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.
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