Pioneer Square is a commercial district hampered by economic hard times, street people, and neglect. Elliott Bay Book Company, an anchor tenant of the Square and a prime symbol of its revival over the last 40 years, is moving to Capitol Hill's Pike-Pine corridor. That has triggered a new round of editorializing and soul-searching. The move may be a "tipping point" for a neighborhood that some say has been "shamefully abandoned," giving rise to questions like, "Can Pioneer Square be saved?"
The city is mobilizing. Seattle's Office of Economic Development is working on a plan to boost Pioneer Square's business prospects, as it has done for Broadway, the University District, and South Seattle in the past. The city recently brought in an outside real estate and commercial district consultant, Donovan Rypkema of PlaceEconomics, to assess the Square's prospects. I've written about Rypkema before. He's a specialist in historic preservation, sustainability, and how to keep commercial districts vital. He visits some 200 cities per year to speak, advise and cajole.
At a Qwest Field presentation of Rypkema's initial observations and recommendations after a 72-hour fact-finding blitz last week, Darryl Smith, the new deputy-mayor designate showed up to signal incoming Mayor Mike McGinn's interest in Pioneer Square. Smith, a real estate man, played a role in revitalizing Columbia City, which is the hot model of commercial district revival that makes other neighborhoods swoon. Every commercial strip wants to be the "new Columbia City," though few have the historic architecture that has been the backbone of that neighborhood's appeal. Nevertheless, its success is a tribute to grassroots grit and Smith's background gives him credibility in delivering a message for the new mayor. As Smith said, "If anyone gets it, it's the man who created Great City," the civic improvement initiative McGinn founded (and Smith chaired) that helped launch his political career.
Indeed, Pioneer Square ought to be the poster child for Seattle urbanism, not for its failures. It's arty and edgy, historic and diverse, ground zero for the creation of both old Seattle and modern Seattle (both post-1889 fire and post-1960s urban renewal). It has food, clubs, bars, galleries, sports stadiums, high-tech, tourism; in short, a diverse economy. It's already served by light rail, heavy rail, and transit (with the potential to have its trolley revived and new streetcar service added on First Avenue). The Square is Seattle's first experiment in urban idealism, taking the original Skid Road and turning it into the kind of dense, walkable, amenity-rich, downtown neighborhood that is in vogue and, we're told, the future of the city itself.
As urbanists have scurried to remake Seattle, they have essentially been trying to replicate much of what Pioneer Square already offers, yet the master mold seems to be cracked, or at the very least unfinished. Meanwhile, other neighborhoods have emerged as competitors, first Belltown (another troubled nabe) and more recently South Lake Union. As crime has risen in Belltown and Pioneer Square has sprouted empty storefronts, South Lake Union has gained a streetcar, park, a museum, Amazon, even a Whole Foods. It's an urbanist vision in making something new from scratch with political muscle (Vulcan, University of Washington). It's no wonder some of the older urban downtown experiments feel neglected, even if they had a head start. South Lake Union has been a magnet for resources. Says architect and former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, "I've long felt the city turned its back on Belltown and Pioneer Square."
The Square also faces significant unknowns: the Waterfront redevelopment, the post-Viaduct rewiring of transportation (tunnel and surface options both promise to be disruptive, even possibly destructive to parts of the Square). There are properties whose owners seem to be practicing "demolition by neglect." There is the ongoing struggle with the Square's huge "social service" population of the poor and homeless, and the street life they generate. There's also increasing competition from other retail districts, from Columbia City to Fremont to University Village to Ballard to Northgate. Then there's the economy, which has brought development to a virtual halt.
Despite its years of remaking, restoring, renovating and renewal, Pioneer Square, even with its urban assets, feels like it's falling far short. Some worry that the Square could cycle back to being a run-down urban neighborhood. Instead of the back burner, its advocates are making that case for its being on the front. What are some of the steps that could allow the Square to get back on track, regain some positive momentum, look beyond the bumps of economic downturn and get its act together, to become, once again, an urban priority? Here's a list of seven steps that could keep Pioneer Square from falling into Seattle's urban dust bin.
1. Stop whining
In 2002, consultant Donovan Rypkema came to Seattle and advised the Pioneer Square stakeholders to "stop whining." His first piece of advice in 2009: same thing. Rypkema believes the Square is doing better than people think, especially the bitching, feuding parties within the Square itself. For one thing, he says, the Square is already "one of the great commercial districts in America" with an enviable inventory of important structures. "There is no recognition of the extraordinary quality of what you have here now," he says. Art Skolnik, who ran the Square in the early '70s, calls it the district's "inferiority complex." The Square, in short, is under-appreciated even by the people who love it most, and perception often becomes reality.
Second, yes, the Great Recession is bad, but it's bad everywhere. Over much of the decade, however, the Square has actually been outperforming other commercial districts, and growing more robustly than the U.S. economy and the state economy. Rypkema reports that gross receipts in the broad, 20-block Square area have more than doubled in the six years from 2003-08, and gross retail sales have increased more than double the national rate. Pioneer Square is out-performing even nearby districts like the International District/Chinatown. Yes, there are many issues, big and small, and much room for improvement, but get a grip.
2. Hire a czar, or maybe a CEO
Many people with knowledge of the Square agree that it needs to be managed better. First, a sense of scale. Many of the complaints about crime and street problems (panhandling, drug dealing) are real and come from the retail merchants. But Pioneer Square is more than angry (or whiney) shopkeepers, says Rypkema. He tallies the economic activity in the Pioneer Square area at nearly $1 billion. Of that neighborhood economy, only 12 percent is retail or food and beverage (often the loudest complainers), which means that 88 percent of the Square's economy is in other sectors, including high-tech, arts, lawyers, architects, manufacturing, etc. The service sector is the largest chunk of Square business, and it's growing. In other words, what's going on upstairs in the offices and lofts of Pioneer Square is even more important economically than what's happening at the street level.
Still, the common identity of the Square is as a historic district with galleries, tourist shops, and bars for sports fans and frat boys. That's only a piece of the puzzle. Can Pioneer Square morph its self-image into something broader than a spruced-up Skid Road? Does it want to?
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