Sky Beams On Space Needle Will Glow For New Years's Eve

The Space Needle will light up the sky this millennium with three powerful beams shooting toward the heavens. And owners of the Seattle landmark said yesterday the lights may be switched on at other times throughout the year.

Opponents of the plan yesterday failed to pull the plug on a proposal by the Space Needle Corp. to turn on the so-called sky beam above the tower. Three 7-kilowatt spotlights will have the combined power of 85 million candles.

"You block us off from space," Woodruff Sullivan, professor of astronomy at the University of Washington, complained yesterday at a meeting of the city's Landmark Preservation Board. "You can't see the night sky."

The board approved a preliminary plan to increase the power of lights focused on other parts of the Needle by about 30 percent. The lighting is intended to enhance the architecture of the 1962 structure.

But the preservation panel never voted on the proposal for a sky beam.

Space Needle owners withdrew that plan from formal consideration this week, contending that "temporary and seasonal lighting" was already allowed under the April agreement that designated the structure a landmark, according to Space Needle attorney Rich Hill.

So far, they have proposed using the sky beam for only three nights, from Dec. 31 to Jan. 2.

Hill said Space Needle owners would consult the city on when to turn on the sky beam in the future. But he maintained after the meeting it might be used on dozens of other occasions.

Preservationists said such use could go beyond the definition of seasonal lighting and would require a certificate of approval.

The panel is allowed to consider only the effects of the lighting on the building's historic character, not on the environment. No other city agencies are scheduled to review the plan, but the Federal Aviation Administration has said it will take a closer look.

After its debut, owners will evaluate the sky beam, too, said Dean Nelson, president and CEO of the Space Needle Corp. He said his earlier comment that it could be used as often as 70 times a year was "off the cuff" and pledged to use it with taste.

"If you did it too much," he said, "it would lessen the impact. It would turn it into a circus."

The sky beam is part of a $20 million upgrade of the Space Needle that includes a new front entrance, a two-story glass structure at the base and a renovated restaurant.

Members of the preservation board expressed concern about increased lighting designed to highlight the Needle's legs, ribs and saucer. Before issuing final approval, they want to take a look at how the lighting works. Member Robert Kovalenko said the Space Needle already has a nice glow to it, with surreal lighting.

"This is an important landmark for the city of Seattle, and we don't want to make a mistake that we'll all have to look at the next 20, 25 years," he said.