A group against the loss of green space in Volunteer Park has opened a public process to stop the expansion of the Seattle Asian Art Museum.
The Office of the Hearing Examiner in June will consider an appeal of the master use permit for expanding the Seattle Asian Art Museum that was filed by Protect Volunteer Park.
Eliza Davidson for Protect Volunteer Park has been opposed to the Seattle Art Museum's expansion plans since learning during community outreach last year that the project will take away park space.
Constructed in 1933, the Seattle Asian Art Museum is in need of a seismic upgrade, a climate control system, air conditioning and fixes to access issues. SAM also plans a 13,650-square-foot expansion on the east end of the museum for gallery, office and meeting space, plus an education and art-making studio. The building's footprint would increase by 3,600 square feet.
The Seattle Asian Art Museum closed on Feb. 26 to begin removing collections, furnishings and other items from the building prior to construction. SAM expects to have the project completed and the museum reopened in 2019.
The appeal filed in late March challenges the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections' Determination of Non-Significance issued on March 16, which Protect Volunteer Park argues incorrectly assumes that any significant adverse impacts on the park and the historic integrity of the museum will be mitigated by the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board. Both the park and museum and any changes to them are under the purview of the board.
"That's all a lot of conjecture at this point," said attorney David Bricklin, who is representing Protect Volunteer Park. "It's very unclear what the preservation board will recommend at this point."
He said the board could determine the cultural benefits of the expansion project outweigh any potential significant impacts.
“There was an appeal to the MUP [master use permit] determination. The City Attorney is defending their MUP decision, and SAM’s attorney is defending our application," reads a statement from SAM CEO Kimerly Rorschach to the Capitol Hill Times on Thursday, April 20. "A hearing has been set for June 7. We are hoping that it is resolved quickly, and that the project can move ahead without delay this fall.”
Bricklin said he plans to file a request for summary judgment in early May, which could avoid the typical hearing process. The request is that there be an environmental impact study conducted.
"If it's just a legal issue, then he may be able to go through it without an evidentiary hearing," he said of the examiner.
As an attorney that specializes in land use issues, Bricklin said this is a rare case where the Department of Construction and Inspections does acknowledge the potential for significant adverse impacts from the project. Those would be better understood if an environmental impact study were conducted, Bricklin said, and identifying project alternatives would also be a part of the process.
"They've never gone back to the beginning and said, 'This is how we got here in the first place,'" Davidson said of SAM’s rollout of the project.
Davidson said the Seattle Asian Art Museum upgrade and expansion project lacked transparency during its design, and opponents have long asked for alternatives that wouldn't take up additional park land.
The original expansion design included a wraparound staircase with large windows, meant to provide a better connection between the museum and park on the east side. Architects said last September that the design changed because of concerns people might wrongly assume the staircase was an entrance to the museum.
"The footprint really hasn't changed," Davidson said. "They took off part of the overhanging structure that was kind of a stairway to nowhere."
Following continuing concerns about how the museum expansion will affect the historic Olmsted park, SPR superintendent Jesús Aguirre issued a letter to Rorschach on Jan. 6 to put a "project pause" on expansion work until more information was provided.
On Jan. 23, SAM issued a response to questions posed by Aguirre, and the project was allowed to proceed shortly after.
"I think I'm cynical now," Davidson said. "I felt optimistic at the time."
One day prior to issuing the letter for a project pause, Aguirre addressed a Dec. 7 letter from the National Association of Olmsted Parks that shares the same concerns expressed by Protect Volunteer Park. In a Jan. 5 email, Aguirre addresses the preservation, modernization and public safety benefits of the museum upgrade and expansion project.
Davidson believes the timing isn't coincidental, and that SPR has been to closely invested in the project from the beginning.
"It made it seem like the pause was premeditated and planned along with the museum," she said.The appeal hearing is set for 9 a.m. Wednesday, June 7, at the Office of Hearing Examiner, Room 4000, at 700 Fifth Ave. That's the 40th floor of Seattle Municipal Tower.