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Sunday, July 24, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Melinda Bargreen

Choice Of Site For Concert Hall Raises Questions

So we're going to have a new Seattle Symphony concert hall downtown.

After eight years of walking to the Opera House past the Kreielsheimer site on Mercer Street, where the concert hall was planned ever since that foundation donated the land to the city in 1986, symphony fans are doubtless entertaining some surprising reflections this week.

First is the concept of eight years of planning, task forces, design and acoustical studies, coast-to-coast surveys of comparable facilities, and citizen advisory-group findings, all being overturned in the wake of two months of pretty fast action inside the city's inner circles. A new 18-member task force, probably the quickest-moving citizen group in city history, came to its findings within a matter of weeks: the Marathon Block, at Third and University, is a better place for a symphony hall than the Kreielsheimer site.

On the day of the decision by the concert hall site selection advisory committee, the members of the city council sent a memo to the committee "enthusiastically supporting" the concert hall and indicating its "slight preference for the Marathon site." "Slight" is surely an understatement in some cases; council member Tom Weeks has been one of the most outspoken and hard-working proponents of the downtown site.

Never mind that previous advisory groups have discounted the downtown site and come up with the Kreielsheimer site as the best option. And never mind that, at the request of the mayor on five occasions, the Kreielsheimer Foundation gave the city five additional years of deadline extensions for using the property. Now, everything has changed, and the Seattle Center area presents unsurmountable obstacles. Usually, the only significant change downtown backers can point to is that the Sonics are staying in the Coliseum - yet if memory serves, their proposed absence from the Coliseum wasn't cited as a significant factor in the previous task-force findings.

Traffic, particularly on Sonics nights, is usually listed among the obstacles to building the hall at the Center. And yes, there is traffic: The city's neglect of what's sometimes called the "Mercer Street mess" long has been one of the region's most inexplicable examples of planning myopia.

But from the standpoint of a person who has attended evening events, night after night and year after year since 1975, in every major downtown venue (from the Moore and the 5th Avenue to the Paramount and the art museum and the full array of downtown churches, as well as the Seattle Center and University of Washington venues), issues of traffic and parking are just as dreadful downtown as they are at the Center. Those who shake their heads at Mercer Street obviously have never tried to traverse Union Street on their way from I-5 to the Marathon site.

And those who cite the downtown parking advantages aren't considering the plight of those who can't, or don't want to, add $3 to $7 in parking fees to the cost of their tickets and their baby sitters. I almost always can find street parking near the Seattle Center, except on the rare occasions when an arts opening night is also a Sonics night. At last month's Seattle International Music Festival downtown, I rarely found a parking spot on the street, after looking hard and being willing to hike a few blocks. How many concertgoers are going to want to walk a few blocks, in the dark, in the milieu surrounding the Marathon site?

Mayor Rice and the council deserve an enormous amount of credit for the energy and effort they are pouring into downtown. Jack Benaroya, the project benefactor who built his family fortune through the intelligent and farsighted development of land and business parks, accepts the mayor's decision, as does symphony music director Gerard Schwarz, who lives downtown and understands the needs of the community. Deborah Rutter Card, the symphony's executive director, believes that the concert hall will not be more expensive to build on the Marathon site, despite the additional costs ($4 to $10 million, or perhaps twice that, depending on whom you're asking) of dealing with two subterranean tunnels and other site-related problems there. The probable financial advantages involved in developing parking resources and also housing (on the northern portion of the block) will offset those costs, she says.

Probably they are all right. The people making these decisions are intelligent and impassioned. Probably it's all best for the city.

But it all happened so fast that even the least cynical observer is likely to experience a frisson of unease: yes, the Marathon site for the city, but why for the symphony when it already has a viable and citizen-approved site? Eight years of planning and development overturned in eight weeks of new fact-finding?

Don Johnson, the Kreielsheimer Foundation co-trustee, has weighed in like the responsible community leader he is, with a letter to Rice urging the community to support the new downtown plan. Members of the city council may hope to have their cake and eat it, too, by diverting the concert-hall project from the Kreielsheimer site, but retaining the site for other museum-related development. Johnson has not commented on his future plans as trustee - except to say that he intends to arrange for the sale of the Kreielsheimer site at an early date.

The terms of the site gift have been clear: No progress toward a concert hall means the foundation will sell the property and disburse the funds as the co-trustees see fit. The city not only has looked this gift horse in the mouth; it may well have sent it back to the stables.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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