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Tuesday, November 30, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Big Beam For Space Needle Is Protested -- Sky-Brightening Plan Up For Board Approval

Seattle Times Eastside Bureau

Owners of the Space Needle will find out tomorrow whether they can brighten the new year with a powerful beam of light projected into the sky.

Opponents want to block that plan, which they say would degrade city dwellers' views of nighttime skies.

The Landmark Preservation Board will decide whether Space Needle managers can throw the switch on three 7-kilowatt spotlights atop the tower that would have the combined intensity of 85 million candles. Any permanent changes to the structure, which was declared a city landmark in April, require board approval.

The light beam would be turned on for special occasions, beginning with New Year's events. Officials estimate it would be used about 70 times a year, including holidays, opening days of sport seasons or Seattle Center festivals.

The beam would be among several renovations to the Space Needle's base, restaurant and observation deck. Lights along its legs and ribs also are planned to "show off the architecture," said Dean Nelson, president and CEO of the Space Needle Corp., which owns the tower.

"If the Mariners were to go to the World Series or the Seahawks were in the Super Bowl, we'd want to light our lights to celebrate," Nelson said of the proposed "sky beam."

No one knows what effect the light would have under different weather conditions or whether it would interfere with pilots. If it is approved, the Federal Aviation Administration will evaluate the beam, and air-traffic officials at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and Boeing Field could activate an emergency shut-off switch, according to a letter from the manager of the FAA's Air Traffic Division to the Space Needle lighting designer.

Built for the 1962 World's Fair, the 605-foot Space Needle represented the 21st century and the importance of space research.

But, ironically, the proposed beam would hinder both casual stargazers and professional astronomers, making it difficult to see or accurately chart stars, meteors and planets, said University of Washington astronomy professor Woodruff Sullivan.

"It's very little light compared to all the skyscrapers in Seattle, but it's absolutely the wrong direction to be going in," he said. "Seattle is known across the country for its environmentalism. This project is all glitz, and it's a wanton waste of electricity."

A leading international researcher on light pollution, Sullivan said the proposed beam would be "100 percent glare." Glare is excess light that enters the eyes directly without reflecting off other surfaces, and can reduce visibility for drivers or disorient birds that fly into its path.

But the Landmark Preservation Board doesn't have the authority to consider the beam's environmental effects, said board coordinator Elizabeth Chave, who has received several letters and e-mails from people across the country denouncing the plan.

"I know there are concerns about the night sky, but the Landmark Board has no control over light pollution," she said. "Whether the lighting takes away from the historic character of the building will be a concern to them."

The eight-member board is the only city agency reviewing the project, she said.

The Space Needle Corp. didn't apply for board approval until the beginning of November, although the project has been in the works since last spring.

Some beam opponents are angry the meeting is scheduled during one of the busiest weeks in Seattle, with the World Trade Organization and thousands of protesters in town.

Karl Schroeder, president of the Seattle Astronomical Society, said his organization initially was told the meeting would be held Dec. 15.

"There's been no public input at all, and (the meeting date) is sure going to restrict the number of people who can go and have their opinions heard," he said.

In his opinion, advertising is the sole motivator for lighting up the Space Needle like Las Vegas's Luxor Hotel, one of the few buildings in the country with a similar beacon.

"This light is not for preventing ships from running aground; it's not a beacon for airplanes. The Space Needle is the fourth-most-visited site west of the Mississippi - people know it's here, so why do they need to put a light on top of it?"

Sara Jean Green's phone message number is 206-515-5654. Her e-mail address is sgreen@seattletimes.com ------------------------------- Landmark Board meeting

The Seattle Landmark Preservation Board will meet at 3:30 p.m. tomorrow in Room 1003 of the Arctic Building, 700 Third Ave.

Written comments will be accepted through 5 p.m. today and can be e-mailed to beth.chave@ci.seattle.wa.us or delivered to Elizabeth Chave at the board's office on the fourth floor of the Arctic Building.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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