Space Needle views: Should they be protected?

SEATTLE -- The Space Needle is the symbol of Seattle, but new development in South Lake Union threatens to block its view by some residents.

Some are now asking the City Council to protect the vista of the Space Needle before Seattle’s newest neighborhood really takes off.

It’s not all views that are in question; it’s just the views from South Lake Union, where the city has put in a lot of money and where Seattle's big Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) opened in December.

“The Space Needle is something that is unique to Seattle,” said Ron Sever, chief executive officer of the privately owned Space Needle. His corporation is pushing to have the corridor between South Lake Union Park and the Needle protected from high-rise development.

“From this place we think it’s worth protecting,” Severt said outside the new MOHAI building. “I don’t want people to look at our skyline and think it’s some other city.”

Severt and the Space Needle owners are pushing to have South Lake Union Park added to a 2001 city ordinance that makes sure you can see the Needle from a number of public places all over town, including Myrtle Edwards Park along the waterfront and Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill.

“This park here, Lake Union Park, actually wasn’t on that list, because it wasn’t the park back then that it is today,” Severt said.

But others worry about placing too much importance on views of the Needle.

“We can live without the views from this particular vantage point and still have a great park and a great public space,” said Roger Valdez, a local writer and advocate for urban density who doesn’t believe saving the views of the Needle are worth the cost.

“Certainly views are important, but they are small in scale compared to the jobs, housing, and economic benefit from building here,” said Valdez.

Seattle City Councilman Richard Conlin is the lead sponsor of added height in the South Lake Union neighborhood, but does want to give some consideration to views.  “You will undoubtedly not see the entire Space Needle from certain places, and I think that’s OK,” said Conlin.

He added that the Space Needle will still be visible from places in South Lake Union Park because the width of the towers will be limited to guarantee there is a least a partial view between buildings.

“There will be lots of space between the block,” said Conlin.  “And, of course, the Space Needle is 602 feet high, so you are going to see a lot of the Space Needle regardless of how the towers come out.”

Jeffrey Ochsner, professor of architecture at the University of Washington, favors banning all towers in the corridor, especially considering that would only affect a relatively few number of blocks.

If you don’t protect the views, once they’re gone, they are gone forever,” said Ochsner.

Ochsner believes there is a social equity component to the building height fight.

“Private individuals with sufficient wealth are always going to be able to buy condominiums or buy houses on Highland Drive or other locations where they will be able to have their private views of the Space Needle,” he said. “But we need to be concerned about all citizens of this city and that means protecting views from public places that all citizens can share.”

The City Council will be voting on the upzone Monday, when they will be considering language to protect the view corridor.