These are both the best and worst of times for the Victorian, and often Dickensian, Pioneer Square.
On the "best" side of the ledger is a renewed effort to mobilize government, business, retailers, and cultural groups in a revival of Seattle's first urban neighborhood. The new Alliance for Pioneer Square is pushing to adopt the Main Street program to revive the district. Major projects are on the drawing board or moving ahead, including the multimillion dollar rehab of historic King Street station and the creation of a new adjacent plaza, and the planned development of the Qwest Field north parking lot with office and retail space and 600 new residential units.
On the "worst" side, at least for now, are disruptive transportation and infrastructure projects in the Square, SoDo, and the Waterfront that mean years of disruption. The Square lost its Waterfront Trolley connection due to the Olympic Sculpture Park project, but that was a prelude. The biggest challenge is the Viaduct Replacement Project's deep-bore tunnel. The Washington State Department of Transportation has alarmed the arts and heritage community with the tunnel's potential impact on the Square, from the threatened (but apparently averted) demolition of the artists' haven at 619 Western to the disruption of vehicle and pedestrian traffic during construction that could harm retailers. As one concerned citizen put it, for years "every day will be Seahawks Sunday," and we know what that did for anchors like Elliott Bay Book Co. The way WSDOT works to minimize and mitigate damage, from relocating displaced artists to barricading streets to shoring up the foundations of historic buildings that could be damaged during construction, is now under careful scrutiny.
Alarm bells are ringing. So much so that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has weighed in stating its "apprehension" and "concern" for WSDOT's methods. The National Trust's involvement is a reminder that Pioneer Square is a national treasure, not just a local one, and that it has long been a leading example, a national model even, of the value of historic preservation to urban neighborhoods. The embodied value of maintaining the integrity of the historic district, while also allowing room for change and growth, are on the national radar. How Seattle keeps faith with Pioneer Square means a great deal not only to the city, but the preservation movement everywhere.
The tumult also presents opportunities. The redevelopment of the waterfront and the replacement of the sea wall, for example, could result in Pioneer Square being more connected to the Elliott Bay rather being walled off from the docks that gave it birth. Just about every person who came to early Seattle, and most of our goods, once flowed from the waterfront into Seattle's bustling commercial district which, in its earlier incarnation, also featured piers, a lagoon, and ships as part of a larger bay. Indians, immigrants, Chinese workers, and gold rushers all made their entrance here to one of the fastest growing cities in America. Linking the waterfront with the Square is a major goal of the district, a benefit of the Viaduct's removal; and as the waterfront re-design is now being conceived, how that makeover might link to the Square and at what point are timely questions.
There are other opportunities as well. Archaeological material dug up during the Viaduct replacement could generate new artifacts for display. The Square has had a goal to improve the neighborhood's walkability: safer streets and reclaimed alleys, better connections within the neighborhood. Second Avenue for example, slices off the Eastern portion of the district making it less accessible. The pedestrian corridors to the stadiums also feel a bit like a no man's land. Both the tunnel project and the surface option (favored by tunnel opponents like Cary Moon and Mayor Mike McGinn) will put thousands more cars on the downtown surface grid, and the Square will likely be heavily impacted. But, that should also shake loose some money to make improvements.
The goal ought to be to help get the Square through the transportation grid re-do in one viable and vibrant piece, and maybe even bring it through in an enhanced condition. One outcome to worry about: Will tunnel and other projects result in new traffic patterns that stick the district in semi-permanent gridlock or with streets that are less safe for pedestrians? The short- and long-term answers are critical, for the more walkable the Square is, the better. Thursday Art Walks, Saturday markets, Occidental mall, hoofing it to Mariners, Sounders, and Seahawks games and the bars afterward, tourists wandering in from cruise ships to shop, clubgoers, downtown dwellers walking from loft to office, panhandlers, and Real Change vendors: the character and life of the Square depends on its feet, and its future on foot-friendliness.
So while the tunnel project (and controversy) grinds on, and while the economy struggles to pull out of the mire of recession, plans for making a major improvement to the Square's walking environment are underway in the form of an urban trails project called "Trail to Treasure." The idea was hatched back in the early 1990s by the National Park Service, which runs the Klondike Gold Rush museum and visitor's center at 2nd and Jackson. Strange to have an indoor National Park unit in the middle of the city, but the service has also wanted to extend itself more into the surrounding historic district.
The Trail to Treasure idea stemmed from the Park Service unit's desire to link the path Klondikers took coming into Seattle, hopping off steam ships and trooping into the Pioneer Square area to buy their gear or spend their gold dust in the innumerable bars, brothels, and gambling joints. A walking tour through the district, linking the waterfront with the museum, could help visitors replicate that past. It could also be a link in the tourism chain for those cruise ship passengers embarking from Seattle the Inside Passage to Alaska and British Columbia. To recreate the experiences of 1898, a link in Seattle enroute to Skagway is essential.
The project has broadened, though, embraced by both the Park Service and the Alliance for Pioneer Square, supported with funding King County's 4Culture and a Department of Neighborhoods grant. A full-fledged plan is being developed, and a concept published last August is being vetted with a project launch slated for later this year. It's a process, with lots of businesses, historians, the Duwamish Tribe, artists, planners, volunteers, and others involved.
The Portico Group, architects and landscape architects with experience in parks, museums, and visitor's centers, has been retained to guide the process of giving the trail a shape and refine its purpose. Meetings are being held and public feedback request. I attended one at the Klondike Museum on Jan. 25 where interested parties were asked for their opinions about what the trail ought to be like and who it should be for. We were asked to place stickers on aerial views of the Square to mark our favorite spots.
A few things seem given. One is that the "trail" will likely be "trails," less a single path than a network of routes through the district. One, for example, might concentrate on the Square's natural history and original topography. The landscape used to feature a spring and a stream, and the shoreline was much closer inland between Western Avenue and First Avenue. The Burke Museum's wonderful Waterlines Project has identified where the original land forms and shoreline were before much of the shore, lagoon, and wetlands were filled in to create the Pioneer Square and SoDo we take for granted today. The old shoreline meanders around the square like a drunk, but as a result hits many highspots. It would, in the words of artist Don Fels who worked on Waterlines and favors a trail based on it, help recapture a sense of the place before it was "literally chopped, diced, and washed away in the name of progress." Suggestions in the concept plan include a shoreline marking on the ground to maker the path and the addition of a "water feature" to Occidental Park to bring back memory of the original spring that made the area appealing to Indians and settlers.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!