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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Seattle Lights up the Heavens

Air Date: Week of

Bellamy Pailthorp of member station KPLU reports on the fracas over the new high-powered "light saber" installed on the roof of Seattle's Space Needle. The tower's owners say the high-tech light will bring the 60's relic into the 21st century, but local stargazers want to snuff the light out.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's not quite the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower, but the Seattle area is fond of its landmark tower, known as the Space Needle. The 60-story observation tower on the edge of Puget Sound was built for the 1962 World's Fair. Now, in an effort to update the obelisk for the twenty-first century, the Space Needle's owners have installed a giant laser beam on the roof. Some local residents don't appreciate the upgrade, though, and they've turned it into the latest battleground in the fight over light pollution. From member station KPLU in Seattle, Bellamy Pailthorp has this report.


MAN: Well, welcome everyone to the world-famous Seattle Space Needle...

PAILTHORP: Crowds of tourists gather at the base of the Space Needle each day, eager to visit the top of Seattle's flying saucer in the sky.

MAN: I'd like to invite you all into this room, here...

PAILTHORP: Observation towers like the Needle sprouted up all over the world in the late 60s and 70s. Some people regard this tower as the most elegant of the breed, with slender white legs that form an hourglass shape. It's also been touted as one of Seattle's greatest architectural achievements, as in the boastful documentary Steel in Space.

(Film music. A man's voice-over: "The best-known symbol of the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle is the tallest structure west of the Mississippi River -- steel rising 600 feet above the high-speed monorail train, and the fairgrounds.")

PAILTHORP: Once the novelty of its height wore off, the Space Needle's owners began trying to capture the attention of the city by dressing it up on a regular basis. The top has been decorated to look like TV's Wheel of Fortune. There's been a giant red crab crawling up the legs, and even a giant goose flying off the top to celebrate Eddie Bauer's 100th birthday. Space Needle Corporation president Dean Nelson.

NELSON: So, the Space Needle's always been about fun, and we've tried to do whimsical things, and we'll continue to do that.

PAILTHORP: The Space Needle Corporation is investing $20 million in renovations for the new millennium, including a complete, new lighting design. One feature is a laser-like beam of light shooting straight up from the top of the tower.

NELSON: The lighting system is all white light. It's being done by one of the most accomplished lighting designers in the country. It's a gentle approach to a terrific asset that could be shown to better advantage than it currently is.

PAILTHORP: But a small group of activists disagrees. Attorney Hal Green is a member of the International Dark Sky Association. He objects to the idea of turning the Space Needle into a giant flashlight that shoots high-intensity lights into the heavens.

GREEN: Bear in mind that these are three 7,000-watt lamps, and it's going to produce a beam of 85 million candlepower going into the sky.

PAILTHORP: Mr. Green remembers first visiting the Needle in 1962, when it was built. He says the new beam of light contradicts the historical intent of a monument constructed for a World's Fair.

GREEN: The theme of that World's Fair was the Space Age and our desire as humans to want to connect with space. So, I don't want to see the Space Needle become a symbol for the world of how to obliterate that connection by blinding us from our view of space.

PAILTHORP: Seattle has no law to regulate light pollution. So Hal Green has taken his crusade to the only agency with any say, the city's Landmark Preservation Board. But despite a stack of letters from citizens and environmental organizations, city staffer Karen Gordon has refused to put the issue on the Board's agenda.

GORDON: Because it's not an issue at this point that we really have the authority to discuss. Are we going to have a vote on whether there is a gorilla or Christmas lights on the Space Needle? What if there is someone who is offended by, you know, a plastic inflatable animal on the Space Needle?

PAILTHORP: Something of a compromise seems to have been brokered. Ms. Gordon has accepted a list of 15 days a year when the beam can be turned on to mark national holidays. In addition, the beam can go on under special circumstances, like times of public sorrow, such as the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 with dozens of Seattle passengers on board.


PAILTHORP: Despite the Dark Sky objections, the new light has been on and off for several months now. The public seems on the whole to like it, when they happen to notice. At a popular viewpoint, several visitors admired the beam recently on a soggy President's Day.

MAN: It's not ugly, at least in my opinion. It does bring attention to the Space Needle, and that's kind of like one of the things that we're kind of known for.

MAN 2: Great. It's beautiful.

WOMAN: As we walked up here we thought, oh, there's the moon shining through the clouds. And then we realized as we came around the corner that no, it was a spotlight coming out of the top of a building.

PAILTHORP: Dark Sky activists continue to object to the beam, but they're fighting a steep uphill battle. Especially since on most nights in the Pacific Northwest the stars are obscured anyway by a naturally occurring phenomenon: clouds. For Living on Earth I'm Bellamy Pailthorp in Seattle.



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