Seattle school levy: Does ‘yes’ vote mean demolish or preserve Memorial Stadium?

Jan 27, 2022, 1:51 PM | Updated: Jan 28, 2022, 9:00 am
Memorial Stadium...
A defunct fountain outside Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center reflects a fog-shrouded Space Needle on Thursday morning. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)
(Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

Seattle voters are being asked to decide by Feb. 8 whether or not to spend $70 million on improvements to what’s officially known as the “Seattle High School Memorial Stadium” as part of a “Buildings, Technology, and Academics/Athletics V Capital Levy” that includes a long list of projects in the state’s largest school district.

But does a “yes” vote mean demolition or preservation of the 1947 structure, built in tribute to Seattle alumni who died in World War II?

The decrepit appearance of Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center during the past few decades can apparently be deceiving.

Memorial Stadium looks to have not been the beneficiary of much in the way of love and attention, or possibly even preventive maintenance, for many years. And, as a district webpage devoted to the “BTA V” levy says: “Building systems (foundation, roof, walls, windows, doors, electrical, heating and ventilation, lighting) are in unsatisfactory or poor condition.”

Still, before the pandemic – and with those “unsatisfactory or poor” conditions notwithstanding – the enduring, if somewhat shabby looking, facility played host to variety of events each year, including high school sports and concerts during Bumbershoot. A venue of its size and character – and the events it can host – seems to fit in nicely with the adjoining Seattle Center campus.

But Memorial Stadium has been in political and funding limbo for years, so while the attention and possible dollars are a good thing, many are now wondering what a “yes” vote will actually mean for the iconic structure.

Worries and public expressions of anger about the fate of the memorial wall, which was installed many years after the stadium was dedicated, appear to have led the district, according to that same levy website, to conclude that the wall – with its hundreds of names of Seattle students who died in World War II – will be preserved regardless of what happens to the stadium.

But many believe that it’s the stadium itself – the entire stadium, not just the wall of names – that constitutes “Seattle High School Memorial Stadium,” along with the very notion of paying tribute to heroes by visiting and using an entire structure, and not just occasionally genuflecting at a comparatively smaller monument.

In this role, Memorial Stadium, in its entirety, has been a fixture and a large, if silent, World War II tribute in Seattle for nearly 75 years, with millions of people occupying its grandstands to witness countless historic events (and routine events, too) in the years since – from breathtaking high school football match-ups, to the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair opening and closing ceremonies, to concerts by a wide range of artists, from the Grateful Dead to Weezer, to high school graduations.

Answers from Seattle Public Schools

KIRO Newsradio first contacted Seattle Public Schools spokesman Tim Robinson in October 2021, seeking answers about the district’s plans for potential levy dollars spent on the stadium. This past week, Robinson provided answers to some of those questions.

“Our levy request, if it is approved, includes $70 million for turf replacement, replacement of stands, changing lighting to LED, and plumbing upgrades,” Robinson wrote.

Does “replacement of stands” mean demolition of the structure – and how would the stands be demolished without also demolishing the bulk of structure?

“I wouldn’t think that, but I don’t know for sure,” Robinson wrote in reply. “Replacing the stands refers, I think, to replacing those seats that have been there for decades.”

There’s a big difference between seats and stands, of course. Seats can be replaced easily and the stadium structure would be left in place; replacing “stands” almost surely means demolition.

“I will try and get clarity on that from our capitol folks,” Robinson continued, “but let me just add: whenever I ask about this or any other project, the general answer is ‘Capital Projects and Planning will develop an implementation plan and schedule for all BTA V projects upon approval of the levy proposal.’”

If Robinson’s confusion is understandable, is it any stretch to think that Seattle voters might also be confused, with less than two weeks to go before Election Day on Feb. 8?

Anyone reading a Seattle Times’ story published Jan. 27 about the levy would find it described as funding “long-awaited upgrades” and “improvements” to Memorial Stadium, with no mention of demolition or loss of the structure.

“The grandstands were built in the 1940s, and the district believes they are at the end of their life,” writes Seattle Times’ reporter Monica Velez.

Might the typical voter be confused or distracted enough to think this just means replacing the seats?

The district website devoted to the levy offers additional information about many projects but doesn’t cite a source for a conclusion, which has serious impact on the future of Memorial Stadium.

“Seismic upgrades needed to improve earthquake safety will likely require demolition and replacement of stands,” the website says, though it offers no specific information about what led to this conclusion.

Was there a survey or other examination of Memorial Stadium by qualified engineers? If so, can the public see a copy of the findings?

Robinson wrote, “A seismic analysis was done by PCS Structural Solutions. Costs were significantly higher to implement the seismic improvements rather than replacing the existing grandstands building. In addition, seismic improvements to the existing building would be less safe than a new building. I am unable to provide a copy of the seismic study at this time. Of course, you are welcome to do a public records request.”

In another section of that same webpage about Memorial Stadium, the district says “Memorial Stadium has not been designated a landmark by the Seattle Landmarks Board. SPS nominates all district buildings older than 25 years to be considered for landmark status when a project begins.”

Seattle Public Schools’ facilities that go through the Seattle Landmarks Board process sometimes become politicized, with decisions made that can appear to have little to do with a structure’s worthiness for historic preservation. However, if the nomination process results in Memorial Stadium being designated a landmark by the Seattle Landmarks Board, will Seattle Public Schools reframe the project so it becomes a preservation effort rather than one focused on demolition and new construction?

“It would depend on what parts were landmarked and what the landmarks preservation board would agree to allow,” Robinson wrote – which doesn’t seem to rule out preservation of the entire memorial structure.

KIRO Newsradio has submitted a public records request for the seismic analysis of Memorial Stadium, and this story will be updated.

Meanwhile, postage-paid mail-in ballots must be returned to official drop boxes or postmarked by Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Seattle school levy: Does ‘yes’ vote mean demolish or preserve Memorial Stadium?