When I saw the "above the fold" story on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Web site, "Market levy raises managerial questions," I braced for new revelations about mismanagement or incompetence in running the Pike Place Market. Instead, the piece focused on criticism of the ballot measure seeking $73 million to fund infrastructure improvements at the Market. The complaints were from commercial real-estate brokers who said the Pike Place Market ought to be able to raise the funds from its own operating budget.
It's certainly a fair point. We ought to demand accountability from any public agency that wants to spend our money, and the Market's long history, even since being "saved," has demonstrated a track record of mismanagement, in-fighting, and feuds, as well as the best of intentions. That goes back far enough to be part of the place's "colorful" history. But critics, which included Geri Kraft, who wrote the Voter's Pamphlet opposition statement to Seattle Proposition 1, also seem to be holding the Market to commercial standards, a move that oversimplifies the nature of our beloved beast. According to the P-I story:
Commercial real estate experts in Seattle say it's stunning that Pike Place Market, with nearly full occupancy, a prime location and 10 million visitors a year, has fallen into such disrepair that it needs a $73 million infusion from taxpayers for seismic upgrades and to replace things such as basic plumbing, wiring and ventilation systems.
'I am raising the question because I wonder what is going on here,' said Geri Kraft, who has been a commercial real estate broker in Seattle for 30 years. 'This isn't a city park, it is a vital, busy shopping center.'
The characterization of the Pike Place Market as a "shopping center" is patently absurd. The Market is a market, but it is also an official city historic district, one of our major tourist attractions, a retail space, crafts market, arts venue, key link in the local food chain, a hub for low-income housing and social services, and yes, a park, among other things. It is hard to think of another public entity (the Port? Seattle Center?) that serves such a complex mission.
The Market was rescued (and re-rescued from New York investors) not to serve as a Pacific Place-style mall, but because it represented something more about the city itself — and public management has enriched its overall role and value. It has been a bulwark against downtown development that has threatened the character of the city by pushing for the maximum financial gain of every property.
The Market has waited patiently while other funding measures, with mayoral sanction, have gone on the ballot ahead of it — parks, community centers, libraries, the opera house, streets, and bridges. The politicos have asked the Market to be patient, to wait its turn while other measures enjoyed being considered in boom times. It is the Market's good sportsmanship and bad luck that have put this measure on the ballot now.
The Market needs some fundamental upgrading, and Seattle Prop. 1 is not about fancy dubs, but about doing basic seismic, electrical, and plumbing work that will make it safer, greener, and help it last for another 100 years. This is the kind of work any property owner knows it is easy to let slide: unglamorous, expensive, little will shown outwardly for the effort. But it is part of stewardship. We worry about seismic catastrophe with the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Where would we be if a quake caused the Market to collapse or slide into Elliott Bay? A lot more than a shopping center would be lost.
Remember that if downtown commercial real estate experts had their way, the Market would not exist, but would have been torn down as part of urban renewal to make room for parking garages and other commercial development. Unthinkable in retrospect, but it's important to remember that nothing in this changing world is ever "saved;" the task of preservation is ongoing. The public commitment continues from generation to generation. And yes, occasionally, the need for more investment, even a bailout. Commitment to the Market hinges on understanding its unique historic, cultural, social, and economic role in Seattle life. The fact that some still see it as just another "shopping center" should raise alarm bells. It's anything but.
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