Our Sponsors:

Read more »

Our Members

Many thanks to State of Reform and Abby Rhinehart some of our many supporters.

ALL MEMBERS »

Pioneer Square to 'Real Change': Move along

Welcome to the neighborhood? Not quite. The only welcoming party is one the paper threw for itself.
A crowd of about 125 people attended a welcoming rally for "Real Change."

A crowd of about 125 people attended a welcoming rally for "Real Change." Crosscut

Real Change executive director Tim Harris (left) with City Councilmember Nick Licata at a Pioneer Square event in 2010.

Real Change executive director Tim Harris (left) with City Councilmember Nick Licata at a Pioneer Square event in 2010. Crosscut

After Real Change moved into Pioneer Square the other day, there was a party. And why wouldn't there be a celebration? After all, the move brought the street newspaper's growing operation to a neighborhood very much in need of dynamism.

But Real Change's colorful executive director, Tim Harris, had to throw the Monday (May 24) party himself. No matter what anyone else might have expected, the neighborhood, at least as represented by a community association, is anything but pleased.

Although it has retreated into a no-comment stance with the media, the Pioneer Square Community Association apparently would prefer to erect barricades. The group is seemingly going to exhaust every possible administrative avenue for stopping the move.

Over a number of months, the association and some residents have laid out a series of objections that play on Pioneer Square’s status as a historical district, the types of businesses allowed there, and a neighborhood plan that attempts to limit the introduction of new social-service providers. They have stressed a perception of unsafe conditions in their neighborhood, implying that Real Change's vendors will look like aggressive panhandlers, chronic inebriates, or some other form of business-killing characters.

The concerns are, by all appearances, genuine. According to Harris, two opponents of the move cried as they spoke at a hearing a while ago.

As anyone living in Seattle knows, many, perhaps most, Real Change vendors work hard enough that they become recognizable fixtures in the neighborhood. Often, a somewhat dicey street corner, for example 15th Avenue Northwest and Northwest Leary Way under the Ballard Bridge, becomes noticeably more comfortable, even friendly, if one or two vendors come in. Sometimes they replace (by what mechanism, I'm not sure) people who had previously sought spare change. Which do most neighborhoods prefer — panhanding by people whose signs proclaim their readiness to work for food, or people who are working and selling a good newspaper?

While Real Change's vendors are engaged in a commercial activity, of course, there’s no mistaking that they have struggled economically. They are often either homeless, on the verge of homelessness, or trying to get enough money to move out of a shelter. Real Change is a newspaper, a business operator, and a non-profit that helps people out of poverty.

Although the Pioneer Square Community Association makes much of the number of social service providers and their clients in the neighborhood, it's hard to put Real Change neatly into that category. At a press briefing on Wednesday (May 26), Mayor Mike McGinn said, "I think Pioneer Square has a legitimate concern about the number of . . . social services within the district, as opposed to other neighborhoods." He went on to say, however, that he didn't regard the paper as a social service provider, called it "successful" (which it certainly seems to be both in its growth and, often, in the improvements its vendors make in their lives), and expressed hope that Real Change and Pioneer Square will do well together.

As reasonable as the mayor sounded, it's not at all what the community association would like to hear. After the mayor took a look around Pioneer Square, the association's Pioneer Square Community Association’s interim executive director, Leslie G. Smith, got right to the point in a March 19 follow-up letter, focusing on the problems of a “saturation point” of social service agencies. She also pointed repeatedly to public perceptions about safety as a problem for economic development, complaining particularly about the effect of “line queuing” by clients of social service agencies.

"We feel it is imperative that service providers seek out other neighborhoods of Seattle that have not exceeded their ‘fair share’ of services," Smith wrote McGinn. As she went on to say, the organization, which claims to represent a cross-section of businesses and residents, hoped the mayor’s office would work with them "to provide assistance to Real Change to find other suitable offices outside the (historic) district."

In passing, Smith also complained that Real Change hadn't been willing to meet. She didn’t return phone calls for comment. But if one supposes that Smith's group wants to meet, as she told the mayor, to negotiate Real Change's absence from Pioneer Square, perhaps that explains Harris' statements expressing frustration with the opponents of the move.

"We have made every attempt to get in communication with them to talk about their concerns, early on," Harris said. He added, "They have never agreed to talk to us. They have never agreed to meet with us directly. But their bottom line is that they want us to go somewhere else."

For Real Change, the move to Pioneer Square is motivated by the desire to grow. And one of the key factors for Harris relates directly to one of the concerns raised by Pioneer Square. Real Change did have vendors waiting on the sidewalks of its Belltown office on Wednesday mornings to buy each week's new edition, Harris said.

"One of the great things about our new space is that we have effectively tripled the space we have for our vendors to be inside," said Harris, so they won't be waiting on sidewalks to buy papers at the new offices, 219 First Ave. S. He doesn't think that’s the real issue, though. In perhaps his harshest statement, the sometimes-profane Harris speaks merely of "scapegoating" of the poor.

Pioneer Square has many problems, as an excellent Seattle Weekly article recently described, including an often-cumbersome review process for changes in the historic district and the huge swings in traffic and parking created by the presence of two major sports stadiums. And, without the lively residential atmosphere of Capitol Hill, Ballard and some other neighborhoods, even business at the bars and restaurants tends to be heavily concentrated on weekends.

McGinn pointed to the effects of the sports traffic — good and bad — and noted that the city has a number of efforts to deal with Pioneer Square's funk, which goes back a couple mayoral administrations. Harris cited a personal experience trying to shop in the neighborhood a few weekends back. It was game day at one of the sports stadiums, and he found parking prices at retail-killing rates of up to $30.

In departing Belltown, Real Change devoted an entire issue to the old neighborhood, with warm, wide-ranging articles. On Wednesday (May 26), a brightly colored edition practically shouted its headline: "Hello Pioneer Square! Our new neighborhood."

If the street newspaper's move had changed Pioneer Square, it wasn't apparent late in the morning. Having for the moment forgotten about the dispute, I happened to get off a bus at First Avenue and Yesler Way. As I walked under the Pergola, the Square seemed a little more relaxed than usual, with only one person sitting quietly with a sign seeking money.

In the new edition, Harris wrote excitedly about the move, saying, "None of this could have happened without the love that the people of Seattle have shown." Unfortunately for those who want the neighborhood to move forward, the bear-hug greeting that the paper offered Pioneer Square will be met with an uncomfortable, determined back step by some of the neighbors.

Joe Copeland is political editor for Crosscut. You can reach him at Joe.Copeland@crosscut.com.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Thu, May 27, 8:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Yes, some Real Change vendors have become welcome fixtures in the neighborhoods. A few have also shown themselves to be violent criminals (see http://www.sgn.org/sgnnews14/page1.cfm). But all this is besides the point - the issue isn't about where vendors sell their papers, it's about whether it's legal and desirable for Real Change headquarters to be located in an area that is zoned for retail.

If Real Change didn't tug so effectively at Seattle's liberal heart strings, the issue would be clear cut and Real Change would never have been allowed to move there. Pioneer Square needs successful retail operations that bring in retail customers - that's why the space in question is zoned for retail. Non-retail operations like Real Change simply don't bring in shoppers, and Real Change in particular doesn't even bring in a workforce with expendable income. With the loss of Elliot Bay Books, Pioneer Square is understandably trying to rebuild a critical mass of shops and restaurants to make it a destination. Real Change contributes nothing to this mission.

The question is, does Seattle apply its zoning laws equally to everyone, or does it play favorites?

Sean

Posted Thu, May 27, 8:38 a.m. Inappropriate

Sean, I think you may have missed this part of Knute Berger's writing for Crosscut.com about the double-standards of enforcement of Pioneer Square's historic preservation guidelines:

"Seattle Weekly started as a paid newspaper in the Square, selling newspapers through newsstands, contractors and vendors. No one tried to kick the Weekly out with such arguments. And what about Pioneer Square game and software companies that license their content, are they now wholesalers too? The whole thing seems more like harassment."

Trevor

Posted Thu, May 27, 8:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Let's ALL spend our time assisting Pioneer Square in getting City Hall to provide REAL economic incentives for building owners and retail tenants who have been put at a disadvantage in the downtown marketplace by overlay legislation that is outdated and used as a punitive hammer unlike any other part of town.
If we want to have the District flourish, let's help those who we count on to do the flourishing by understanding their hardhips, and counterbalance those negatives with positive fixes.

Let's get the City Council and Mayor off their duffs and get the ideas flowing for direct help and appreciation.

Arthur M. Skolnik FAIA

Posted Thu, May 27, 12:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Trevor -
Thanks for pointing out the article, but the examples of the Seattle Weekly and the software companies completely miss the mark. Pioneer square has an abundance of cheap office space that is not zoned retail, and that's where all these companies are/were located.

If Real Change were renting office space, there wouldn't be an issue. Instead, they chose to occupy a space that was built and zoned for a restaurant, bar, or retail shop.

Sean

Posted Tue, Jun 1, 10:04 a.m. Inappropriate

Full disclosure - I've been a supporter of Real Change for a long time and a fan of Tim Harris'. I rented the first space in Belltown - that was shared by a range of do-gooders, agencies and me looking for a creative space. Heck -- at one point the space in Belltown was the home of the Micah Community - our only storefront location -- my daughter was baptised there. But I have also worked in Pioneer Square or on the edge of it (and also in Belltown) in my various careers. Since 1991 I've worked in the Smith Tower - and now the KC Courthouse.

I regularly try to shop and eat in Pioneer Sq. I cried as hard as the rest when it was clear Elliott Bay Books was moving . . . it was always my place of refuge from a 'hard' work day -- starting with my first job working for Don Miles -- on Second Ave - facing the firehouse.

Pioneer Sq. waxes and wanes just like the other neighborhoods in Seattle. The latest statistics I had read -- there are more businesses than ever (although not as many of the big 'architecture firms' like NBBJ?) in the PS. But it still seems to me to be lots of creative enterprises and employees/people who will support retail and restaurant businesses in the Square.

However, the small-minded attempts to keep out Real Change out of neighborhood are really beyond the pale. I think its reprehensible. IF its a retail operation they want -- then I think Real Change should just license a few more saleable items (in addition to their newspaper). . . . . and start selling them out of the front of their office/retail space. I for one would be proud to wearing a t-shirt, carrying a mug, sportin a pin or a trucker's hat that says "REAL CHANGE".

If the businesses and the neighborhood organizations don't get it . . . that the reason you have start-ups and artists and others that have always been attracted to the PS area for the history, the cheap rent and access to a creative community . . . . . then they should move elsewhere.

But I'm also with Skolnik -- lets fix the regs if its stifling more of this type of endeavors. I want a Pioneer Square that thrives, not just survives!

mtsier

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »