Westlake Center opens in downtown Seattle on October 20, 1988.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 1/10/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8458
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On October 20, 1988, Westlake Center opens in downtown Seattle.  Although the project itself took only two years to complete, it is the end result of a quarter-century of controversy, which includes several rejected proposals and years of litigation. Westlake Center is built at a cost of $110 million, and includes a four-story, 120,000-square-foot retail pavilion with 82 shops as of its opening in October 1988.  A 21-story office tower with 340,000 square feet of office space sits atop the shopping complex. The project includes Westlake Park, a one-acre park located directly across Pine Street from the Westlake Center. The park costs an additional $18.8 million to build.

Proposals, Counterproposals, Lawsuits 

The idea of developing Westlake -- an area between 4th and 5th avenues and Olive Way and Pine Street in downtown Seattle -- into an urban park with commercial and retail outlets was first suggested in the 1960s as an idea to breathe new life into Seattle’s downtown. In 1964 plans for Seattle’s central business district included plans for a pedestrian mall at Westlake, and another proposal in 1968 called for commercial and retail space as well as a park.   

The proposals continued through the 1970s. In 1972 Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) appointed a Westlake Advisory Committee to sort out the ideas that were being presented. Perhaps the most memorable idea was the Mondev Plan, proposed in 1976.  Mondev, a Montreal-based developer, proposed a 300-car garage, a 350-room hotel, two movie theaters, and several restaurants.  In 1977 Charles Royer (b. 1939) was elected mayor of Seattle on a platform which called for throwing out the Mondev Plan.  Shortly after his election, Royer proposed replacing the hotel with a new home for the Seattle Art Museum.  But the museum wasn’t particularly interested, and neither were others: In 1979 the Committee for Alternatives at Westlake, led by preservationist Victor Steinbrueck (1911-1985), sued to stop the project from going forward.  

The litigation continued into the 1980s. In 1981 the Washington Supreme Court ruled one Westlake development plan an unconstitutional blend of public and private projects. Steinbrueck filed a second suit and that litigation continued until 1984, when the suit was dropped in exchange for developers agreeing to provide more open space along Pine Street. Still another bone of contention for the project was whether Pine Street should be closed to vehicular traffic between 4th and 5th avenues to add to the plaza-like ambiance of Westlake Park. (Eventually, Pine Street was left open through the 1980s. However, between 1990 and 1996 it was closed to vehicles.)  

Meanwhile, in 1983, a joint venture proposal of the Rouse Company of Columbia, Maryland, and Koehler-McFadyen of Seattle was picked as the newest plan for the project.  The original plans called for a large glass-enclosed retail pavilion, which was scaled back in 1984 as part of the settlement in the Steinbrueck litigation. Finally, after more than 20 years of bickering, a plan was agreed to, and work began on the project in 1986.  

If You Build It, They Will Come  

The project was on a fast track and work continued up until the morning of the opening ceremony, Thursday, October 20, 1988.  (Indeed, a few finishing touches remained to be done on opening day.) So did the controversy. During construction Seattle’s Monorail had been built to end on the east side of the Westlake Center. Three days before the opening ceremony, engineers discovered the Monorail’s west guide rail was two inches too close to the new building, which would allow a train to just clip a handrail on the Center’s retractable walkway. Insisted a city engineer at the opening ceremony, “It’s not a mistake. It’s just an adjustment that has to be made” (Seattle P-I, October 21, 1988, p. A-11).   

Litigation continued to the bitter end too.  The Progressive Animal Welfare Society, commonly known as PAWS, filed an action seeking to prevent the release of 50,000 helium-filled balloons at the opening ceremony, arguing many might land in water and pose a threat to marine life.  An attorney for the Rouse Company argued the balloons were completely biodegradable and posed no threat. Fifteen minutes before the start of the ceremony, the judge ruled the balloons could fly. 

And fly they did, soaring spectacularly into the skies at the opening ceremony.  On the ground, Husky cheerleaders danced, bands tooted their horns, a 150-voice choir sang, and dignitaries spoke -- including Charles Royer, still mayor of Seattle in 1988. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, describing the happy affair in its issue the next morning, wrote that Royer was “smiling broadly as he basked in the glory of Westlake, a project he views as one of his administration’s crowning achievements.”

Sources: “Westlake at a Glance,” The Seattle Times, October 16, 1988, p. D-4, “Milestones,” Ibid., October 16, 1988, p. D-5;  Arthur Gorlick and Larry Lange, “A Tight Spot for Monorail,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 20, 1988, p. A-1;  Jean Godden, “Westlake Opening Certainly Worth Cheering About,” Ibid., October 20, 1988, p. C-1;  Bruce Sherman, “Crowds, Cheerleaders and Bands Give the New Center a Big Send-off,” Ibid., October 21, 1988, pp. A-1, A-11; “Animal Rights Group Fails to Get Release of 50,000 Balloons Blocked,” Ibid., October 21, 1988, p. A-11;  HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Seattle’s Central Association unveils Westlake Center plans on December 3, 1968” (by Alan Stein) and “Voters on March 14, 1995, approve reopening Seattle's Pine Street to vehicles” (by Patrick McRoberts), http://www.historylink.org (website accessed December 29, 2007).

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