After several years of losing businesses and enduring tragic incidents, Pioneer Square is being transformed with new buildings and new entrepreneurial energy. In contrast to previous initiatives that were more speculation than substance, this round of new investment is serious and tangible. And as with lots of other examples of urban revitalizations elsewhere in the country, this one has been stimulated by a handful of very intelligent and enthusiastic people making calculated decisions.
After more than a decade of being fussed over with governmental agreements, the north lot at CenturyLink Field is finally being developed in a full-scale, mixed-use project bring hundreds of apartments and new retail businesses to that part of the city that was a century ago the terminus of railroad lines. Kevin Daniels' expansive project is, thankfully, not attempting to ape the buildings around it with cloying faux historic details. Rather, it is using distinctly modern, sharply sculpted forms to stake out a dramatic bookend to the south edge of the district.
This development is taking a page from much older European cities where new buildings often present a contrast to their surroundings, which heightens the qualities of both the old and the new. Often, community pressure has resulted in buildings that try to blend in. But contemporary building methods and materials rarely can match the craft of older eras.
When a major project like this starts coming out of the ground, it attracts the attention of many other people. Most, however, don’t want to be pioneers as they know that pioneers often get killed. So they hold back and wait from someone else to blaze the trail. In this case, the trail is cleared and it seems to be hot.
The convergence of several things is serving to attract others to build or move into the Square. The elevated viaduct is slated to come down within a few years, opening up views and easier access to the waterfront. A significant piece of the Waterfront Plan by James Corner Field Operations calls for reconnecting the district to a series of public spaces. High-tech companies are eagerly seeking spaces that are grounded in history and have a quirky charm unavailable in most contemporary structures. And many younger people are looking for living and working spaces right in the core of the city — a phenomenon that is occurring around the globe.
There have been past efforts to revive Pioneer Square that have either failed or not had a critical mass. And of course, there have been some major setbacks such as the decamping of Elliott Bay bookstore. What is different now is that it's not just talk and speculation; people and companies are making serious investments, leases are being signed and buildings are being renovated. Moreover, there is an organizational energy that has not been present in the past. And there are efforts that involve both the city and the private sector.
Karen True of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, a formidable, well-organized group that is becoming the steward of the district, notes that not long ago she had to practically beg businesses to consider locating in the district. Now people are coming to her with inquiries about available space and rates. Says True, “The change has been remarkable in just a few months.” True is delighted with the shift away from an era overloaded with raucous, meat market bars like Tiki Bob’s, which is being replaced with a more sedate establishment called the Stadium Lodge.
What we are now seeing in Pioneer Square are elements of a 21st century economy using the “good bones” of buildings constructed in the late 19th century. These buildings are ideal not for the demands of large national corporations but for smaller, home-grown businesses that are using much different business models.
One need only to walk through the venerable old Masins Furniture building at Second Avenue to see the fascinating combination of old world craft and cutting edge technology. Old-growth timbers support wood floors that are now supplemented by raw steel bracing as a defense against earthquakes. A sinuous steel staircase dramatically ascends to a floor occupied by the HUB — an organization that provides working spaces for small entrepreneurs. Surrounding the lounge-like open area are a clutch of businesses involved in new forms of investment. As Lindsey Engh with the HUB puts it, “These are companies that want to stimulate creative thinking in areas that promote social good. While they choose to make investments, maximizing their bottom line isn’t the highest priority. Some are true donors, but others are somewhere between non-profits and for-profits.”
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