Comment about the Capital Spending

From:    Jonathan Mark and Protect Volunteer Park
To:    Seattle City Council
Date:    November 1, 2017
Subject: Comment for Public Hearing about Asian Art Museum

OVERVIEW (2 minute oral comment)

My name is Jonathan Mark and I thank the Council for staying after hours. I am a District 3 resident near Volunteer Park and I represent the group Protect Volunteer Park as well as myself. I am reading the opening of a more detailed comment which I have emailed to the Council.

We do not object to the $11 million for seismic and ADA renovation, of which $9 million was approved by the voters in a levy. We do object to the additional $8 million which was added to increase the scope from renovation to expansion. These capital funds are needed to fix or replace the crumbling community centers, not to permanently eliminate and degrade precious green space in any Seattle park, much less a world-famous Olmsted landscape park.

For decades Seattle Art Museum (SAM) has used the Volunteer Park building rent-free. In fact, the City makes payments to SAM to reimburse all SAM’s spending on utilities and custodial services, and also provides free parking. This means the City has never had a revenue stream from this building to support even its ongoing maintenance, let alone major capital improvements. This proposed capital spending toward SAM’s goals is inappropriate given this history, and not in the public interest.

Please remove the extra $8 million from the project and restore it to its original scope of renovation without expansion, the only scope that has been approved in a responsible public process, as we discuss in the extended comment. Thank you.

(In the rest of this comment, numbers like (1) identify references listed at the end.)

THE EXPANSION VIOLATES EQUITY GOALS

This proposed capital spending fails to meet the equity goals explicitly set by the City administration. Quoting a part of Goal 1 from DPR’s newly adopted 2017 plan:

“Continue to expand the City’s park holdings,
facilities, and open space opportunities; with special
emphasis on serving urban centers and urban villages that
are home to marginalized populations and areas that have
been traditionally underserved.”

The Volunteer Park area is in no way underserved, nor is it within an urban village. This goal is violated by using scarce capital funds to expand a facility there.

Indeed, we would question why the City is making major arts investments through the Parks Department at all. The Office of Arts and Culture makes arts grants and investments after careful equity consideration by the Seattle Arts Commission. SAM is fully represented on this commission (a SAM employee is a member). Why then does SAM also receive a carve-out of arts capital and operating spending through the Parks Department, avoiding equity analysis and in noncompliance with DPR’s own equity goals?

DPR’s equity analysis is lacking in other ways. DPR claims that the Asian Art Museum is a “recreational facility” under Initiative 42. But when DPR surveyed the public to inform its 2017 plan, in order to allocate resources equitably, Asian Art Museum (or any museum) was never included in the types of recreational facilities listed in the survey. As a result, we have no information about how the public values Asian Art Museum in relation to other DPR recreational investments.

Community groups at places like Green Lake are being told that their facilities cannot be maintained because the capital funds are needed to expand service to underserved populations. Why then should SAM not be told that their facility cannot be expanded, for the same reason?

EXPANSION SPACE FOR SAM IS ALREADY BUILT DOWNTOWN

SAM’s downtown building contains eight floors of space intended for museum expansion. The whole building is subsidized by a City bond guarantee which is still in place, amounting to $45.3 million when refinanced in 2014 (2).

Each of these eight downtown floors contains twice the space proposed to be added in Volunteer Park. But all eight floors are currently leased out to the IT department of Nordstrom, Inc.

SAM officials state that these eight floors cannot be used because SAM needs the lease revenue. But we believe that this space is much more appropriate for expanded museum use than the building in Volunteer Park.

Transportation is a key issue here. The Asian Art Museum building is little served by transit, being the terminus of the #10 bus route, and has no paid parking nearby. SAM’s downtown building is well served by paid parking and transit, including Link and the future 1st Avenue streetcar.

SAM’s traffic study claims that Volunteer Park has adequate parking to supply SAM’s goal of increasing museum visitors by 54%. Protect Volunteer Park contests that claim. We have performed our own parking study and also analyzed the parking considerations in SAM’s traffic study. We found that on weekends in nice weather, parking throughout Volunteer Park is routinely 80% full, even with the museum in a long-term closure. The museum expansion would routinely overwhelm the parking supply in Volunteer Park and overflow into the residential neighborhood, which itself is currently low density and must be expected to accept additional density, for which its scarce parking will be needed. Reference (3) provides more information about our parking study and analysis.

PUBLIC INVOLVEMENT IS SORELY LACKING

This museum expansion process has blatantly violated the Parks Department’s Public Involvement Policy. It was a bait and switch. The public bought a $9 million renovation project in a levy, with no expansion. This quietly become a $19 million expansion project. No public process was held that considered any alternatives to the expansion. Instead, Seattle Art Museum was allowed to conduct its own “community meetings” which presented only its single expansion plan, which SAM officials firmly stated was found to be “necessary”.

Four of these community meetings were held prior to any mailings to neighborhood residents, or MUP signs posted in the park. The meetings were publicized largely via SAM’s communication channels, resulting in a large fraction of the attendees being SAM trustees.

Today’s public hearing was also not planned in a responsible way. As far as I can tell, this hearing was publicized in only two ways: as a legal notice in the Daily Journal of Commerce on September 28, and as an agenda email last Thursday from the Select Budget Committee. The City web site had no information about this hearing until yesterday afternoon. There was a notice that there was a hearing, but no agenda or statement that the hearing related to Asian Art Museum.

I was fortunate to have the assistance of the excellent staff in CM Juarez’s office who emailed to let me know. But hundreds of others have also expressed concern about this project to City departments such as DCI and DPR. Shouldn’t they have been notified about this opportunity to be heard before the Council? My understanding is that the Department of Neighborhoods has the role of facilitating public involvement, so I don’t see why a public hearing needs to go so utterly without publicity.

PUBLIC BENEFIT IS QUESTIONABLE, PUBLIC HARM IS SIGNIFICANT

The museum in Volunteer Park provides much less public benefit than when these original financial arrangements were established in 1933. At that time, the agreement required the museum to be open free of charge, four days per week. Those benefits were eroded over time by the Council to the present level of one free day per month. We document this situation in our article at footnote (4).

A recent announcement by SAM highlights our concern here. SAM proposes to accept a foundation grant to build the “Asian Paintings Conservation Center” at the expanded museum. SAM states that this center will be “serving SAM’s collection as well as institutional and private collections in the region”. This is not a facility designed exclusively to benefit the public, and we feel the City should not be investing $8 million in an expansion which does not have public benefit as its singular purpose.

SAM also receives revenue from hosting private functions in the Asian Art Museum building which SAM uses at no cost. We believe this is just wrong, and that the Council should require City participation in this revenue, as well as in the revenue from SAM’s commercial lease downtown in its City-financed building.

Set against the public benefits is the public harm caused by these proposed additions in Volunteer Park and their construction process. The Olmsted Brothers’ designs expressed their stated belief that a landscape park should be free of visually intrusive buildings, which spoil the psychological benefits people receive from being in nature. The proposed museum expansion would become the tallest and most abrupt face of the building, dominating a downhill slope, blocking views within the park, and replacing private park time with a sense of being observed from above. This would do great damage to the landscape design.

The proposed additions are also very close to exceptional beech trees which would be greatly threatened by the additions’ existence and construction process. DCI standards require tree protection only to the drip line (limit of the canopy). Arboricultural best practices consider this to be entirely insufficient for exceptional trees, particularly beeches which are very sensitive to site disturbances. SAM’s design cleverly avoids construction within the drip line by including an overhanging deck — never mind that that overhang would eliminate all rainfall underneath!

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, we ask the Council to avoid harm to Volunteer Park and an unjust financial subsidy to a private partner. Please remove the extra $8 million from the project and restore it to its original scope of renovation without expansion, the only scope that has been approved in a responsible public process. Please also require SAM’s ongoing lease agreement at Asian Art Museum to be modernized to become a fair deal for the public, which at present it certainly is not.

Thank you for considering our comment.

REFERENCES

(1) Notice of today’s hearing in the DJC:
http://www.djc.com/notices/legals.html?action=get&id=354240

(2) Bloomberg.com: refinance of SAM’s downtown bond guarantee
https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-04-08/seattle-s-45-3-million-in-bonds-to-refinance-museum-debt

(3) Our parking study and analysis of SAM’s parking study:
http://protectvolunteerpark.org/parking-impact-of-museum-expansion/

(4) Our article about erosion of public benefits at Asian Art Museum:
http://protectvolunteerpark.org/public-benefits-cut-public-spending-maintained/