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.
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