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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