The Pioneer Square renaissance is through with fits & starts

In the thirty-five years that I’ve lived in Seattle, much of it working and living in or near Pioneer Square, I cannot recall so much buzz about the place. A couple of years ago, I wrote about what was beginning to happen in Seattle’s “first neighborhood”. Little did I know that things would take off as much as they have.

Today, cocktail bar Intermezzo Carmine (411 1st Ave S.), with a look straight out of the Left Bank, has finally given Carmine’s Terrazzo a street-facing presence. Down the street, swanky Damn the Weather (116 1st Ave S.) is packed by early evening. Radici (the re-named Tinello) on 2nd Ave S. is bustling day and night, despite not being in the busy First Avenue corridor, and the BRGR Bar on Occidental Park (111 Occidental Ave S.) has reinvented itself with great, inexpensive food and an upgraded interior ambience.

Last week, these were joined by the legendary Taylor Shellfish (410 Occidental Ave S.), which sold out of its stock within hours of opening.

Soon to open is Pizzeria Gabbiano on Main St., a sister restaurant to the Square's beacon of handmade pasta, Il Corvo. That will be followed by GoodBar next door and then, later in the year, Il Boccone — just a couple of blocks to the west. Over at Stadium Place on King Street, Josh Henderson of Skillet and Westward fame is readying sports bar Quality Athletics for a fall opening. Soon after, it will be joined by a Korean restaurant.

The relatively new London Plane is just one of the Matt Dillon joints driving even more neighborhood investment. Image: Sean Conner

This phenomenon is not unlike the older quarters in many other cities across North America. Both Millennials and Boomers — who together make up more than 50 percent of the American population — are discovering that the oldest parts of cities are the most charming, the most diverse, and the most dynamic.

After decades of being basically an employment center, vacant in the evening hours, lower Manhattan is now a thriving neighborhood replete with bustling plazas, promenades, and curb-protected bike lanes. Chicago’s Loop is livelier than it has been in decades. Even downtown Los Angeles is being rapidly transformed with renovations and new construction where there were once vacant buildings and vast seas of parking.

And the Square is coming back with more than just places to eat. Startups and gaming companies pack the neighborhood's upper floors. Spaces formerly plastered with “For Lease” signs are being quickly snapped up.

At right: Pioneer Square's summer farmers market. Photo: Sean Conner.

Henderson is also behind Cone & Steiner foods on King Street, which is soon to stock its newly installed shelves. The TangoZulu import shop, a Port Gamble transplant, on First (110 First Avenue S.) offers an array of handmade baskets and clothing. Clementine’s — a West Seattle women's clothing shop — is relocating into a former gallery space on Occidental. The Hidden Alchemist, a diminutive tea and herb shop, recently opened underneath venerable Grand Central Bakery. Fleurt, a flower shop, will soon open on S. Washington, and Velouria, a Ballard-based women’s boutique known for stocking local designers, has taken space on King Street.

My walks in the evening indicate a continued appreciation for nightlife: Event space Axis (308 1st Ave S) is frequently filled with well-dressed crowds attending an event. Café Nordo is rapidly remodeling the space formerly occupied by Elliott Bay Books into a live performance and dining venue. Some of the older raucous bars such as the J&M Café and McCoy’s Firehouse have been cleaned up and made into family-friendly places for brunch.

Image: Open Street Map

But the biggest boon to the district is arriving in the form of housing. In addition to Stadium Place, three new projects will add more than 350 apartments to the area. Goodman Real Estate is about to start work on the site currently occupied by Argens Lock on Main Street. Portland-based Gerding Edlen will replace the parking garage on Jackson Street west of First Ave with housing. And Daniels Development, which developed Stadium Place, has purchased the triangular building across from CenturyLink Field for a mid-rise tower called Stadium Lofts, which will include workforce housing. Further off, Hudson Pacific is looking at building apartments at the site of the Merrill Place garage on King Street.

Just outside of Pioneer Square's eastern boundary, Daniels is also building an affordable housing development called Hirabayashi Place at Fourth Ave and Main Street. It will include a child care facility, which has been lacking. Another project soon to start on Fourth Avenue will include a major drugstore — something both Pioneer Square and the International District have needed for a long while.

At Washington and 3rd Avenue South, the Yoko Ott Arts Foundation will be renovating a dreary, 70’s area building into its own offices, along with gallery space and eventually housing for artists. This continues to strengthen the mini neighborhood already occupied by the Tashiro Kaplan artists building and the multitude of galleries. Adding to the supply of office space on the west side of the neighborhood is the 619 Western Building, which is being revamped into leasable office space. And a mixed use building by Greg Smith will fill in the big missing tooth that is the parking lot on the east side of Occidental Square.

Day-by-day, the opening of the streetcar, connecting Pioneer Square with the ID. Little Saigon, First Hill and Capital Hill gets closer. The stations are done and the tracks and wiring are complete. The only thing holding it back is the absence of the streetcars themselves. They are on backorder, it seems, and won’t be shipped until the fall. When that happens, there will be a whole new set of changes and challenges. Urban dwellers without cars will have a half-dozen connected neighborhoods to fully embrace. My prediction is that property values all along the line will soar.

Regardless of all of these changes, some people will still likely persist with their perception of the place being filled with dangerous street people. News flash for those folks: Get Over It. The missions and shelters are here to stay. They own their buildings, they keep them in good shape, and they are well-run.

Occidental Park, a true cross-section of Seattle society. Photo: Sean Conner

If some people are bothered by seeing others less fortunate than themselves, they can simply stay in their own neighborhood. There are plenty of people who have no problem mixing with the wide variety of faces and fortunes found in Pioneer Square. That is significant part of its 150-year history, after all.

On the subject of street crime, the increased presence of the Seattle Police department is palpable. They spend time on the street in patrol cars, bikes, walking beats and horses throughout the day and evenings. The new Police Chief is committed to maintaining this needed intervention.

Officers talk with a man in Pioneer Square's Occidental Park. Photo: Sean Conner

Already, hard core drug dealing has moved elsewhere. A couple of months ago, a dealer was parking a former Metro “Access” van, complete with a disabled placard and using it as a cover for selling drugs.  A coordinated effort by the police, the neighborhood, and City staff, including an alert Park Ranger, got the vehicle impounded when the owner wandered off. With likely incriminating evidence inside, its not been back.

For the most part though, most of the folks lingering around Occidental Square are fairly benign. Al, for example, sits all day quietly carving walking sticks from a bundle of wood that he carts about. I’d much rather have him as a neighbor than the thousands of raucous, drunken Seahawks fans who feel they are entitled to trash the neighborhood eight times a year.

I was recently musing about Pioneer Square's changes with Leslie Smith, the ebullient and irrepressible Executive Director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square. The Alliance, with its heavy-hitting board and creative staff, have helped foster a lot of the recent changes to the district. Our conversation inspired me to think about what else could be done to make this a more robust and livable urban neighborhood.

Perhaps its time for some bold thinking. Now that a streetcar is being planned for First Avenue, let’s slow the traffic way down. I mean waay down. To walking speed.

How to do this? Replace the stop signals with stop signs. Every one of them. (Better yet, let’s borrow a bit of creative traffic engineering from the Netherlands and eliminate all signals and signs.) As with Pike Place Market, if you choose to drive through the area, you will quickly realize it's going to be very slow-going.

And, let’s get that bike sharing program up and running. Quick!

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