Sleepless in Seattle City Hall


If the mayor has his way, Seattle might just become the first city in history to build a new city hall because the old one is too nice.

Since taking office three months ago, Mayor Paul Schell has presented a dizzying array of proposals on housing, transit and other big issues facing the city. Last week, he added yet another, sketching out a plan to: a) demolish the current city hall; b) sell the building the City Council intended as its replacement; and c) build a bunch of new buildings to replace the replacement.

If this seems complicated, it's probably because being humble is hard work.

Here's the problem. A couple of years back, the local government--strapped for both office space and money--stumbled onto a great deal on a nearly new, mostly empty 62-story skyscraper. The building owners were in default on their mortgage. And the banks, stuck with the debt, were eager to unload it. The economy was in a slight recession, so the city was one of the few buyers in the market able to purchase the building, which it did for $120 million--about 60 cents on the dollar for what it cost to build.

The city then began moving its employees out of a collection of old, seismically unsafe buildings into the skyscraper. The council planned to move itself and the mayor there as well.

Schell has other ideas. He grants that the city got a great deal on the building but says, in essence, that he would be embarrassed to live there. Perhaps only in Seattle would a politician be so embarrassed by such good luck.

"It was designed as a symbol of corporate power," Schell says, not a quality with which he wishes to associate the city. Schell thinks the symbolism of city government's occupying the high rise would be "undemocratic."

To say that Seattle wears its egalitarian politics on its sleeve is like saying Microsoft is ambitious. This is a city where the amount of public participation in government often doubles or triples the time and effort it takes to get things done. Fostering undemocratic practices is as close to mortal sin as politicians here can get.

So it comes as little surprise that the mayor is reluctant to take up residence in a skyscraper. Still, Schell's proposal received a tepid reception. His aversion to civic ostentation ran smack into another highly prized civic virtue--a love of thriftiness.

The city got such a great deal on the building that replicating it for anything near the same amount of money would be impossible. Schell says the sale of the building would finance all of its smaller replacements, but few members of the council really believe it.

City halls have a bad history here. For decades, the city shared space with the local county government. When it finally built its own building, the City Council--acting as the design jury--picked a blueprint intended for an office park in Texas. They don't even call it City Hall. Its proper name is the Municipal Office Building, and it is about as generic as the name implies.

Schell, a former dean of the University of Washington's architecture school, wants to replace it with a new civic center of appropriate scale and style. He has enlisted some of his architect buddies to help sell the plan, which at this point he is careful to say is very preliminary. "A visual description of a vision," is how one of the architects put it.

But while the architects talked about the need to visualize city streets as rivers of commerce and new buildings as armchairs--firm on the sides, soft in the middle--the real issue loomed overhead. The skyscraper that would be the new city hall is anything but generic. Which isn't the same as saying it's a handsome building. Key Tower, named after a tenant, is big, brown and tall, 62 stories of Finnish granite with a gabled roof that looks for all the world like a bright green shower cap.

The guy who designed it once likened it to an old face without makeup, wrinkled but honest. The overall effect is less government-issue office building and more mildewed mushroom.

Now there's a symbol the whole wet Northwest could be proud of.

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