelines for Non-Park Uses of Park Lands defines Non-park use as: any use or treatment of park land by private parties or other public agencies that limits or diminishes the ability of the public to use or enjoy public park property. (Endorsed by City Council Resolution #29475, October 1996)
The original Museum was placed in Volunteer Park in 1933 against the earlier (1910) advice of the Olmsted Brothers, designers of the park, because of their avowed landscape focus. There have been several additions to the Museum (1947-1969); however, they predated the implementation of I-42.
SAM argues that expansion of SAAM on park land is a “park use”; however, the SAAM is a nonconforming nonresidential use in an area that is zoned for single families. Under current law (SMC) 23.42.106 D, A nonconforming nonresidential use shall not be expanded or extended, except as follows: 1. A structure occupied by a nonconforming nonresidential use may be maintained, repaired, renovated or structurally altered but shall not be expanded or extended except as otherwise expanded required by law, as necessary to improve access for the elderly or disabled or as specifically permitted elsewhere in this code….
We contend the taking of park land should be avoided, prima facie, as the public clearly intended in I-42. To avoid a public examination of alternatives to taking park land is clearly a disregard for the public trust.
In order to proceed, SAM has proposed an amendment to the City Code that provides a specific exemption for the expansion of the SAAM in Volunteer Park. The City Council must approve this additional exemption.
If expansion of the museum is considered a park use, one could argue much of the park could be covered with even larger building expansions and thus destroy the purpose of a landscape park. The Save our Parks initiative was adopted in 1997 to preserve Park Open Space and avert just such eventualities. In fact, SAM’s proposed land use amendment would allow for ongoing expansions.
SAM also argues that McCurdy Park, South Lake Union Park, the Center for Wooden Boats (CWB) and the Sculpture Park are example of museums being “Park Use.” However, the original MOHAI was constructed on vacated right of way, which years after the museum was created became McCurdy Park. The park, believed to be 1.5 acres, was more or less grounds for the Museum. Consequently, the museum came first.
The South Lake Union Park, after an extensive examination of alternative themes in an environmental impact process, was created as a Maritime Heritage Park to focus on actual historical ships, boats and boatbuilding and not with a landscape focus such as Volunteer Park. Consistent with this theme, MOHAI, which includes significant maritime history, moved to the existing Naval Reserve Building at South Lake Union. Because of I-42, renovation of the building did not include an expansion. It is our understanding that certain MOHAI programs, e.g., library and storage, were located off site rather than occupy more park land.
Likewise, CWB was in location before South Lake Union Park. A new historic boat-building workshop is being constructed on an undeveloped part of the property as continuation of the CWB Maritime Heritage program.
SAM and DPR should be commended for converting a superfund site into a Sculpture Park that was not “changed from park use to another use.”
The McCurdy Park, South Lake Union Park and CWB and the Sculpture Park are distinguishable from expanding SAAM and transferring land of a nationally registered historic landmark park for use as a museum.
The City of Seattle and Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) have, to date, failed to require SAM to show that there is no reasonable and practical alternative to the expansion of SAAM and removal of park land from park use.
At meetings and in written submissions to SAM and DCI, options have been presented by others to include, without limitation; moving programs at SAAM to other locations, excavation within SAAM’s existing footprint or under the western approach to the museum and use of a climate control system that uses less space, such as ground source heat pumps (used in renovation of King Street Station). Initial capital costs would be higher, but it would save energy over time and promote the City policy of sustainability. Has buying out part of a lease at the downtown SAM location been examined? It is our understanding that SAM has leased out eight floors at its downtown location until 2031. What happens then? Will the additional space at SAAM still be needed, once park land has already been lost? To our knowledge SAM has not explored and explained these and other alternatives, before proposing to irretrievably consume more park land. Initiative 42 requires it, and DCI, the Landmark Preservation Board, DPR, the Mayor and City Council as part of a prudent decision making process should demand it.
Is the SAAM expansion linked to visitation? If so, does the current level justify the expansion?
Kim Rorschach’s answer is surprising, “SAM hopes visitation will increase”. The “if you build it they will come” model is not a sound business model. What is the methodology behind the 100,000 annual visitors they hope to attract and is there a marketing plan to accomplish this?
Regarding part 2 of the question: The thinly-veiled threat that “SAM would need to vacate the building at some point” in the second paragraph seems misplaced. Instead, clarification is needed of the current attendance figures as these fluctuate in different SAM reports: 65,000-75,000, per page 2 of this letter; OR 85,000, as per the MUP traffic study. Back to the marketing plan, it will be important to know if SAAM needs to attract 15,000 or 35,000 new visitors annually.
In addition to not having a financial incentive to increase numbers, the rationale for SAM wanting this expansion is irrational from a business standpoint, especially in view of the fact that without increased visitation, SAM and the leaseholder –Seattle Parks and Recreation –will be exposed to even greater financial risk.
Conclusion: To facilitate the answering of our preceding questions and to preserve the open space in Volunteer Park while we get this vital information, PVP and its open space partners urge SPR to immediately:
- halt SPR activities and freeze the permitting and construction process for an expansion of the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM);
- direct SPR staff to investigate design alternatives for the SAAM renovation project within the existing footprint of the SAAM, with direct design input from a broad representation of Seattle citizens (not just the Seattle Art Museum); and
- to ensure that before any construction of a renovation of the SAAM is commenced all public and private funds, including but not limited to tax credits, be obtained and available for the SAAM renovation.
Unless action is taken, the renovation work will begin. In view of Kim Rorschach’s assertion that it would not be viable for the museum to remain in the building without an expansion, any further action to begin the Project would be fiscally irresponsible by all parties until this is resolved.
Protect Volunteer Park