Feliks, Dave debate the future of Seattle’s Memorial Stadium

Mar 22, 2023, 9:11 AM

memorial wall...

The City of Seattle and the school district agreed in 2017 to preserve the Memorial Wall at Memorial Stadium. (File photo, Feliks Banel)

(File photo, Feliks Banel)

Seattle Public Schools and the City of Seattle have formally issued a request for proposals to tear down Memorial Stadium and replace it with a new multi-purpose venue on the Seattle Center campus.

“The city’s agreement with Seattle Public Schools creates a rare opportunity to build a first-class venue prioritizing public schools, right in the cultural heart of the city,” said Seattle City Council President Debora Juarez. “This project has been a long time coming.”

Dave Ross and Feliks Banel debated how far the city should go in preserving the memorial, what its purpose in the community should be, and what they thought should be done with the space.

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

Dave Ross: The days may be numbered for Memorial Stadium, formerly known as Seattle High School Memorial Stadium and Seattle Center, built in 1947 in honor of the Seattle Public School alums who died in World War II. Late yesterday, the city and the school district announced a search for a private partner to help build what they describe as a new multipurpose sports, educational, and entertainment venue where the old stadium currently stands and to give us the update, and to air his concerns, is our resident historian Feliks Banel.

Feliks Banel: I’ve been covering this story for KIRO for about six years. Number one, I’m really glad they’re finally doing something. I don’t know if you’ve looked at that stadium lately, but the outward appearance of it, it’s just disgraceful. But I do have some concerns about it because there’s been a pattern of them being slow to share information relevant, I think, to the parts of the story that doesn’t really get reported very often. First of all, is the actual condition of the stadium structure, which is still in use all the time, right? KOMO did a story yesterday, Chris Daniels quoted Fred Podesta, he’s the Operations Officer for the district. He said, ‘The stadium has reached the end of its useful life.’ And a year or so ago, I asked for documentation about that, and they gave me a study that architects have done it said there’s some concrete damage here and there. I can’t see anything that would lead someone to make conclusions for each end of its useful life. It’s used every day.

Ross: Right, but it’s out of date. I mean, it’s got supports that block the view.

Feliks: There’s semantics in this, I realize there’s semantics in this. And I’m not one of these people who wants to save every single old thing. But this has some special connections to it for the reasons it was built and who it was built for. It’s not just an old school that’s sitting in some neighborhood of Seattle that’s unused. The second thing I’m concerned with the naming rights because, as part of the package, there’s a private investor will be attracted to this, and they’ll be able to sell the naming rights to anyone they want. Memorial has to be in the name, that’s all that’s required. When I asked about this, there was a press conference five years ago with then-Mayor Tim Burgess, and at the end of this press conference announcing the partnership between the city and the school district. I raised my hand, ‘well, are naming rights going to be considered?’ and everyone laughed. I literally could hear people in the audience chuckling. I think Tim Burgess chuckles too. Here’s what he said back then.

“That’ll all be dealt with later as the public planning process unfolds,” Burgess said.

Feliks: To me, that’s a real concern.

Ross: Well, they’re keeping the memorial right there?

Feliks: We’ll get to the semantics of that because what does he constitute as the memorial, that’s my bigger question. Whoever bids on this gets the right to sell the names sell the naming rights, as long as they retain the memorial. Nowhere in the RFP is the actual official name, Seattle High School Memorial Stadium, that’s not even mentioned in this 41-page document. They just keep calling up Memorial Stadium. And I remember, you know, there are 800 names there, I read them once on Facebook Live, they took me like 35 minutes, just stood there with little cameras recited all the names. And those names, they’re not in the picture. It’s not really part of the discussion. That’s concerning to me because, again, the whole reason the thing is there is it’s a memorial they dedicated in 1947. It was November ’47. They said, ‘these kids are playing on the field that their alums don’t get to play on, and the facility is dedicated [in] memory of these 800 people.’ That wall of names didn’t come along till four years later, it wasn’t just a plaque, the whole facility is the memorial. And I get it, I’m in the minority thinking that, I believe.

Feliks: But there’s sort of this presumptuousness about the landmark status you also in this RFP, and in all the district materials, there’s no mention of that fact, that stadium came first, and the wall came later. There’s no mention of the 800 names or who they are, it just says, ‘memorial wall, this and memorial wall that,’ and here’s what it says about the landmark status because any project like this will have to be reviewed by the Seattle landmarks board. It says here’s the quote, ‘proposers should develop their proposal with the assumption that Memorial Stadium will not be designated as a landmark, but must provide for restoration and maintenance of the memorial wall.’ So they’re just assuming that that stadium, which is almost 80 years old, was built by an architect named Stoddard, who also designed Husky Stadium, Aqua Theater, and Greenlight Park, a significant architect. They’re just assuming that it’s not going to be a landmark, don’t worry about that part. And that just concerns me, they’re trying to skip over that and kind of gloss over what we’re actually dealing with here.

Ross: Well, what I think they’re saying is that for it to be a viable deal, you can’t use the existing structure. You got to save the memorial, but the stadium itself, with the supports that actually land in some of the seats right now, would not make a viable sports venue in this day and age.

Feliks: But those concerns about the actual status of the memorial in the stadium as a landmark haven’t been vetted.

Ross: Do you think they would they’re really going to basically say, we’re going to forget these names? I can’t imagine Seattle doing that.

Feliks: Yeah. And that’s where I realized that I’m in the minority here about seeing this as the stadium itself is the memorial, right? And if it’s not going to collapse, right, it’s still standing. It’s survived the ’49 earthquake, the ’65 quake, and the ’01 quake, why not at least not give lip service? I don’t think they know what it would cost to actually renovate that.

Ross: What do you want to give it like a paint job and just call it good?

Feliks: I mean, there are all sorts of things you can do in the 21st century to take a 1947 building and make it last another 100 years. I mean, do I sound like a lunatic talking about this, Dave? You can be honest with me. Do I sound crazy?

Ross: You don’t sound like a lunatic, but that is an incredibly valuable piece of property, right? I mean, I think it’s incredibly underutilized. I think there are a lot of events that could be going on there that don’t, because it doesn’t have the facilities that people expect, like, the old Key Arena. I mean, I thought it was perfectly fine, right? Yeah. But it turns out to be a viable and profit-making venue, you had to do all that rebuilding, and you had to dig down another story for crying out loud. And now the thing is a tremendous success. We got a hockey team. Memorial Stadium, the names have to be honored, they’re sacred, but they’re standing outside what’s now considered a pretty shabby building.

Feliks: But see, it’s demolition by neglect. It’s only a shabby building because it’s been neglected by the owner, the Seattle Public School District, for at least 30 years.

Ross: That’s in the past, though, wishing will not make it so, as we learned from Everything Everywhere All At Once.

Feliks: I guess if I was related to one of those kids on the wall, and the building that was built in their honor and dedicated in November 1947 to their memory, that building’s going to be torn down. That seems insulting to me because the building was like, ‘let’s build this building and let’s have kids play sports here because we won World War II, and those kids gave up their lives. They made the ultimate sacrifice. We won, here we are.’ Let’s not just have a plaque that’s going to come along four years later, let’s have a thing we use all the time that actually is the memorial, and that if it was taken care of it. I’m not saying it could be restored, it could be renovated.

Ross: Well, don’t we have other high school stadiums now, though, don’t we?

Feliks: What do you mean?

Ross: Around the district, is that the only high school stadium?

Feliks: There’s a big one in West Seattle.

Ross: If you really wanted to keep it to its original purpose, you could move the memorial to the stadium that was being used by high school kids.

Feliks: You know, it’s not about the purpose, it’s about the facility itself being the memorial versus just a wall. Maybe it’s splitting hairs, but let’s just be honest about what we’re doing. Let’s say that we’re going to tear down the building that was built for the kids, let’s just be honest. Let’s not try and steamroll it through, let’s say what we’re really doing and then let people decide.

Ross: Okay, but I think it would be unfair to say that because they want to replace the stadium, it means they no longer honor the memory of those who died.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Feliks, Dave debate the future of Seattle’s Memorial Stadium