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Pioneer Square: Are better days already coming?

The summer farmers market in Pioneer Square. Credit: Photo: Sean Conner

Over the years there have been numerous revitalization efforts, committees, task forces, emphasis patrols, and park redesigns of public spaces in Seattle’s oldest neighborhood, Pioneer Square. It would be easy to be cynical about a new effort to breathe new life into the Square. But Pioneer Square is too important to the health of the city to ignore.

A new group of volunteers is taking up the mantle of revitalization in the neighborhood. Three of the leaders of the new Pioneer Square Alliance visited Crosscut — now located in the same building as the old Elliott Bay Book Co. space —to discuss plans and opportunities for the neighborhood. The co-chairs of the Alliance, Charley Royer and Kevin Daniels accompanied the executive director of the group, Leslie Smith. Royer, a former mayor of Seattle (and this writer’s father), and Daniels, a partner at Nitze-Stagen and board member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, bring experience and technical expertise to the effort.

Daniels is quick to point out that decisions are made by volunteers in the neighborhood and that this effort is decidedly not top down. His initial goal, to bring the Main Street Program to the Square, has been embraced by the neighborhood as well as the city. The city’s Office for Economic Development has been working on this process since Elliott Bay Book relocated to Capitol Hill during the Nickels administration. All indications are that the McGinn administration is continuing to follow through on the effort.

The Alliance for Pioneer Square has a number of committees, all staffed by an energetic Smith. There is a committee on economic restructuring, one on promotion, on design and use of public spaces, organizational sustainability, and on street civility and public safety. There are over 50 neighborhood volunteers working on these committees and making recommendations on events, projects, and strategies to attract businesses and residents and engage city leaders in making needed investments.

One example of a need that is being highlighted by the group is the need for cleaner and more reliable energy for electronic data transmission. The Square is becoming a magnet for the gaming industry — nationally, larger than the movie industry. The creative people that design games want to live in a fun, urban environment. They are attracted to the historic buildings of Pioneer Square but need new technology to develop their product. It will take City Light making a  commitment to Pioneer Square, similiar to one it made to South Lake Union, to make sure the electricity and data pipes are adequate to support this multi-million dollar business sector.

Even now, the Pioneer Square neighborhood contributes significant amounts of B&O taxes per year.  This is a neighborhood that works. We need to make sure that it gets the support it needs to grow jobs and contribute even more to the economic health of the city.

As is inevitable when talking about Pioneer Square, the issue of Mardi Gras was discussed. The Pioneer Square group said two club owners hired a consultant from Portland to put a proposal together to hold a party in the Square under a big tent during the 2011 celebration. While the members of the Alliance would not dismiss the plan out of hand, it was decided more time was needed to figure out how to deal with Mardi Gras. It is an emotionally charged issue and the city was not ready to take on responsibility for the proposal, they said. However, the Capitol Hill Block Party is run very well and has turned into a great event for the city. Maybe there can be some lessons learned there.

Another promising project is a Pioneer Square historic path, Trail to Treasure. This is essentially modeled after Boston’s Freedom Trail. The Trail would be marked by places of historic significance and help guide people through Seattle’s history. The public launch will be in the spring of 2011.

And finally, the city needs to get serious about making the development of the North Lot, north of Qwest Field, happen. Daniels has some important ideas here. There is an opportunity to create work force housing and finally get the population density in Pioneer Square needed to drive the economic investment and retail that serves residents and not just tourists. The North Lot development coupled with the new opportunities to connect the Square to the waterfront when the Alaskan Way Viaduct comes down will be the most transformative events to hit the Square in our lifetimes.

The Alliance for Pioneer Square may just be the group to finally see Pioneer Square realize the potential long envisioned for the neighborhood.

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