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Memorial Wall stuck in limbo of neglect at Seattle Center stadium

The Memorial Wall at Seattle Center’s Memorial Stadium is looking neglected, forgotten and choked with weeds once again. (Feliks Banel)

As Memorial Day Weekend approaches, and with the 75th anniversary of D-Day just weeks away –  and the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II coming up in 2020 – how is Seattle’s oldest and most visible monument to that long-ago conflict holding up?

A year ago, an Eagle Scout project cleaned up the Memorial Wall at what’s officially known as Seattle High School Memorial Stadium. The stadium is at Seattle Center, and the Memorial Wall at the stadium’s east end lists the names of 800 Seattle School Districts alums who died in World War II.

Seattle Eagle Scout honored at Memorial Wall

Unfortunately, the Memorial Wall is, once again, appearing neglected and forgotten.

But this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention for the past several years.

The memorial to Seattle Public Schools World War II dead has been dilapidated for decades, and now serves as the western boundary of a parking lot for Seattle Center visitors, with cars parked nearly up against its once stately steps, landscaping and water features.

In addition to those 800 sacred names, the Memorial Wall once had fountains and dramatic lighting, which haven’t functioned for decades, and the shrubbery is often overgrown and strewn with trash. The stadium itself is old and long in the tooth, but it’s still functioning, and is home to high school football, soccer and other sports, as well as to concerts during Bumbershoot.

The real estate situation is unusual, because though Memorial Stadium looks to the casual visitor as if it were part of Seattle Center – that is, owned and operated by the City of Seattle – the land was actually given to the school district by the city back in the 1940s for a stadium, and the school district built Memorial Stadium there in 1947. The stadium was updated for the 1962 World’s Fair, but it generally exudes the look and feel of a utilitarian postwar athletic facility (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

Seattle commits to preserve dilapidated Memorial Wall

Back in 2017, a press conference was held at Memorial Stadium in the east end zone. At that event, Seattle’s then-mayor Tim Burgess announced a partnership with the Seattle School District to cooperate and find money for several projects, including to either rehab or replace the stadium. The then-mayor, as well as school board member and now school board president Leslie Harris, also went out of their way to emphatically say that the Memorial Wall would be preserved, no matter what.

It sounded then as if the stadium project itself was dashing toward the end zone, and, whether as part of a restoration project or a complete replacement of the facility, the Memorial Wall would finally get the love and attention it deserves.

As it turns out, according to Fred Podesta, Chief Operations Officer for Seattle Public Schools, Memorial Stadium was taken off the list of projects for the capital levy that was approved by voters earlier this year.

“We have just passed [a levy], and the stadium funding was considered at that time, but it was a long list, and it just didn’t quite make the cut,” Podesta said by phone from his office last week.

Podesta also said that the stadium is a “high priority” for funding the next time around, however, which would mean being on the ballot in 2022. He said the cheapest solution is replacing the stadium.

“The work we’ve done so far indicates a wholesale replacement is more efficient and less expensive, frankly, than trying to rehabilitate the existing facility, given its age,” he said, though the building is structurally sound.

Since it’s, once again, early in this new 2022 planning process, it seems as if preservation is not completely off the table, especially if a well-organized citizens’ group appeared and lobbied successfully for it.

According to Podesta, if they do build a new stadium, a new location is also up for discussion.

“The Seattle Center folks have pointed out that if the stadium were to move east a little bit, there could be more green space around the International Fountain,” Podesta said. “And, does the KCTS property provide an opportunity that, if we shifted how we occupy space in the Center, does that make it better for an overall design? We’re certainly willing to talk about things like that as long as the bottom line is that we can serve all the programs that we serve.”

KCTS, which occupies a building on the corner of 5th and Mercer, has been told by Seattle Center that the media non-profit will have to vacate by the end of 2024.

“We have been made aware that a lease extension is not an option,” wrote KCTS spokesperson Kelsey Tomascheski in an email on Tuesday. “We are actively looking for a new location for our organization, but have not secured anything at this time.”

With KCTS out of the way, the stadium footprint could move north and east, though Podesta says there are no firm plans for anything this extreme as yet.

“We haven’t laid out a model that goes that far, but those are the kinds of questions that we’re going to be asking ourselves over the next year as we both do this planning,” Podesta said, referring to separate planning processes for Seattle Center and for Seattle Public Schools. The public participation element of both of those processes, when support for either restoring or replacing the stadium can be voiced, is yet to be determined.

Those separate planning processes are difficult to understand, given that Memorial Stadium is, regardless of which public entity owns it, embedded in the layout of Seattle Center. And, while Podesta pledges that those two plans will eventually be integrated somehow, it’s clear that Seattle Public Schools considers the stadium to be distinct and separate from the rest of the Seattle Center campus.

“We’re not a tenant of Seattle Center, the district owns that property,” Podesta said. “So we’re a neighbor, and we think it’s in everybody’s best interest that whatever happens is integrated and it furthers the interests of Seattle Center … the stakeholders of the school district are the same stakeholders of Seattle Center.”

One question that came up at the 2017 press conference was whether or not “naming rights” to a possible replacement stadium would be sold to help fund the project. There was no clear answer then, but Podesta is clear now.

“We can name school facilities after people,” Podesta said. “We don’t sell naming rights to Seattle Public Schools’ facilities to corporations. Those are policies that can change, but as of now, that’s not school policy to name buildings that way.”

This means, perhaps, that the “Seattle High School Memorial Stadium” official name, which some also consider to be a tribute to the deceased alums, might transfer to any new facility that might be built.

Memorial Wall in limbo

With a decision and funding now, once again, years away, the Memorial Wall appears to be languishing in a kind of limbo of neglect. A quick check on Tuesday this week found the hallowed ground choked with tall weeds, with a pile of hedge clippings from a recent trimming on the ground, mucky trash-filled water in one of the old fountains, and plenty of garbage in and around the hedge that lines the front of the wall.

Meanwhile, Fred Podesta acknowledges that it will likely be four or five years at the earliest until any restoration or replacement work begins on the stadium with funding from a capital project levy.

What about some kind of interim fix, out of respect for those Seattle Public Schools students who gave their lives during World War II and for their surviving friends and family members? With the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II next year, is there any way the school district could invest the funds necessary to restore the Memorial Wall — fix the lights, fix the fountains, reestablish the plaza – for the last big anniversary when vets of that war are still around to appreciate it?

Podesta says no, and that the school district has 104 schools to care for, and also, they’ve already made some improvements to amenities within the stadium.

“I think we’d be loathe to make a major investment [in an interim Memorial Wall restoration] that’s likely going to need a reinvestment in a few years,” Podesta said. “But certainly, we like to take as good a care of the memorial as we can.”

A final decision about whether or not to put restoration or replacement of Memorial Stadium on the 2022 ballot won’t come until late 2021, when even the youngest of the remaining World War II veterans will be in their mid 90s.

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