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Monday, August 30, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Hue And The Cry Over Bellevue Convention Center

BELLEVUE - It's 291,000 square feet, costs $29 million and is a sort of tannish, buffish, beige-like color. Those are facts about Bellevue's new convention center.

It looks like an enormous cardboard box, a gym, a barn, a bowling alley. Or it's a festive building, with an open design and inviting atmosphere creating a unique facility unmatched in the Pacific Northwest. Those are opinions about the Meydenbauer Center.

While workers labor to complete the inside of the center - the Eastside's first convention center, Bellevue's first city building downtown and its most ambitious city-sponsored project - for its planned Sept. 13 opening, people are reacting strongly to the outside of the center.

Love it or hate it, the consensus is it certainly is hard to miss.

"It's a different kind of building for Bellevue," said El Baylis, a local architect who helped select the design firm. "It's big and bulky. It has a lot of parts, and that may be disturbing. The Northwest style is to fit something under a roof; this building has several roofs that cover several parts of the building."

But Baylis approves. "It's a bit monumental, but it is a civic building. Given the mass of the building and the small site they had to put it on, I think it comes off well."

Mark Hinshaw, a local consultant and former city staffer who did some of the project's design review, agrees.

"For decades," he says, "public buildings were at best in the

background. With the convention center and the (new Bellevue) library, they're unique buildings. They also have unusual forms worked into them; there are odd angles and shifts. That upsets a lot of people.

"But why it engenders this loathing is beyond me. A lot of people claim to be disturbed by the roof - the curve. They say it looks like a bowling alley."

"I personally don't like the roof line," says City Councilwoman Chris Heaton. "I think it makes it look like a huge gymnasium. And then I'm not real fond of the color, either."

Heaton, however, calls the inside "classy," with its sweeping staircases, atria and terraces. The inside, in contrast with the outside, is universally beloved. Judhi Chopping, the center's executive director, compares it to "an individual who's more beautiful on the inside than the outside."

Jerry Gropp, a longtime local architect, says the center is "god-awful," too bulky and boxy - and doesn't resemble plans he saw. "It's nothing like what was promised to people," he says. "Well, they hired architects from New York. . . . That's always a bad sign."

The building, under construction since the summer of 1991, was the first convention center designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, the firm that did Seattle's Washington Mutual Building.

"The main thing," says John Koga, a senior designer on the Bellevue center project, "was to consider the building type and how to revisit the pros and cons of a convention center - to try to break down the mass in such a way that it became more friendly from the outside, so the sense of a big box was not the main appearance but a series of little events.

"I think we achieved that."

The center, a combination of 1930s art deco and 1950s streamline moderne, is an interpretation of a modern meeting house, Koga says. And he isn't offended by criticism of the center. "If they said, `I don't remember what it looks like,' I'd feel worse," he says.

As for the color, Koga says they wanted something warm that went well with gray skies.

"It's kind of a festive color, and after all it is a festive building," says Tom Kraft, the chairman of the center's public-private governing body. "We don't want to make it gray like everything else downtown."

Kraft points out that the exterior was originally planned to be brick, "but when the bids came in $4 million over, we saved $1 million by doing away with the brick."

The exterior is now a stucco-like material called "Dry-vit."

"Most of what I've heard has been very encouraging," Kraft says. "Of course, the building is very bulky - it has to house this huge exhibition hall and the meeting rooms on top of that."

There have been complaints about the center's blank north wall, where planned windows fell victim to budget-cutting, and the vast blankness of the east wall facing 112th Avenue Northeast and visible from Interstate 405. "I've heard people say that from the freeway it looks like a huge barn," says architect Baylis.

The city's own design guidelines called for windows or art on the east face, but a planned piece of art by Ginny Ruffner was another casualty of budget-cutting.

Not everyone has a strong opinion on the center's architecture, including City Councilwoman Georgia Zumdieck, who, as a citizen activist, questioned the necessity of the building at all and opposed the City Council's 1989 backing of bonds to build it without taking a public vote.

"Architecture is very subjective," Zumdieck said. "I'm more interested in financial considerations . . . that it doesn't impact the general fund, as promised."

She paused. "I very much dislike the color of it," she said.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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