Breathing in Seattle’s History: SuttonBeresCuller Heals Toxic Ground and Designs for the Future

By Erin Langner

Rendering of the new Mini Mart City Park project by SuttonBeresCuller, designed by goCstudio. Courtesy of goCstudio

It’s hard to know exactly what to call SuttonBeresCuller’s Mini Mart City Park. When Brendan Kiley wrote about the project for ARCADE in 2009, he also remarked on this challenge, ultimately deeming “sculpture” its best descriptor. At that time, the Seattle-based artist collective had leased a defunct 1930s-era gas station across the street from Boeing Field, and their intent was to transform the site into a temporary art intervention. In the ten years that followed, environmental testing revealed the property’s soil was saturated with petroleum and other hazardous materials; the artists also determined the original gas station building was unsalvageable. Such challenges would have prompted many to abandon Mini Mart City Park. Instead, SuttonBeresCuller has since turned it into something that more resembles a living, breathing entity. The now-permanent, community-minded cultural space that was finally able to break ground in 2018 cleans the soil on the land where its stands. It speaks to the Georgetown community it inhabits. And, it confronts its own history as a foundation for its future existence.

After purchasing the property in 2013, the artists began working with local architects goCstudio to design a new version of the site’s original filling station that could address the project’s full slate of needs. In the conversation that follows, Ben Beres and John Sutton of SuttonBeresCuller, along with architects Aimée O’Carroll and Jon Gentry of goCstudio, discuss how Mini Mart City Park evolved into the version expected to open by the end of this year.

Erin Langner: How has the design for Mini Mart City Park changed over the ten years it’s been in progress?

John Sutton, SuttonBeresCuller: It is still first and foremost an art space. It’s going to house exhibits, residency programs, things along those lines. But, Georgetown is a very small neighborhood; it only has about 1,500 residents. And, we kept hearing that the community wanted not only an art space but a flexible community space where they could gather for different events and meetings.

When we began talking to Jon and Aimée early on, a big question was how to make a small structure that harkens back to the original filling station, because we really wanted to reference the history of that site—to keep the footprint very similar and nod to its original gas station architecture. But also, how do we create a space that’s flexible enough to allow for art, community events and different things?

An image of the historic gas station

A more recent image of the gas station

A rendering of the front of the Mini Mart
The original gas station that inspired Mini Mart City Park, in 1937 and 2008, and a rendering of the new building design. Courtesy of King County, SuttonBeresCuller, and goCstudio

So, it became a building inspired by the original gas station, but it also has sliding walls, a courtyard, and a park that blends into the interior space. We’ll have a pivot window in this concrete, cavernous building that’s playing on what would have been the station’s drive-up window, but it will be a walk-up window. The front awning where the cars used to pull up and fill their tanks will become a very active public courtyard; when it’s raining, it’s a place to hang out. Because this is a new organization, there’s no existing model, so we wanted to build a space that can grow and change and allow us to figure out ideas as they come to life.

EL: There are aspects of this project that echo the Olympic Sculpture Park, another former brownfield site that’s been transformed into a space focused on art and the environment.

JS: Yes, the Sculpture Park was definitely an influence. There was also a hilltop in the original design that referenced Gas Works Park. Gas Works Park was the state’s first major landscape remedial project, which involved cleaning up all of the contaminated soil on the site, mounting it up and putting a cap over it instead of hauling it off-site. And, that hill became an iconic piece of Seattle’s landscape, where everyone hangs out and watches the fireworks.

Thinking about the remedial aspects drove our project for the first eight years. When we signed the lease on the property in 2008, we knew there was some residual soil contamination. We knew we wanted to address it, and we received funding to do some initial environmental assessment. But, we were initially thinking more in terms of creating a proposal, rather than going in and cleaning the soil ourselves.

Ben Beres, SuttonBeresCuller: I will never forget the day of the testing. I was kind of excited, thinking, we can get going on this. And then, when we turned the corner there was a blast of diesel smell. And we were like, Oh, shit.

JS: The assessment basically uncovered a plume of petroleum contaminants that no one knew was there. That led us to the history of the neighborhood—the spills and other upstream contaminants that were migrating through our site.

An image of a contaminated soil sample
Soil sample with petroleum contaminants, 2009. Courtesy of SuttonBeresCuller

One of the proposals recommended to us was to remove the contaminated soil from the property and put in a 20-foot steel curtain that would basically let all of the contaminants flow around our site.  But that would mean we would just create a clean island in an otherwise environmentally polluted area. That would have cost millions of dollars, and it wouldn’t have cleaned the soil; we would have just moved it from here to a landfill in eastern Oregon, a process that would have consumed more petroleum than we were trying to clean up in the first place. As artists trying to propose a viable model for how small brownfield sites can be dealt with, spending millions of dollars to not clean anything up was irresponsible on many levels.

So, we worked with environmental consultants to come up with the plan we have now. A second building will include an air-sparge and vapor extraction remediation system to clean the soil and the ground water that’s passing below the site. This system is pretty proven and reliable, but it’s not really used on small sites like this incorporated into the project itself. Usually it’s used on old landfills and big brownfields in advance of redevelopment, so this is new.

We will keep the system for the full life of the property because it will continuously be cleaning up the groundwater and surrounding soil. It’s not going to address the whole neighborhood, but it will improve groundwater that passes through the site. We also eventually want to incorporate solar panels and other things that will offset any environmental costs of Mini Mart City Park’s existence.

EL: Why was the filling station aesthetic so important to this project? How did goCstudio work with that priority?

Aimée O’Carroll, goCstudio: Originally, there was talk of keeping the filling station that had all of these different lives, since it had been part of Georgetown for a long time. We looked to some precedents at other filling stations that had been reused for all sorts of different things, and originally SuttonBeresCuller had been talking about this as a model for other gas station sites around the country. Even though it was determined that the building wasn’t staying, we wanted to keep that sentiment.

An architectural model of Mini Mart City Park
Model of Mini Mart City Park and the approved building permit. Courtesy of SuttonBeresCuller and goCstudio

BB: The initial idea of using a filling station sprung from us being artists, looking for available space that was inexpensive. We realized how there are hundreds of thousands of derelict gas stations all around the country. We were going on road trips and finding them, and so often seeing these small brownfield sites that were abandoned. When the project began ten years ago, a lot of our work involved recycling, taking old space and making it new, so it just felt like a natural progression. Oh, here’s something that no one wants. How can we use it? How can we make this cool? How can we create art out of detritus and the bad shit that people have left behind?

JS: Originally, we wanted to keep the old gas station, but going through the permitting process, every avenue made the building impossible to salvage. So, how do we recreate something that reflects that old building and its historic use? It was iconic to the neighborhood. The main entrance to Boeing Field was right across the street. But, as the neighborhood changed and as Boeing Field expanded, they rezoned one side of street, so everything around us is now residential. The commercial district disappeared, but there’s still this remnant of what once was.

BB: And we’re watching everything in town get knocked down anyway. It’s a way to keep the tiniest bit of nod to the history. It’s not the same building, but it’s the same idea.

Jon Gentry, goCstudio: From an architecture standpoint, if you stripped the building away and had a black and white drawing of it, it’s very simple in the proportions, like the kind of work that we do. We wanted these elegant looking openings and clean lines, sort of like you’re carving out a front room, you’re carving out a courtyard. But we were also very conscious to absorb as much of the SuttonBeresCuller spirit as we could, to make this a truly collaborative effort. So that’s what led us to the current rendering. It’s interesting, we had another version that was done early on, and we totally had to revisit it because it ultimately didn’t feel right in terms of the architecture’s expression.

BB: Do you know what that was—what was off?

AO: I think the iconic vision of the gas station wasn’t quite as instilled in that version. And I think that became, as we worked together and talked more about it, much more of a driving force for how we were envisioning what this thing would be and its importance in Georgetown. And, once we started diving into it more deeply, we ended up with the larger covered space at the front, the more iconic signage and incorporating more opportunities where SuttonBeresCuller and other artists could add their own touches. The more we worked together, the more that came together.

JS: We’re being very intentional. We’re trying to create a space that isn’t just for an arts audience. We want people to discover something through the arts that they otherwise wouldn’t. It’s important to us that it offers and comments on many different things. There are the environmental issues, the remediation, the technology that’s being incorporated, and the native plantings from the Duwamish Valley that we are adding. We’re trying to create a project that is attractive and interesting to people from different backgrounds but also provides an opportunity to engage in other cultural experiences. So, somebody who came in to see an art exhibit might think about all of the environmental questions it raises and will want to learn more about the history of the Duwamish Valley.

The Mini Mart City Park project under construction
The Mini Mart City Park construction site in 2018, shortly after they broke ground. Courtesy of SuttonBeresCuller

EL: Do you ever think about all of the art that could have been made during the time you were tied up in the bureaucratic processes that were part of this project, or do you see it all as art?

JS: This project from the very beginning has helped define itself and our practice. We have become bureaucrats and lobbyists and accidental activists. And that’s just part of the process of making things—you just discover new avenues. We created an organization, we’re board members, we’re fundraisers. We’re all of these different roles.

BB: I also think this project might have kept SuttonBeresCuller together. It’s been 19 years since we started collaborating. There have been times when things had slowed down, or there were no sales, or things were frustrating, but then this project was still going. We owe it to the community, funders, Creative Capital, 4Culture, the King County Brownfields Program, the City of Seattle, ECOSS, the EPA and so many others—to all of these people and organizations who have been involved and really want it to succeed. So, we knew we had to stick this out, to be stubborn about it and make it happen.

SuttonBeresCuller is a group of three Seattle-based artists—John Sutton, Ben Beres, and Zac Culler—who have worked collaboratively since 2000. The trio’s work ranges in presentation from gallery works to installation, performance, and public projects. Working in and outside of traditional gallery settings, they aim to engage and provoke unsuspecting audiences with their works, which are often not what they seem.

Seattle-based goCstudio is an innovative architecture and design studio founded in 2012 by Jon Gentry and Aimée O’Carroll. The studio’s work is driven by the unique opportunities and constraints of site-specific projects, which evolve through close relationships with clients, artists, and craftsmen.

Erin Langner is a writer whose work been published in Hyperallergic, METROPOLIS, and elsewhere; it can be found at She is also the exhibitions and publications coordinator at the Frye Art Museum.