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Pioneer Square's takeoff: Be there or be left out

Call it the Tom Douglas Effect: Moves by smart investors are leading to more businesses jumping in.
Looking north on Occidental toward Occidental Park and downtown Seattle.

Looking north on Occidental toward Occidental Park and downtown Seattle. Don Barrett/Flickr

An authentic Italian coffee shop is part of the scene on Occidental Avenue in Pioneer Square.

An authentic Italian coffee shop is part of the scene on Occidental Avenue in Pioneer Square. studio-d/Flickr

Smith Tower

Smith Tower Jim Culp/Flickr

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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Comments:

Posted Mon, Dec 17, 10:18 a.m. Inappropriate

So, Mr Hinshaw, how much did the developer(s) pay you to write this?

orino

Posted Mon, Dec 17, 12:35 p.m. Inappropriate

Regardless of how much the developers paid you, good article Mr. Hinshaw. Thank you for bringing attention back to the square. I agree with Ms. Anderson, Occidental Ave. is one of the more beautiful streets in the city and we should be ashamed of ourselves for ignoring it's potential.

Orino, doesn't it sound more like small business is paying Mr. Hinshaw? Sure there is the bit about north lot development, but the rest is free and good press about several small business ventures. This is not the typical south Lake Union piece that has been dominating architectural and/or urban reports as of late. IMO, these are the types of businesses that deserve this attention.

Now, if only we could get that trolley running again. Sure it's touristy but what a great ride it made from the ID to the waterfront.

uncletim

Posted Mon, Dec 17, 12:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Pioneer Square has received some good press of late, but rarely do reporters get beyond the big names and bright lights. Thank you, Mr. Hinshaw for this rare depth of coverage. Another element to the story is the role that activist residents play in restoring civility to our cherished neighborhood.

Posted Mon, Dec 17, 4:04 p.m. Inappropriate

I also agree with Katherine Anderson (and uncletim) that "Occidental Avenue is the most beautiful street in the city". The Avenue and the Park are incredible places during the summer. Seattle has so much potential - I am excited to read about these positive changes. Thanks for the article.

Posted Tue, Dec 18, 1:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Oh God, do I detect yet another plot by some toadying architect to hit Seattle with yet one more world-class yuppie post-modern ugly stick? I swear it, these people won't be satisfied until they ruin every square foot of the city! Can't you people leave anything alone?

NotFan

Posted Tue, Dec 18, 10:08 a.m. Inappropriate

One key will be making Occidental work for retail for more than one block. The block facing Occidental Park badly needs a building to the east side of the park, and I gather that is just one strong commercial tenant away from happening.

While Pioneer Square today is full of for rent signs at the street level, that is actually a kind of good news. Retailers that no longer serve the daytime, tech-oriented workforce in the Square are leaving, creating opportunities for the new kinds of hang-out retailing that are moving in. Another factor: the high prices in South Lake Union are deterring startups and support retail, and these folks are discovering the Square.

Posted Tue, Dec 18, 9:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Enough financial advice from architects! Let's get some architectural opinions from financial planners.

simorgh

Posted Fri, Dec 21, 5:15 a.m. Inappropriate

For the newcomers, it's time for a short course in how Pioneer Square got to where it is? What's the history of Occidental Mall, Globe lighting, Street Tree planting, designs of Occidental Park and Pioneer square Park, Median Strips down First Avenue, Washington Street Boat landing, National Register of Historic Places listing,Designation by the City of Seattle, KingDome effects on the District, etc.
There was and can still be the same level of activism that needs to be in place and powerful to go into the successful future.
How about it?

Arthur M. Skolnik FAIA
Pioneer Square Historic District Manager (1971-75)

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