An Opinion: Climate Pledge Arena, Promises & Pledges Honored

The grand opening of Climate Pledge Arena (CPA) marks a dramatic moment in the history of Queen Anne and Seattle.  Cherished since the 1962 World’s Fair when known as the Washington State Coliseum, it served as the site of the World of  Century 21.  The building has since been home to the Seattle Storm and the dearly missed Seattle Supersonics, the scene of innumerable concerts, and host to the elephants of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.  It was hard to see how the building could be converted to a giant modern arena that actually respected Seattle’s historic preservation ordinance and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation.  The Oak View Group (OVG), the site’s developers, pledged that it could and would build a new arena under the historic roof while respecting the intriguing patterns of the Coliseum’s window walls.

A visit to the CPA today (October 24, 2021) reveals that OVG kept its promises and certainly exceeded the expectations of this sometimes-cynical historic preservation planner.  A central provision of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation states that “New additions, exterior alterations or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features and spatial relationships that characterize the property.  The new work will be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.”

In 1995, it didn’t take Queen Anne folks long to give up the Coliseum name when the building was rebuilt and renamed the Key Arena.  As with this recent rebuild, the 1995 project dug a deeper bowl and attracted more income by increasing the number of luxury boxes.  The 1995 work preceded landmark designation by the City of Seattle by over a decade, for it wasn’t until the summer of 2018 as OVG began planning a new arena on the site that the landmark was designated.

It does not seem unfair to characterize the 1995 rebuild as botched.  In that go-around, Seattle Center excavated the massive buttresses that support the roof and exposed them to allow entrances on the arena’s floor.  That project seriously altered the south façade, adding a loading zone at street level, an underground ramp for trucks unloading gear on the arena floor and a new building running north-south between the arena and the Blue Spruce  building where I later occupied a dingy office.  Seattle Center called it Pavilion B.  Its ground floor served as the kitchen for the food vendors in the arena.  The south-facing changes extensively altered that side of the building and left little to protect when landmark designation happened.

The 2018 landmark designation protected only the Native American inspired rain-hat shape of the 44-million-pound roof and the glass walls designed by architect Paul Thiry (1904-1993), who also served as the primary architect of the entire Century 21 Exposition.

Climate Pledge Arena viewed looking northwest–10/25/21

Now, there is no question that the OVG rebuild goes beyond protecting those designated parts of the building.  It enhances them. The troughs dug around the buttresses to provide ground floor access have been filled in.

Powerful buttress restored
Powerful buttress restored. Looking west on the fountain side

You enter at the top of the arena and the better your seat, the lower you descend into the bowl.  Placing the entrances at the original ground level created expansive pedestrian plazas on all four sides of the building.

This change actually restores the relationship of the large building to its surroundings while tying it into the expansive grounds of Seattle Center to its  east.  The primary entrance to the CPA now spans the entire southern edge.  Called the Alaska Airlines Atrium, the entrance pavilion responds marvelously to the Secretary of the Interior Standards for Historic Preservation because it reads clearly as a new addition and because it marks well where the lines of the historic roof end.

Atrium with solar panels. Note the clear separation from historic roof.

The solar panels on the atrium help  to make this point.  The north elevation of the building is a glass wall that preserves the framing patterns of Thiry’s original Coliseum while opening the entire bowl of the arena to daylight and the plaza that reaches over to the Northwest Rooms (also designated landmarks) that now hold KEXP, the Vera Project and the SIFF Film Center.  That glass wall is a brilliant touch.

Looking across the ice to north windows

OVG and Populous, the architects of the CPA, trumpet the Net Zero Carbon results in the new building.  They are certainly right to do that; however, for a preservation planner like me the success of this project lies in the degree to which the new work respects the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards.

Looking east, window framing preserved

As with all projects of this scale, there are disappointments.  The southern additions to the International Fountain Pavilion and to  KEXP’s wing of the Northwest Rooms try desperately to hide themselves.

Extension to International Fountain Pavilion looking east.

Both modifications are justified by the need to create inobtrusive ventilation and emergency exits for the CPA.  At the International Fountain Pavilion very little separates the historic building from the addition, while the duplication of Thiry’s distinctive bas relief tilt walls try to make the new work blend with the old.  At KEXP, the extension of the balcony overlooking the arena’s western promenade is great, but little distinguishes the additions from the original building.

Balcony overlooking eastern plaza

The city’s Landmark Board approved OVG’s trashing of the distinctive railing along the balcony, but it could have been saved and incorporated into the new one.  The biggest preservation disappointment is the shrinking of the basin of Paul Thiry’s clever fountain just outside the courtyard entrance to KEXP and the failure to restore it.

Remains of protected fountain by Paul Thiry.

Looking east towards KEXP: Paul Thiry fountain.I almost wish we hadn’t fought to save it.

These little disappointments notwithstanding, the people of Seattle and Queen Anne owe Seattle Center, OVG and the Seattle Kraken a big thank you for all the care that went into making our new arena a success.