Councilmember Licata left office on January 1, 2016.
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Urban Politics #83: A New Aquarium On The Waterfront

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.



  • Description Of Project
  • Public Hearing March 30
  • Time Line Of Aquarium Development
  • The Need For A New Aquarium
  • Falling Attendance
  • Increasing Maintenance Costs
  • Citizen Concerns

Description Of Project

The Parks Department working with the Seattle Aquarium Society (SEAS) is proposing to demolish the present Aquarium and replace it with a new one. Building permits would be issued next year and construction would begin in 2002. The present 68,000 sq. ft. facility would be replaced by one ranging in size from 155,000 to 200,000 sq. ft. Preliminary schematic designs are scheduled to be provided to the City Council in mid-March.

The new Aquarium would be located at the existing site plus take over the currently unoccupied piers 62 and 63, which are currently used for summer outdoor concerts. Aquarium attendance would roughly double, going to approximately 1.1 million visitors a year.

The current proposal has the City contributing between $22 and $24 million. Other public entities are expected to contribute $36 million, but as I explain in greater detail none of these funds have yet to be committed. Private contributions would make up the rest of the project’s cost, which is expected to run between $154 and $200 million. This estimate may not include a redevelopment of the current Waterfront Park into an open space that can be used for outdoor concerts. A financial funding plan is scheduled to be presented to the City Council in mid-March.

A new Aquarium has been in the works since 1987 when a Harborfront Master plan called for expansion of the Seattle Aquarium. A proposal to expand it was subsequently put on the ballot in 1988 and was defeated at the polls. A time line below lists the major milestones in the development and promotion of an Aquarium expansion.

This issue of Urban Politics is only the first to explore this proposed major public project. There are many facets to expanding the Aquarium, too many to provide adequate coverage in a single issue of UP. Future aquarium items to be covered are listed at the end of this UP.

The most immediate decision facing the City Council is approving a Memorandum of Understanding between the City and SEAS. A public hearing is scheduled before a vote will be taken.

Public Hearing March 30

At 5:30 on Thursday, 3/30/00 in the Seattle City Council Chambers, 11th Floor of the Municipal Building, 600 4th Ave. my committee, the Culture, Arts and Parks Committee, will hear public testimony on the proposed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the City and the Seattle Aquarium Society (SEAS).

Although the MOU does not represent a binding legal commitment, the Mayor and City Council acknowledge that it represents the City’s good faith statement of its objectives and intentions regarding funding a new aquarium. I see it as a “political contract” that commits the City to funding a new aquarium within the guidelines outlined in the MOU.

SEAS argues that they need the MOU signed as soon as possible so that they can seriously begin raising funds from other public bodies (King County, State and Federal) as well as from private donors.

The MOU covers the following items:

Ownership and Use of Property
Operation and Management
Financing of the Aquarium
Due Diligence by SEAS
The Expected Final Agreement

Time Line Of Aquarium Development

Following is an historic timeline of the Aquarium redevelopment plan without analysis or detailed description.

1987-The Harborfront Master Plan for Piers 48-70 recommends Aquarium Expansion

1988 – Harborfront Park & Street Levy, with funding for a new Seattle Aquarium, receives a 41.1% yes vote and is defeated,

1989-The City purchases Piers 62 and 63 for Aquarium Expansion

1992-The Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) appointed by Mayor Rice to develop a Master Plan for the Aquarium Expansion and Waterfront Park Redevelopment

1994, Dec. CAC issued the Central Waterfront Master Plan to replace the existing Aquarium, raise $150 million & transfer management and control to a private nonprofit corporation.

1996, SEAS Lyons Group Financial Feasibility Study for a new Aquarium determines that it could support $40 million of debt

1997, 1/27 – City Council votes unanimously to adopt the Aquarium Master Plan, Resolution 29423

1997, 10/7 – SEAS submitted Implementation Plan for the Aquarium Master Plan

1997, 12/15 – City Council votes unanimously to accept the Implementation Plan, Resolution 29682

1998, 6/2 – Collins Group for SEAS did a campaign advancement study, found “unwavering community support” for new Aquarium and “overwhelming support” for the proposed transition to private control.

1998, 6/23 – City Parks Department’s report “Analysis of Proposed Development of Aquarium”

1998, 10/6-8, SEAS and the City co-sponsor a program review charrette to revisit the 1994 Master Plan, consensus is to move forward as soon as possible

1999, 5/3 – City Council unanimously passes Resolution 29939, approving work plan & project schedule and appropriating $500,000. A partial schematic design and an updated Financial Feasibility Study were to be delivered by end of year.

2000, 1/31 – City Council receives MOU from SEAS for review and approval

2000, 3/8 – New date set for SEAS to provide the City its partial schematic design and updated Financial Feasibility Study.

2000, 3/30 – Public Hearing on the MOU ( this procedure is required because of a out of court settlement with the organization CLEAN on use of public funds in private-public partnerships)

2000, 4/12 – Vote on the MOU in the CAP Committee Meeting

2000, estimated late spring – Public Private Partnership Citizen Panel reviews proposed MOU agreement. This will be after the Council votes on whether to approve it. I do not agree with this timeline but will hold a vote on the MOU in my committee at an earlier date as requested by the Council President.

The Need For A New Aquarium

The main argument for building a new Aquarium is based on two problems with the current Aquarium: 1) falling attendance and 2) increasing maintenance costs.

When the current Aquarium was built in 1977 it was hailed as “state-of-the-art” although it was built with half the money originally envisioned. The 1994 Citizen’s Master Plan concluded that the smaller size resulted in inadequate space for exhibits, education and animal care. Further more, major maintenance needs went unattended. The Citizens Plan concluded that the Seattle Aquarium was no longer competitive with its world-class counterparts like Monterey, Chicago and New Orleans.

This raises a question. Is the Seattle Aquarium competing with these cities? If so, then we are seeing our Aquarium as primarily a tourist facility and not one primarily for regional residents. Attendance figures support this assertion. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported in an editorial (12/17/97) that 70 percent of the Aquarium’s attendees were tourists. The 1998 Parks Analysis Report estimated that the level of visitation of those residing in King County outside of Seattle is over twice that of City residents, which was pegged at 13%.

The reliance on tourists may not be a bad thing. The Aquarium provides many jobs, supports economic activity on the waterfront, and tourism is a non-polluting industry. But we have to balance the need for a new aquarium as a significant contributor to our economy with the loss of the last open public space on the waterfront.

Added into the equation is the expected increased educational use of the new Aquarium for meeting the needs of thousands of students throughout our region. I would like to see the Seattle School District and other school districts take a visible stand on their expected use of the new facility. To date I have not heard from them.

Falling Attendance

The issue of falling attendance is most directly related to the frequency of major new exhibits. Between 1977 and 1986 there were no new major exhibits. Attendance during this period fell 30 percent. It was another 12 years, from 1986 to 1998, before another major exhibit was opened. During this period of time the drop was only 10 percent.

As of 1997 the total paid attendance was down about 20% from when the Aquarium first opened. The new exhibit in 1998, according to the Parks Department, did not draw crowds as expected. I have not received attendance figures yet for 1999. According to SEAS, financially successful aquariums need to rotate major exhibits every 3 years.

The question to ask is, would the pattern of falling attendance exist if more exhibits had been scheduled in the Aquarium? The retort might be that the facility could not handle such a turnover. On the other hand, if it was a state-of-the-art facility, how did it become outdated so quickly? Are we looking at another Kingdome phenomena, where we are tearing down major public buildings within a generation of their erection? I hope we don’t see this pattern repeated with the other major public buildings we have recently built or are building.

Increasing Maintenance Costs

The best argument for building a new aquarium is that it will cost the City the same to maintain the current one. But by maintaining the status quo scenario, the Aquarium would not be brought up to national standards in terms of exhibits or visitor amenities.

According to an economic analysis by the City, the minimum amount that needs to be done over the next 30 years to maintain the current Aquarium would cost the City anywhere from $17.4 million to $28.4 million in present value terms. Depending on the number this would either be equal to or less than the “net present value” (NPV) of the City’s proposed $22.5 million contribution to the new Aquarium.

Parks has estimated that the Aquarium’s estimated major maintenance needs for the next 8 years are approximately $8 million. In addition, the unoccupied Piers 62 and 63 have short-term maintenance needs of nearly $1 million with an additional annual cost of $200,000 for piling inspections.

The 1998 Parks Analysis Report also said that the NPV of the costs for demolition of the Aquarium and renovation of its space into a public park space would range from $18.7 to $19.8 million. So public financing of a new Aquarium appears to pencil out well.

Unlike the other major regional facility, the Zoo, the Aquarium has not been receiving much in the way of funds from the City on an annual basis. The Zoo has been receiving about a $5 million subsidy from the City to operate. On the other hand the Aquarium until the last few years did not need an operations subsidy. The City, however, was responsible for major maintenance, which appears to have been insufficient to maintain the facility. Currently only 4 percent of the Aquarium’s current operating budget receives a subsidy from the City of Seattle’s General Fund.

Other Concerns

Citizens, however, have raised significant non-financial concerns about constructing a new aquarium. They deal with the following items:

1. Parking impact on the Pike Place Market
2. View blockage of Puget Sound and Olympic Mountains
3. Possible reduction in public open space on the water front
4. Increased admittance fees
5. Role of public control over a non-profit operated facility
6. Need for obtaining financing from other public bodies

I will be reviewing each of these concerns in upcoming Urban Politics issues.

Keep in touch…


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Comment from Jon
Time January 26, 2012 at 8:55 pm

I started to read the article and then saw the date, lol. I was going to say when I visited the aquarium in 2002 it looked as if there was some work going on and I was curious if there was work happening again! Is there a way to link this article at the top to more recent news on this?

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