IS PIONEER SQUARE, Seattle's oldest and, in many ways, defining neighborhood, falling apart? Storefronts are vacant all along Occidental Mall, and there's a two-year waiting


The Encircled Square

Can Pioneer Square survive an onslaught of stadiums and chain stores?

IS PIONEER SQUARE, Seattle's oldest and, in many ways, defining neighborhood, falling apart? Storefronts are vacant all along Occidental Mall, and there's a two-year waiting list for affordable housing. Meanwhile, even Pioneer Square's anchor businesses—art galleries and nightclubs—are losing their leases as rents skyrocket in anticipation of the new baseball and football stadiums. According to an open letter from independent business owners in the neighborhood, 26 small businesses left the Square last year. The neighborhood's missions say more homeless people are seeking their help than ever before, apparently because of welfare reform.

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Or is Pioneer Square experiencing a glorious rebirth? Roughly $2 billion worth of sports, transportation, and housing development is either planned or under way in and around the Square. The major projects have already encouraged smaller ones; for example, Uwajimaya will expand into a new building across Fifth Avenue from Paul Allen's $250 million Union Station office park. Tens of millions of dollars will go toward pedestrian improvements between the Square and the International District. Residential development and major transportation improvement, including light rail and a complete overhaul of the King Street train station, will greatly increase street traffic. Seattle's once-sleepy old town, which slumbered for decades while the city grew to the north, is about to change as it never has before. But what sort of district will finally emerge from those changes? How long will it take to get there? What will be lost along the way? What can—and should—we do to steer those changes?

Goodbye, and glad to be gone

"I'm not sorry I closed my office there," says new City Council member Peter Steinbrueck, who last January moved his architecture firm out of the Delmar Building on the corner of First Avenue and South Washington after eight years there. "It's going to be extremely difficult to live or work down there with all the noise and construction," he says.

Building the new football stadium alone will entail six months of nonstop pile-driving. Together, the baseball and football stadiums will absorb $600 million in public funds—and they're just the largest of many alterations to the cityscape. Allen will also develop five new office buildings on the Union Station lot for his Vulcan Northwest software firm. The Samis Foundation, a charity with substantial downtown real estate holdings established by the late Sam Israel to support Jewish education, has already begun redeveloping six of the 14 buildings it owns around the Square. Over the next four years, the state Department of Transportation will spend $33 million refurbishing the King Street train station, while King County builds the new $60 million King Street Center office building next door. In October, the city plans to dig up Occidental Avenue to replace a water main beneath it. The state plans new on- and off-ramps for Interstate 90 ($150 million) and a new ferry terminal ($180 million). And then there's the Regional Transit Authority, whose (still-tentative) plans include running light-rail tracks from the bus tunnel at Union Station south, past the football and baseball stadiums, and under Beacon Hill to Rainier Avenue.

Those behind the various projects all talk a good game of "community involvement" and not disturbing the fragile urban ecosystem. But their ambitious schemes, snowballing fast, threaten to overrun the consensus-driven process at City Hall, probably the only group with real authority to protect neighborhood interests. "There may not be a lot that the city can do," says Steinbrueck. He suggests that yet another "oversight committee" be formed to deliberate neighborhood concerns, even though, he concedes, "they may not have a lot of clout." Steinbrueck's disillusionment is all the more troubling given that he is not only a former Pioneer Square business owner and heir to a celebrated neighborhood-preservation legacy (his father, Victor, championed Pioneer Square and led the fight to save the Pike Place Market from overeager developers in the '70s); he also chairs the council's committee on housing and human services—two central issues in the neighborhood.

Titanic swimming party

Seattle historian and author Walt Crowley dates the struggle between Pioneer Square and big-city developers back to 1962, when the old Seattle Hotel on the corner of Second and Yesler was demolished to make way for the infamous sinking-ship parking garage in the first of a string of "urban renewal" efforts cheered on by the Chamber of Commerce. In 1970, neighborhood activists won historic-district designation for the Square; this protected more buildings from demolition and stalled new construction and widespread development until the Kingdome was built in 1977. "The Kingdome was an urban-development Hiroshima," says Crowley. "It flattened culture, drove out the quality business, and turned everything commercially toward serving sports fans.... Now, with all the new development, you've got the Son of the Kingdome squared. How can a city that prides itself on urban planning continue to get so blindsided?"

Part of the problem is that the neighborhood's biggest asset—its diversity—works to block the emergence of a coherent community voice and agenda. First there are several official representative bodies, including the Pioneer Square Community Development Organization, Neighborhood Planning Committee, and Business Improvement Association, plus the city's South Downtown Strategic Planning Team. Then there are the unofficial neighborhood constituencies: the bar owners, who meet informally as "the Pub Club," the artists, and the missions. The city's Strategic Planning Team has set itself up as a go-between for developers and neighbors on construction schedules, noise, transit, the mayor's Housing Action plan, and the city comprehensive plan. The Neighborhood Planning Committee claims the very same role, and submitted its neighborhood suggestions to the city last month. The Strategic Planning Team will submit its neighborhood plan (consisting of four subplans—on finance, investment, design, and construction coordination) to the mayor sometime this summer.

"When you do planning, planning's half the job," explains Nancy Ousley, assistant director of the city's strategic planning office: Planners and other officials must next "organize all the stakeholders" and nurse "all those neighborhood plans" along to implementation. Kathryn Vandenbrink, acting director of the Pioneer Square Community Development Organization, sees something more: "The organizing process has made the community stronger and brought people together."

"Yeah," responds Crowley, "and it's great that the Titanic is sinking, 'cause we're all learning to swim."

Outgunned and underfunded

Architect Clint Pehrson, the president of the pro-preservation group Allied Arts, sees a mismatch: Well-intentioned planners struggle to build broad political support while private developers proceed unhindered with their individual projects. "Yes, we have bodies that have some responsibilities for overseeing public good like the planning commissions, but they're really made up of volunteers," says Pehrson. "The City Council staff has woefully inadequate funding... particularly when you get into the public/private developments like the stadiums and these well-paid experts are working to maximize profitability for the private side—the poor bureaucrats are at a loss."

Last year Samis director William Justen went before the City Council to unveil his plans, and his concerns, for Pioneer Square. "We're really talking about elevating the quality of life in the neighborhood substantially," he said. "It's embarrassing to see drug deals going on across the street from the Public Safety Building." The development teams at Samis and Nitze-Stagen (the company overseeing Allen's Union Station project) focus on their efforts to reverse current perception of the neighborhood as "rowdy" and "dangerous," in the words of Nitze-Stagen chief operating officer Kevin Daniels. "We love the Square," he says, "[but] would you want to walk down Occidental Park at night? Or Second Avenue? Or Third?..."

"We need somebody to try to create some vision," Justen told the City Council. "That's what we're trying to do."

Despite Samis' sizable downtown holdings, it is a newcomer to the challenges of planning. Its patriarch/benefactor, the late Sam Israel, was by all accounts a curious guy. Over the course of six decades Israel acquired Seattle's largest private real estate portfolio, 60 buildings in all, and charged low rents in some of the town's most strategic sites, including the corner of Pike and First across from the Market. He rarely saw fit to spend money on his historic properties; ornate rooms with 13-foot ceilings and claw-foot tubs in the old Northern Hotel, above the Colourbox near First and Yesler, have been vacant for 50 years.

"I think not enough credit has gone to Sam Israel for being a good landlord," says gallery owner Greg Kucera, who has rented retail space on Second and Yesler from Israel, and now Samis, for 15 years. "I think he [was] really commendable for keeping small businesses like mine open." Under the new Samis regime, however, the Corona Buildingwas joined to the SmithTower as part of an $11 million project, forcing Kucera to find new space. (He'll move to a non-Samis building down Second, between Washington and Main.)

"I think what's needed is more people, more middle-income housing," Justen says in a recent interview. "Right now the neighborhood is overconcentrated with homeless. With more middle-income housing and stronger retail, the social-service agencies will not stand out and be so dominant on the streetscape."

Even Steinbrueck, renowned for his defense of historic districts, thinks the Square may be ready for a good, strong dose of gentrification: "It could become a safer neighborhood with gentrification. More people tied to an increased residential population usually means a safer environment—I don't know if that's necessarily a bad thing."

Back from the bottom

Pioneer Square is probably bottoming out, and could emerge a safer, cleaner, better place to live and do business. "Providing that the economy is fine for the next five years, most of the projects that are under way will be completed, and Pioneer Square will have some major new members," says Walter Carr, the owner of Elliott Bay Book Co., one of the district's cornerstone retailers. "There will be more concentration of desirable things, businesses, offices, and two new lavish sports facilities.... But before then, with the construction and tough parking, the question is whether or not the fragile owner-operated businesses will survive. If they don't, it's of great concern."

It's this five- to 10-year interim of dust, traffic snarls, and pile-driving that really threatens the Square's independent bookstores, restaurants, galleries, and other small businesses. In a similar situation, in 1989, when Third Avenue and Pine Street were dug up for the bus tunnel, the city tried in vain to direct pedestrian traffic to area businesses struggling to weather the construction. "Efforts were made to direct people to shops that tried to stay open, but the truth is the neighborhood was just an impossible environment to conduct business in," explains Allied Arts' Pehrson. "You could say it was the demise of Frederick & Nelson. Pine Street is still recovering."

Major public development projects are required to dedicate a portion of their budgets to mitigating neighborhood impacts; the baseball stadium must spend more than $10 million on mitigation. (Allen's football stadium, not yet confirmed for the Kingdome site, will likely offer a similar amount.) The Pioneer Square Planning Committee, which receives some baseball-funds staffing, wants to see football-stadium mitigation money used to clean up and maintain Occidental Park, support a marketing campaign for neighborhood businesses, and fund mixed-income housing in the neighborhood.

Despite the wishes of neighborhood planners, some business owners complain that most mitigation money will actually only go toward projects like new and wider sidewalks and sturdier sewer systems, which primarily benefit the stadiums.

"It's ridiculous that this is their solution to this problem," says Kucera. "'Mitigation' is a meaningless word. It's a joke." The open letter from Kucera, Carr, and other neighborhood business owners argues that mitigation ought to help shop owners: "It is disturbing to see development that appears to be ultimately aimed at finding national chain retailers for the gentrification of our historic neighborhood.... All of the businesses are watching their sales suffer under the increasing pressures facing us... [including] construction and destruction, parking problems, increased drug activity, lack of adequate lighting, basic maintenance and sanitation problems, and the excessive vacancies of retail spaces.... Many will not survive the 10 years or more analysts have forecast for reestablishing 'stability' to our community."

Compounding the problem, retail rents are already rising in anticipation of new businesses opportunities—thanks mainly to the stadiums—and well ahead of any foreseeable returns. Tina Bueche, owner of Dutch Ned's tavern on South Washington and formerly a longtime leader of various Square neighborhood groups, says that higher rents are forcing her to move shop too. Although she was able to find another space on First Avenue near Washington Street, she worries that newly vacant storefronts pave the way for what she calls "vanilla" chain businesses.

"The great danger here is that you'll end up with tokenism," argues Crowley, "a token artist building, a token mission, and a whole lot of new retail chains." "On the one hand you can't blame [the developers]," says Bueche. "On the other, it's pretty tragic.... The trick is to try to prevent certain things from leaving and... other things from coming."

The perils of improvement

A tricky business indeed. Sam Israel and other longtime property owners offered extremely low rents largely because the rehabilitation and upkeep needed to charge higher ones would have required prohibitively expensive seismic upgrades and wheelchair access. Justen says it would cost more to rehabilitate a building in Pioneer Square than to tear it down and build over from scratch. But historic preservation restrictions forbid almost all demolition in Pioneer Square, forcing Samis to either continue to ignore its dilapidated buildings, as Sam Israel did for decades, or undertake expensive upgrades, which will in turn force high rents. New interest in the Square, following Israel's death three years ago, makes it a plum time for Samis to redevelop its properties.

"I'm worried about the long-term livelihood of artists' live/work space, especially low-income individuals," says Justen, striking a chord particularly popular among neighborhood planning types. "We have a number of them in our buildings," he says—before dropping the other foot—"but those buildings will eventually be rehabilitated." The popular Colourbox is another Samis tenant facing eviction. "We're going to be rehabilitating that building too," says Justen. "I don't think a nightclub that close to residential is really the most appropriate use of that space." He says Samis will go after businesses like supermarkets, pharmacies, and dry cleaners to fill redeveloped storefronts and provide neighborhood amenities to his new tenants.

The prospect of more housing worries people like Bueche; she already receives complaints from the few residents nearby about her tavern's late hours. "We're tired of people complaining about the noise," she says. "We hope it gets even louder—that means more business." Even Mayor Schell concedes that new residents will have to contend with downtown nightlife. "I live downtown," he says. "I got used to the Harleys." While he agrees with Justen and Daniels that residential development is key to Pioneer Square's revival, Schell says he supports Bueche's proposal for some sort of "residential covenant" for new neighborhood tenants, which would acknowledge the loud existing "cabaret" atmosphere.

While Justen talks about modest upgrades, mainly in increased housing, the real threat to Pioneer Square is the sort of massive redevelopment that turned once-historic districts like San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, New York's South Street Seaport, and Boston's Fanueil Hall into suburbanized food courts. In Seattle, it's unfair to single out any one project as the neighborhood wrecker: Nitze-Stagen's Kevin Daniels says that even the largest cumulative project—Allen's stadium, exhibition hall, and Union Station office park—will be required to provide retail space to International District merchants—though he provides few details as to how many such merchants will be included, or whom they will serve. "To point the finger at the stadiums or Union Station is incorrect—it just won't have the impact," he says. In fact, it's the combined impact of various developments (fragmented like the diverse interests of the community) that threatens the Square; no one developer serves as a focus for blame or action, and there's no unified community position to count on. Rather than overwhelming the adjacent neighborhoods, the stadiums and Union Station complex may very well seal themselves off into their own prefab community snuggled in between Pioneer Square and the International District

Unlikely saviors

"No one wants to see Pioneer Square turn into Kirkland," Mayor Schell told me after a closed-door meeting in his office with the Pioneer Square Community Council last month. The mayor says his first priority for the Square is affordable housing, especially for current residents forced out by renovation and/or higher rents. He'll push for new housing development on the four-block-square plot currently serving as the Kingdome's north parking lot.

There are plenty of plans for that north lot. Affordable housing, more parking, retail—"mixed use." The top two priorities of the official Pioneer Square Neighborhood Plan are for city money and mitigation funds to encourage housing on the north lot. In a perfect example of the neighborhood's fractured planning process, the Pioneer Square Community Development Organization declined to endorse the project, concluding in its own report: "The members of this group experienced difficulty in reaching [a satisfactory] level of analysis... due to the inherent controversial nature of the site. A project involving new construction raises more complex issues than those of a rehabilitation project. There are additional agencies and organizations that must be included in the development process." This from a group that already includes 116 participants—nearly one of every 10 people who live in the Square.

Ironically, the job of preserving Pioneer Square's charm and historic character may devolve to its poorest, least enfranchised, least organized constituency. The missions, shelters, and social-service agencies that serve downtown's estimated 4,000 homeless, long the neighborhood's pariahs, may now turn out to be its saviors.

"I think the neighborhood has always resisted some of the squeaky-cleanness [outsiders have tried to force on it] thanks to the social services," says Walter Carr. "Will Pioneer Square be another Westlake Center? No. Pioneer Square will then, as now, still have the social services, the missions, and the homeless. They were here before all of us, and they're more securely funded than the government."

Several of the missions and social services have owned their buildings since the 1940s and have no intentions of bowing to gentrification, rising property values, or other pressures. "We don't plan to move," says Union Gospel Mission community relations director Bill Wippel. "We are called to serve where we are."

Mayor Schell agrees. Not only will the missions and social services temper suburban encroachment, he notes, but they would have a hard time leaving the Square even if they wanted to. "I don't think they would be welcome in any other neighborhood, so there's nowhere to move."

"We're hopeful about the future," says Wippel. "We see development as a necessary thing to bring business into Pioneer Square, but we've got to be calm. We're hopeful that the M's win the World Series. The one thing that we're asking of the mayor is to have the same tenacity the city showed for keeping the sports teams to keep affordable housing."

Every Thursday morning at 7 Wippel and a handful of others meet in the Union Gospel chapel to pray for the neighborhood, the businesses, and the residents. They've been meeting like this every week for five years. But with everyone from the mayor to Walter Carr and Tina Bueche counting on the homeless to keep the neighborhood intact, shouldn't the community be praying for the missions instead?

Related Links:

Photos of historical Pioneer Square from the P-I


Pioneer Square history and other information


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