Expressing City Government
Seattle gets a civic center it can be proud of.
By Mark Hinshaw
For almost 50 years, the Seattle city government was housed in a clutch of
buildings that were more a source of public embarrassment than civic
pride. But in a series of moves that might be likened to Chinese
checkers, the city has recently rearranged its municipal marbles
to create a civic center that is elegantly urbane, supremely sociable,
and environmentally sustainable.
Back in the early 1990s, one could find the mayor, the city council,
and several departments in a dumpy structure reminiscent of a rent-by-the-hour
airport hotel. The police department and courts fared even worse;
their prisonlike structure was surrounded by plazas so austere,
they seemed like little more than penitentiary exercise yards. In
one of them, a local artist erected a piece made of pens enclosed
by chain-link fencing—a commentary on the sheer meanness of the
Other departments were scattered among several buildings in the
area—some with historic character, others more mundane. There were
no real public spaces to speak of, unless you counted a forlorn
patch of concrete with a nonfunctioning fountain marooned between
two rows of parking stalls.
But in the mid-1990s several occurrences sparked a complete and
almost miraculous transformation. A largely vacant, high-rise office
tower—a victim of the early 1990s recession—became available at
a fire-sale price. Then Paul Schell was elected mayor. A visionary
former attorney who headed the city’s community development department
during the 1970s, Schell could barely stomach walking into the decrepit
city hall building each day on the way to his top-floor office suite.
A cooperative city council also saw the light and authorized funding
for new buildings. Finally, the uptick in the economy in the late
1990s allowed some city-owned buildings to be marketed and sold,
providing additional funds for a new civic center.
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