This image shows what space the proposed Seattle Asian Art Museum expansion would take from Volunteer Park.
This image shows what space the proposed Seattle Asian Art Museum expansion would take from Volunteer Park.

Seattle Parks and Recreation superintendent Jesús Aguirre has placed a “project pause” on plans to renovate and expand the Seattle Asian Art Museum, following concerns by community and parks board members regarding the expansion’s potential impacts on Volunteer Park.

The Seattle Art Museum has encountered opposition from community members not wanting to see parkland lost to the planned expansion since SAM first announced the project. While the total expansion is more than 13,000 square feet, much of that square footage will be spread across three stories of a new addition to the southeast side of the museum, the building’s footprint increasing by 3,600 square feet, according to SAM.

Constructed in 1933, the Seattle Asian Art Museum still uses the original furnace. Heat is provided to the building, but the museum does not have air conditioning or a climate control system, which limits the amount of collections being made available for display. The museum is also in need of a critical seismic upgrade, according to SAM, a number of the walls consisting of hollow clay.

The 13,650-square-foot expansion will include gallery, office and meeting space, as well as a 1,220-square-foot education and art-making studio.

Aguirre issued a letter to SAM director Kim Rorschach on Jan. 6 that requested more information about the expansion, so SPR can “better understand some of the project’s drivers and more carefully consider park impacts.”

Rorschach responded to the Capitol Hill Times’ request for more information by providing this statement: “The City's review of the project is still progressing, including consideration of new information provided by SAM. Seattle Parks & Recreation has advised us to continue engaging with the process and having key conversations. We respect the time it takes to consider a project of this size and importance.”

Aguirre told the Capitol Hill Times on Tuesday he had received a response letter from SAM that he hopes to have reviewed and available to the public in the near future.

“I literally just received a draft of their responses,” he said. “I want to make sure, before I make their response public, I want to make sure they’re responsive to our issues.”

Originally designed by the Olmsted Brothers, Volunteer Park was granted city landmark status in 2011. The Asian art museum has undergone a number of expansions since opening in 1933 as the original SAM site.

“We view that their existence and this use in the park, it’s historic,” Aguirre said. “We think it’s a very complementary use for what happens in that park and other parks.”

Aguirre’s letter asks SAM to answer a question as to whether it has considered any feasible project alternatives that do not require expansion into parkland. The question cites Initiative 42, which the Seattle City Council adopted in 1997. The initiative sets firm restrictions on the city when it comes to turning over parkland, requiring a strong community benefit and public hearing.

Aguirre said he believes the Seattle Asian Art Museum does represent a Seattle Parks and Recreation use, but there is a question as to whether SAM took necessary steps to assess Initiative 42 when planning its upgrade and expansion.

“That’s a question we heard from the community, so we want to make sure SAM can respond to their comments on that,” Aguirre said.

The parks superintendent said it would be preferable if SAM didn’t need to expand onto parkland.

“I think, broadly speaking, sure, yes, that’s the case,” he said. “I’m fairly confident that the museum has done a lot of thinking on that front.”

Aguirre said SPR is updating a use agreement with SAM for the Asian art museum, which will better articulate how the facility provides a public benefit and hold SAM more accountable for providing public access to the city-owned building.

Seattle Parks and Recreation Board member Barbara Wright said during a presentation by SAM in early November that while the museum is open to the public at a suggested $7 donation, a staff member told her she couldn’t go in if she didn’t have those funds.

“I’m kind of embarrassed to hear that,” Rorschach said during the meeting, adding staffers are told to let people in even when they can’t pay.

Project opponent and Capitol Hill resident Eliza Davidson directed the Capitol Hill Times to a Jan. 17 news release by Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit The Cultural Landscape Foundation, which designated Volunteer Park as a “nationally significant at-risk and threatened landscape” over SAM’s expansion plans. Davidson chairs the Volunteer Park Trust committee working to replace the park’s aging amphitheater.

“The proposed museum expansion in Seattle’s Volunteer Park is part of a troubling national trend in which publicly held parks, landscapes and open space are surrendered for new building projects and other incompatible uses,” said Charles A. Birnbaum, The Cultural Landscape Foundation CEO, in a news release. “We hope that park stewards, museum officials and park advocates can work together to find a solution that is not detrimental to this important Olmsted Brothers-designed park.”

Aguirre was not aware of this designation.

“I’ve never heard of them,” Aguirre said about the Cultural Landscape Foundation. “I’ve heard of Ms. Davison, but I don’t know that organization. That’s not to say it’s not an important organization, I’ve just never heard of them.”

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