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Why Pioneer Square is a better fit for the Creative Economy than South Lake Union

A real estate expert explains how these old work districts fit the needs of new creative workers better than the sleek tech zones such as South Lake Union. One reason: small blocks.

Iron pergola, Pioneer Square

Iron pergola, Pioneer Square Joe Mabel

Looking east on Yesler in Pioneer Square

Looking east on Yesler in Pioneer Square Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons

Pop quiz: If you want the best Seattle neighborhood for stimulating creativity and innovation, would you pick South Lake Union or Pioneer Square?  When it comes to work districts and new ways of working, one of these places is more of the future and one of them more about the past.  Which is which?

You would be tempted to pick South Lake Union, the place with all the construction cranes and where Paul Allen, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos have placed their bets.  Besides their money, the City of Seattle itself has put tens of millions of dollars into the street car, rebuilding Mercer Street, and making a new waterfront park. 

Then there is Pioneer Square, the place with empty storefronts, homeless folks, and the traffic of game days.  How could this be the future?

My answer to the pop quiz would be Pioneer Square. One key is looking not the quantity but at the quality of development. Pioneer Square has open buildings, walkable streets, and vibrant coffee houses, and these factors are increasingly important in business, especially to the legions of people who are going out on their own or joining small companies, people who need to be in contact with one another.

There is a curious phenomenon going on in business and commercial real estate: Even as wireless technology frees us to work when, where, and how we want, face-to-face meetings are becoming ever more crucial for making important decisions about new products and ventures. Pioneer Square wins out in this critical category.

A key factor is the scale of the two places. South Lake Union is about six times as big as Pioneer Square.  In South Lake Union the walk from the Whole Foods store at Denny and Westlake to the new lakefront park at the top of Westlake takes 15-20 minutes, while it is close to a mile between Whole Foods and the Gates Foundation campus just east of Seattle Center. There is no one identifiable center in South Lake Union, no one place you can count on walking out and seeing someone you know. In Pioneer Square almost everyone is within a five-minute walk of Occidental Park and Occidental Mall.

Next is the big difference in the scale in the buildings and the size of the blocks. Most of the new buildings in South Lake Union are big structures where 150 people or more may work on a given floor.  A single tenant may take up most of one block in a building accessible only by pass key.  In Pioneer Square some of the buildings are so narrow they may be five to a block, and those historic blocks are about 300 feet long, compared to more than 500 feet in South Lake Union. 

To be sure, South Lake Union will be a major jobs center over the next 20 years, possibly adding as many as 25,000 new jobs just in the next five years. The question is whether the place itself fosters the kind of face-to-face contact and multi-disciplinary work necessary to innovation. Jane Jacobs wrote “New ideas often need old buildings.”  Sometimes the scrappy start-up firms simply cannot afford the rents that go with new construction, but just as importantly, these old buildings come in old neighborhoods where people run into one another. 

It was this original need for face-to-face contact that first drove the renaissance of old work districts.  One of the first on the West Coast was South Park in San Francisco, several blocks south of Market Street. Laid out in 1852, it had undergone many changes when architects and designers began moving there in 1970.  The same thing began happening in the Pearl District of Portland in 1982, and in Vancouver’s Yaletown in the mid 1980s.  Aldus was one of the first tech companies to start in Pioneer Square; it released PageMaker, one of the industry’s first desktop publishing programs, back in 1985. 


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Apr 24, 11:30 a.m. Inappropriate

And stepping over drunks on Saturday night.......

Posted Wed, Apr 25, 9:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Great article. I work near Pioneer Square and this all rings true. The sheer number of great lunch spots and bars makes it a perfect place for constant meetings.

skye

Posted Wed, Apr 25, 9:34 a.m. Inappropriate

And this is why Pioneer Square sucks to work in.

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2018061279_yesler25m.html

Yes I love those old brick buildings. Yes I love Occidental park even though it's full of ner-do-wells and bird poop. But I do not like that it's full of characters looking to have a good time by mugging someone, shooting someone, going to a bar and picking a fight...

My SO works up at Harborview and every Monday morning the clinic is full of people with busted noses, broken jaws, eye sockets from being jumped. They came to the defense of some girl, picked a fight with some guy who had buddies... you name it and stupidity and alcohol and it ends is some smuck getting smacked down.

South Lake Union has yuppified so that those bars are gone as are the idiots who hung out in them. Yes it has no "character" but if I was working at one of those real tech businesses, I would not want to work late if it was in Pioneer Sq.

GaryP

Posted Wed, Apr 25, 3:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Rod Stevens has made a very important point. South Lake Union, besides the boring repeat of architecture is made up of large rectangular blocks which results in overblown bulk for new development. Small blocks with alleys and buildings with active street fronts are a key to a pedestrian friendly and welcoming neighborhood.
South Lake Union is ridding itself of most alleys and building to the maximum density. I believe its future will not be much different from Pioneer Square when it comes to crime stats, but for a different reason. Pioneer Square has been the home to late night bars and the homeless a mix that will always bring problems. Pioneer Square needs more Police walking the beat.
South Lake Union will or already has become an 8am to 5pm office park with traffic jams from dawn and until dusk. If I worked there, whether I lived there or not, I would be hightailing it home at the end of the work day (forget stopping at the bars and restaurants) because it would take me some time just to get out of the neighborhood if I drove, and if I walked, the streets are not “friendly” especially in the dark days of the year with the cold fronts of office buildings to keep you company.
SLU has experienced seriously bad Urban Planning done by a mix of greedy property owner(s) dictating their will to a clueless City Planning Department.
street lights and signs buzz loudly , drug dealers sale proudly

Posted Thu, Apr 26, 11:08 a.m. Inappropriate

I hope the author is right; I'd love to see Pioneer Square rejuvenate itself. But the point that business creativity is aided by certain urban characteristics and a lot of street level face time is something that needs thoughtful consideration. For one thing it ignores all the patents that came out of suburban office parks. Does Palo Alto have small blocks? not particularly as I recall and, as we all know, Apple Computer began in a garage. Where does Mark Zuckerberg hang out? Manhatten now but the way I understand it his main creative burst came about in a college dorm. Maybe there were some ultra-hip coffee shops nearby.

kieth

Posted Thu, Jun 7, 10:24 p.m. Inappropriate

A number of those patents came in a more suburban age. We are seeing hte best and brightest working in more urban places. Not only that, but more of our patents will probably come from collaborative activity.

Posted Thu, Apr 26, 4:45 p.m. Inappropriate

Cops walking the beat? Now that's an idea, but . . . .Seattle just got approval for flying those unmanned drones. Seems to be a win-win for SLU and Pioneer Square and those poor ERs dealing with busted noses, knife wounds and general alcohol-induced recreational fun. Imagine, that creative class creating the computer programs running the drones so they can continue forward with their fun little projects in IT that will make us all warm and happy and bum- and drunk- and druggie- and criminal-free. Seattle is on the verge of perfection.

Zuckerberg hangs out where? Creative Burst? Creative class?

A good critique of the Richard Florida thesis on creative class, class, cities like Seattle and the other 388 in the US vying for some of that "creative Midas touch." Zuckerberg? Bezos? Microsoft? Google? They all just love being little G-men, now don't they?

Nice read here --

http://noclexington.com/?p=477

PaulKirk

Posted Thu, Dec 20, 11:46 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm sorry I missed this article last April. Glad I found it now. I do agree. For the most part, I see Pioneer Square becoming vibrant once again, and while Lake Union is certainly growing, the age of people out on the streets is quite young - and they all look the same. That isn't the case in Pioneer Square.

Now, to get the urine smells out of the alleys.

Posted Thu, Dec 20, 11:52 p.m. Inappropriate

@ Lake Union Neighborhood who said "SLU has experienced seriously bad Urban Planning done by a mix of greedy property owner(s) dictating their will to a clueless City Planning Department."

I'll give you the that SLU has seriously ugly building, but I can't say it's a mix of greedy property owners dictating their will to a clueless City Planning Department. The reality is, those buildings were build either as a custom job for a specific owner, or as spec projects wanting to attract a high rent paying client.

In the end, the buildings are not built to make the neigbhorhood more liveable. They are built to house offices and businesses and represent jobs. When they are full, employment is strong.

I don't wish for all office spaces to be so butt-ugly. But you cannot simply blame the so-called greedy developer and the idiot city planners. The third leg of the stool is the tenant, and the reason that third leg of the stool is critical is the jobs.

Shorten the blocks, and require alleys would be a help.

Posted Sun, Dec 23, 8:44 p.m. Inappropriate

"But you cannot simply blame the so-called greedy developer and the idiot city planners."

Why not? If we citizens don't hold our city government accountable for crappy policy planning and permitting decisions, who is? We'll end up with increasingly sterile and unpleasant urban environments. Who should decide, the developers who contribute most to the elections? I'd rather not, thank you.

SLUDGE (South Lake Union development grows endlessly) is not the kind of city I want to live in.

louploup

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