Understanding the SAAM expansion

The City Council is considering a plan to expand the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park and extend the Seattle Art Museum’s lease on the property for an additional 55 years. The plan has many supporters, as well as a dedicated set of opponents.

The historic building originally opened in 1932, having been built with private funds and then donated to the city. It was designed to house the Seattle Art Museum, and did so until the museum moved to its current location in the early 1990’s. In 1955 a new gallery was built onto the back of the building, and after the Seattle Art Museum moved out, the building was refurbished and reopened as the new home of the Seattle Art Museum in 1994.

In 2008, the citizens of Seattle passed the Parks and Green Spaces Levy, which earmarked $9 million for seismic and other upgrades to the building. But the plan was shelved when the recession hit.

In 2011, the city passed an ordinance committing $11 million to upgrades and restoration, and to planning for another expansion of the building. That set in motion a cooperative plan between the city and the Seattle Asian Art Museum (which is operated by the Seattle Art Museum), the result of which is the plan before the Council now — with a bigger price tag for the city.

The building sits in the middle of Volunteer Park, an interesting arrangement. The park is in a residential zone where museums are not allowed, making the building a “nonconforming use.” To be fair, the building predates the zoning, but nevertheless expanding it requires an explicit exemption by the City Council. The city has prepared a land use amendment that will do exactly that: it carves out an exception solely for this building.

Since it’s a city-owned building, and city dollars will partially fund the project, the Council must also approve the redevelopment and expansion agreement. Attached to the project is also a 55-year lease extension for the museum.

Opponents of the project argue several points:

  • They don’t oppose the continuing operation of SAAM in the existing building, and they believe the building should be renovated, but they think that expanding the footprint of the building will encroach upon important and scarce open space park land in the city.
  • The project, they argue, will reduce the tree canopy.
  • They believe the expansion is too tall and violates height restrictions because it’s built onto a slope.
  • They believe 55 years is too long for a lease on a city-owned building, particularly one where the city is committing to paying substantial ongoing major maintenance costs.

Let’s dive into the details of the project.

Here’s an aerial map of Volunteer Park, with the existing building circled.

Volunteer Park is 48.3 acres, just over 2.1 million square feet. The existing SAAM building  has a footprint of 18,800 square feet, which is 0.8% of the park area.

Here’s the proposed new building (expansion in yellow):

And here’s how it would look on the park map:

The expanded building’s footprint would be 23,700 square feet, an increase of 4900 square feet. The new building would take up 1.1% of the park’s land.

There are three floors through much of the building, including in most of the expansion, so the actual usable floor space increases more — from the existing 50,345 square feet to 64,250. The land use exemption that the Council is considering would limit the expansion to 15,000 additional square feet of floor space, so at 13,900 the plan is safely under the limit.

The building itself is classic art deco architecture, and a historic landmark. Here’s the front (west-facing):

It has a beautiful sandstone façade, but is clearly in need of repair and restoration. In 1994, the city approved $400,000 for emergency structural repairs it discovered while studying the excessive wear and discoloration of the façade (which it determined could cost as much as $2 million to address).

The east-facing rear of the building originally looked like this:

During the first building expansion in 1954, the front was retained intact but several changes were made to the rear, including pushing the southern half out farther east.

Here’s what it looks like today:

Here’s the southeast corner of the building:

And here’s the north corner, including the loading dock:

Let’s be honest: it’s a sad-looking building from the back.

The new expansion does three things. On the north end, it replaces the existing loading dock and adds a new freight elevator. On the southeast end, it pushes the 1954 expansion out further east. In the center of the rear face, a new middle-floor glass walkway is added. The new expansion adds a significant amount of exterior glass, with the intent of bringing more of the surrounding nature into the experience inside the building.

So let’s look at the concerns raised by the opponents of the plan.

First, does it encroach upon the valuable park and open space in Volunteer Park?  Barely; the building expands from 0.8% of the park land to 1.1%.

Second, does it reduce the tree canopy? The development plan includes the required tree plan. An “X” is a tree to be removed; a down-pointing triangle is a tree to be relocated.

Four plants are removed, and two are relocated. Click on the photos below to see them:

Are these plants consequential? The tall tree in the bottom picture brings me some heartache but that’s the only one of the six; the tree on the north side of the building (middle photo) is arguably too close to the building, and its lean and overhang suggest that if its root system hasn’t already done damage to the building’s basement and foundation, it will when it inevitably falls.

The critics also assert that the open lawn space is important to the park, while supporters of the project claim that it’s underused and “unactivated” park space that invites crime and drug users. When I walked around the space over the weekend, on an unusually warm and sunny January afternoon, there were several people walking dogs through the area, and even one brave couple relaxing on a blanket on the somewhat soggy grass. There were no signs of  drug paraphernalia, which might simply mean that the Parks Department is doing a good job of cleaning up the area. The graffiti on the building, though, is disconcerting. The area is adjacent to 15th Avenue and (as can be expected for parklands) is not well lit. To that point, the critics argue that the large amount of glass windows and doors in the proposed expansion areas would ruin the natural feel of the park in this area; unlike most city parks which close at dusk, Volunteer Park is open until 10pm. No doubt the proposed expansion will “activate” this part of the park with museum-related foot traffic and gatherings.

Third, as to the building height and slope: the opponents make much of height restrictions that they say the proposed expansion would violate because it would be built into sloping terrain. The letter of the law measures building height by the point in the building with the highest altitude above sea level, and the expansion areas don’t increase that.  Also, the existing building has three floors, though the “basement” level only has half-windows. You can see that clearly in the photos above, particularly of the northeast corner.

The new expansion does indeed bring the building farther down the eastern slope, dropping ground level by about five feet: less than half a floor, but enough to expose the lower half of the basement level. You can see the drop on the contour lines in the construction drawings (click to zoom).


The old low point was 439 feet above sea level (ASL) in the northeast corner, and 440 feet ASL in the southeast corner. With the proposed expansion, the new low point is 435 feet ASL. It doesn’t add any more floors to the building, either above or below the existing ones. It doesn’t lower the basement level or raise the roof line.

Finally, there is the issue of the lease, and the city’s commitment to major maintenance for 55 years. That is an interesting policy question, which the City Council should consider carefully. Keep in mind, though, that it’s a city-owned building that has historic landmark status, and the building has been leased continuously to the Seattle Art Museum continuously since 1931 — 86 years.  The building isn’t going away (nor should it), which means that even if the city terminates its lease with SAM, the city is still on the hook for maintaining a historic landmark that it owns.

In December when the lease extension was first presented to the Council, Council members Juarez and Harrell criticized the package of public benefits that it contained, mostly for its lack of quantifying the value of the benefits and the detail of the outreach programs. Since then, the city and SAM have sweetened the deal.

In 1975, the lease was amended to set admission fees at $1 per person.  In 1994, another amendment was signed that changed it from a required admission fee to a “suggested fee” of $8.50 consistent with what SAM was asking at its new downtown location — but anyone who couldn’t afford that could gain admission simply by paying what they believed they could afford, as little as one cent. That policy will continue on with the new lease agreement, though the “suggested admission fee” will adjust over time.

The agreement — technically a “lease and operating agreement” — is a little unusual in that SAM pays no rent, and in fact receives payments from the city for ongoing operation of SAAM.

Apart from its own internal operating expenses, SAM must also cover “all routine and regular repairs and maintenance” to the building.  It’s not unusual for non-profits such as SAM to be subsidized by local governments, so if it helps you can think of it as separate rent payments from SAM to the city and subsidies from the city to SAM, collapsed into a single payment structure. Still, the numbers get large in the out-years, so the question of a 55-year commitment is valid and should be considered carefully by the Council.

There’s one final bit of legal tidying-up that needs to be reckoned with: Voter Initiative 42, passed directly into law by the City Council in 1996. It sets the rules by which the city can dispose of park property, or change the use of city property from “park and recreation” to other uses. Doing so requires the city to pass an ordinance declaring that it was necessary to do so, and to receive equivalent property in return that would be dedicated to park and recreation use. Some opponents of the SAAM expansion believe that the project violates Initiative 42.  The city believes that operation of SAAM is a “recreational purpose” and in fact spells that out explicitly in the proposed ordinance ratifying the lease and operating agreement. However, that question might form the basis of a legal challenge to the expansion plan.

The Council will continue its deliberations on the SAAM expansion this Wednesday afternoon, when these and possibly other issues  will be on the table.

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  1. If we lease a building for zero monetary rent, with the landlord committing to payments to subsidize the tenant, I would say it isn’t really a lease anymore, rather, more of a synthetic debt obligation. But it is not being accounted for as debt, and it has features which City debt should not have, such as a super-duper-long term and payments that increase over time.

    The City has not even had an appraisal done to estimate the market value rent which is being foregone, surely an essential data point for determining the public cost of this proposal. But we are asked to bind the next 55 years of City policymakers to these terms and budgetary expenditures.

    Section 15.2.1 is also interesting. The tenant can default on any/all of its obligations during the first 10 years of the term without the City having any recourse to terminate the lease agreement. I have no idea how the legislative sausage comes out this way but I hope we don’t buy it.

    1. I think of it a little differently. The lease would involve paying rent, and the operating agreement would involve the city paying SAM. The agreement could lay out both separately, but since the operating agreement is larger than the rent payment, they simplified it by just making it one net payment. You do raise a good question as to whether the city has done a study to determine what rent should be. I am going to try to hunt down a copy of the original 1932 lease agreement to see what it says about rent; it may be that because the building was built using private funds SAM gets to use it rent-free.

      1. This article has a link to a copy of the original lease agreement (see the first link):


        There was never any rent being paid, and always an operating subsidy. As you suggest, in some sense this was balanced by the private donation of the building to the City. But notice that this balance decreases over time as the City faces costs to maintain the building without receiving any revenue resulting from the use of the building. More generally, at some point (and certainly by now) City property should be managed in the public interest rather than out of an attempt to financially repay a philanthropic gift of 83 years ago.

  2. It’s worth noting that the park, like the building, is a historic landmark, which is why this project was reviewed by the city’s landmarks board. Also, your percentage of park calculations are deceptive. If you take into account actual green space — as opposed to the total park property including roads, buildings and a very large, fenced reservoir and densely wooded areas — the amount of park removed for building expansion is much more significant. In the real world, a lovely open area very popular for winter sledding and summer picnicking is slated for destruction.
    Also, the museum planners didn’t seriously offer for public scrutiny any options for growth beyond this present plan. I-42 would have forced their hand, but the mayor (and his husband at Parks) assured SAM the city legal team would define “park use” in their favor, leaving SAM to claim after the fact that every option was explored.

    1. It is a gross exaggeration to say that “a lovely open area very popular for winter sledding and summer picnicking will be destroyed.” It’s 261 feet from the eastern-most edge of the proposed expansion to 15th Avenue. Even subtracting out (a very generous) 60 feet for the planted area between the street and the nearest park path, that’s still 200 feet of open space, with over 15 feet of elevation drop (as opposed to the 240 feet/20 foot drop today).

      1. You clearly don’t calculate sledding physics from the perspective of a 6-year old. That 25 percent loss of elevation will kill the sled hill. By destroyed, I meant dug up and constructed on. There will still be great open space there, but some 3,500 square feet of park will be destroyed.

        1. “Think of the children!”

          Please just stop it with the hyperbole. 3500 square feet of land isn’t disappearing; it’s being put to a different use. And it’s 3500 square feet of cultivated grass lawn, hardly unsullied old-growth forest. It’s perfectly fair to ask whether the community prefers that different use or not, but let’s not act like repurposing 3500 square feet of lawn is act of “destruction.” It’s grass, by far the largest crop grown in our country.

          I have no opinion as to whether the project should go forward. But we need to have a rational, fact-based discussion about it, not a battle to see who can cast the others’ plans and intentions in the worst possible light.

          1. Brother, if you see 3,500 square feet of an Olmsted historic landmark as simply “cultivated grass”, you might not really be in a position to define my comments on this issue as hyperbolic. Does a rational, fact-based discussion mean that aesthetics aren’t relevant? From where do you think the value placed on the museum’s collections is drawn? Do you think a 3rd century vase is just heated clay, or do you accept that people might see it in a more profound light?
            If you woke up to find the lawn in front of your house was now a concrete apartment block, would you say your yard had disappeared?
            People’s reasons for valuing open space landscapes are obviously as relevant as people’s reasons for loving Asian art. Your rational discussion on a public lands issue can’t take place in some sort of policy vacuum. Initiative 42 came about because people treasure parks — grass, trees, tennis courts, swing sets, etc. Defining park use is not a simple task. If the museum wanted a 75,000-square-foot amendment to the land use code, would you see that as simply an adjustment of park assets?
            And I do think of the children. Every time it snows, the slope behind the museum is a sled hill for the younger set. That’s a fact. Evaluating that fact as one of many in a rational discussion of park use is good policy. Claiming that piece of park is a muddy, unused, drug haven — as many have done — is a dishonest ploy to win support for the museum expansion.
            The public voted on the remodel, not on the expansion. If the council is to make an educated decision, it’s important that open space proponents are heard in near proportion to the voices of SAM’s influential donors and public relations team. Love for the museum is honorable. So is love for the park.

          2. It’s a beautiful park, and grass and lawns are important. But there is nothing unique about that particular 3500 square feet of grass.

            Of course aesthetics are important. Like I said, this is a disagreement about preferred use for that 3500 square feet.

            You’ll notice in the article I discussed Initiative 42. I also looked for signs of drug usage in the area and saw none, as I wrote, though I did see the graffiti. And I noted that it is, in fact, an area that is used by people, even in January. Neither side has a monopoly on hyperbole.

            The public voted on money ($9M) for the renovation. That much, and more, will be spent on renovation, plus what is spent on the expansion. So the voters are getting what they wanted. The expansion is above and beyond that. The Council appropriates money for all sorts of projects that don’t require voter approval.

            I always laugh when people suggest that our city officials need to listen to equal proportions of people from each side, as if that actually strengthens the quality of their arguments. 200 people telling the Council that they support or oppose a project is no different than 100, or 300. It is meaningless in terms of whether it represents the views of the 700,000 residents of Seattle, and the Council knows that. They try very hard to listen to everyone who shows up, but you can watch them start to tune out when the tenth person repeats the same talking points — whichever side they are on. What moves them is new information and a convincing argument, backed by evidence that they can verify. I don’t speak for the Council; that’s just my observation from countless hours in Council meetings and speaking one-on-one with them. They’re trying to make good decisions, and they listen to people who show a genuine desire to help them to get informed.

          3. Also: according to NOAA, Seattle averages 3 snow days a year and an annual accumulation of 5 inches. “Every time it snows” doesn’t equate to an awful lot of sledding.

  3. Very interesting observation about how the council absorbs information. Many of us new to an issue would do well to understand that. The disproportionality I see is the applicant literally having a place at the table with the council as well as numerous private meetings with council, parks officials and the mayor. The opposition, meanwhile, is limited to 2-minute (or less) comments in an atmosphere of fait accompli. One could never question a SAM representative at a landmarks hearing, for example. In this case you might think the city agency in charge of parks would in some form advocate for their landmark property, but they were in cahoots with SAM well before any public process. For the public, meeting with a councilmember or even engaging in a written exchange with them is very difficult.
    But as for snow! There have been years with a dozen or more days of sledding. I’d ask you to calculate value on a per-run basis. Let’s say 30 kids each day making 20 runs … you get the picture. Considering that each 15-second sled run adds more to the greater pool of joy than any amount of time peering in the window of the proposed antiquities conservation lab, you have an infinitely greater value. (You can check my numbers). Add in the summer and fall hipster picnics and the expansion looks very sorry indeed!
    Thanks for covering the issue.
    (And the graffiti, by the way, is new, though homeless camping is not. The glass walkway seen in your diagrams is going to create a large, covered, shaded area conducive to the very behavior SAM is using as a justification for repurposing park space. Not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly ironic.)

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