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American Society of Landscape Architects


October 2005 Issue

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 place.

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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