Seven steps for 'saving' Pioneer Square

Some are easy, other seem impossible, but a "to-do" list is necessary to help rejuvenate Seattle's urban and cultural treasure.
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Motorcycles in Pioneer Square, circa 1914

Some are easy, other seem impossible, but a "to-do" list is necessary to help rejuvenate Seattle's urban and cultural treasure.

Pioneer Square is a commercial district hampered by economic hard times, street people, and neglect. Elliott Bay Book Company, an anchor tenant of the Square and a prime symbol of its revival over the last 40 years, is moving to Capitol Hill's Pike-Pine corridor. That has triggered a new round of editorializing and soul-searching. The move may be a "tipping point" for a neighborhood that some say has been "shamefully abandoned," giving rise to questions like, "Can Pioneer Square be saved?"

The city is mobilizing. Seattle's Office of Economic Development is working on a plan to boost Pioneer Square's business prospects, as it has done for Broadway, the University District, and South Seattle in the past. The city recently brought in an outside real estate and commercial district consultant, Donovan Rypkema of PlaceEconomics, to assess the Square's prospects. I've written about Rypkema before. He's a specialist in historic preservation, sustainability, and how to keep commercial districts vital. He visits some 200 cities per year to speak, advise and cajole.

At a Qwest Field presentation of Rypkema's initial observations and recommendations after a 72-hour fact-finding blitz last week, Darryl Smith, the new deputy-mayor designate showed up to signal incoming Mayor Mike McGinn's interest in Pioneer Square. Smith, a real estate man, played a role in revitalizing Columbia City, which is the hot model of commercial district revival that makes other neighborhoods swoon. Every commercial strip wants to be the "new Columbia City," though few have the historic architecture that has been the backbone of that neighborhood's appeal. Nevertheless, its success is a tribute to grassroots grit and Smith's background gives him credibility in delivering a message for the new mayor. As Smith said, "If anyone gets it, it's the man who created Great City," the civic improvement initiative McGinn founded (and Smith chaired) that helped launch his political career.

Indeed, Pioneer Square ought to be the poster child for Seattle urbanism, not for its failures. It's arty and edgy, historic and diverse, ground zero for the creation of both old Seattle and modern Seattle (both post-1889 fire and post-1960s urban renewal). It has food, clubs, bars, galleries, sports stadiums, high-tech, tourism; in short, a diverse economy. It's already served by light rail, heavy rail, and transit (with the potential to have its trolley revived and new streetcar service added on First Avenue). The Square is Seattle's first experiment in urban idealism, taking the original Skid Road and turning it into the kind of dense, walkable, amenity-rich, downtown neighborhood that is in vogue and, we're told, the future of the city itself.

As urbanists have scurried to remake Seattle, they have essentially been trying to replicate much of what Pioneer Square already offers, yet the master mold seems to be cracked, or at the very least unfinished. Meanwhile, other neighborhoods have emerged as competitors, first Belltown (another troubled nabe) and more recently South Lake Union. As crime has risen in Belltown and Pioneer Square has sprouted empty storefronts, South Lake Union has gained a streetcar, park, a museum, Amazon, even a Whole Foods. It's an urbanist vision in making something new from scratch with political muscle (Vulcan, University of Washington). It's no wonder some of the older urban downtown experiments feel neglected, even if they had a head start. South Lake Union has been a magnet for resources. Says architect and former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, "I've long felt the city turned its back on Belltown and Pioneer Square."

The Square also faces significant unknowns: the Waterfront redevelopment, the post-Viaduct rewiring of transportation (tunnel and surface options both promise to be disruptive, even possibly destructive to parts of the Square). There are properties whose owners seem to be practicing "demolition by neglect." There is the ongoing struggle with the Square's huge "social service" population of the poor and homeless, and the street life they generate. There's also increasing competition from other retail districts, from Columbia City to Fremont to University Village to Ballard to Northgate. Then there's the economy, which has brought development to a virtual halt.

Despite its years of remaking, restoring, renovating and renewal, Pioneer Square, even with its urban assets, feels like it's falling far short. Some worry that the Square could cycle back to being a run-down urban neighborhood. Instead of the back burner, its advocates are making that case for its being on the front. What are some of the steps that could allow the Square to get back on track, regain some positive momentum, look beyond the bumps of economic downturn and get its act together, to become, once again, an urban priority? Here's a list of seven steps that could keep Pioneer Square from falling into Seattle's urban dust bin.

1. Stop whining

In 2002, consultant Donovan Rypkema came to Seattle and advised the Pioneer Square stakeholders to "stop whining." His first piece of advice in 2009: same thing. Rypkema believes the Square is doing better than people think, especially the bitching, feuding parties within the Square itself. For one thing, he says, the Square is already "one of the great commercial districts in America" with an enviable inventory of important structures. "There is no recognition of the extraordinary quality of what you have here now," he says. Art Skolnik, who ran the Square in the early '70s, calls it the district's "inferiority complex." The Square, in short, is under-appreciated even by the people who love it most, and perception often becomes reality.

Second, yes, the Great Recession is bad, but it's bad everywhere. Over much of the decade, however, the Square has actually been outperforming other commercial districts, and growing more robustly than the U.S. economy and the state economy. Rypkema reports that gross receipts in the broad, 20-block Square area have more than doubled in the six years from 2003-08, and gross retail sales have increased more than double the national rate. Pioneer Square is out-performing even nearby districts like the International District/Chinatown. Yes, there are many issues, big and small, and much room for improvement, but get a grip.

2. Hire a czar, or maybe a CEO

Many people with knowledge of the Square agree that it needs to be managed better. First, a sense of scale. Many of the complaints about crime and street problems (panhandling, drug dealing) are real and come from the retail merchants. But Pioneer Square is more than angry (or whiney) shopkeepers, says Rypkema. He tallies the economic activity in the Pioneer Square area at nearly $1 billion. Of that neighborhood economy, only 12 percent is retail or food and beverage (often the loudest complainers), which means that 88 percent of the Square's economy is in other sectors, including high-tech, arts, lawyers, architects, manufacturing, etc. The service sector is the largest chunk of Square business, and it's growing. In other words, what's going on upstairs in the offices and lofts of Pioneer Square is even more important economically than what's happening at the street level.

Still, the common identity of the Square is as a historic district with galleries, tourist shops, and bars for sports fans and frat boys. That's only a piece of the puzzle. Can Pioneer Square morph its self-image into something broader than a spruced-up Skid Road? Does it want to?

If you view it as a $1 billion business, who's managing it? Merchants and preservationists are organized, but for a successful commercial neighborhood, you need robust leadership. Developer Kevin Daniels from Nitze-Stagen (which is a partner in a proposed residential project in Qwest Field's north parking lot) yearns for a Jim Ellis type. Skolnik, appointed by Mayor Wes Ulhman to run the Square back in its early '70s heyday, argues for a city-hired "district manager" to make things happen (he'd love to be the guy, again). It's the best way to cut through the bureaucracy, he says. Steinbrueck thinks the creation of a new public development authority for the Square should be explored, looking to the Pike Place Market and International District as examples of where this has worked well.

Rypkema says that leadership is key. "A champion for the effort is the irreplaceable variable" in such renewal efforts, he says. But an individual, or group of motivated players, need an organization to back them and provide muscle for getting more resources for the Square, first by developing a common vision and a business plan for what the Square is, and where it's going. George Rolfe, former head of the Pike Place Market PDA who runs the Runstad Real Estate Center at the UW's College of Built Environments warns that "retail districts without a common management scheme can flame out." This is in part because retail is inherently unstable as businesses come and go, successful owners sell, others fold, and shops change to reflect market trends.

Such a management group needs to get all the players together and make sure they have skin in the game: Everyone must operate from a common self-interest (tough to achieve). They also require staff and the ability to generate independent data to help drive decisions. Another characteristic both Rolfe and Rypkema recommend: Any Square organization must rise above the usual Seattle process to get things done. How so? Both advocate redefining what "consensus" means. Rolfe argues that if you shoot for 100 percent agreement, those with extreme views can hold the process hostage (think Joe Lieberman on health-care reform). He suggests 65 percent to 75 percent agreement ought to be enough for "consenus." Hit that threshold, you have a decision, move on. One requirement: Everyone agrees to stick with the decider once a decision is made.

There are many options: a city-run initiative headed by a czar, a PDA, a Business Improvement District, a Chamber of Commerce, a beefed up Pioneer Square Community Association. Rypkema says the vehicle is less important than the ability to mobilize resources and direct them (and attract them) effectively. Without such a group, you won't attract additional resources from big players, from the city or developers or the sports franchises.

3. A loft of one's own.

Nearly everyone agrees Pioneer Square needs more market and workforce housing, not simply subsidized housing for low-income people or missions for street people. The great hope is the development of Qwest Field's north parking next to King Street Station. Developer Daniels calls this project the "largest Transit Oriented Development" in the city and it would create some 660 new housing units, nearly doubling the Square's current supply. No question, says Rypkema, Pioneer Square needs more density.

Steinbrueck says one problem with Pioneer Square is that it's looked at as an historic district, a place for underground tours, but not as a real, complete neighborhood. Since it has all the qualities urbanists extol, it ought to be a hot property, but that's been slow to develop (where do you shop for groceries in Pioneer Square?). While many believe that the north parking lot project (it still doesn't have a sexy, marketable name) is vital to the Square, it's not the only game in town. There is still potential in the area's older buildings. Switching the near-empty Smith Tower to residential is one possibility.

One reason developers say it hasn't come about is that Seattle's building codes are not friendly to adaptive reuse, so many residential projects in historic buildings simply don't pencil out. Energy and seismic upgrades are too expensive, especially if you're trying to create actually affordable housing. Giving developers a break is one possibility; increasing incentives is another (City Councilmember Sally Clark has a task force looking into historic preservation incentives). One program that's worked wonders, says Rypkema, is a Missouri law matching federal tax breaks for historic rehabs. You can save 20 percent with a federal tax break, the state matches that with another 20 percent (that's a 40 percent tax break from the git-go). In addition, developers can buy and sell the tax breaks for 70 cents to 80 cents on the dollar. He says the program has saved St. Louis.

4. Settling the civil (or uncivil) war.

One person described Pioneer Square's longtime struggle between the merchants, preservationists, and the neighborhood's social service population as "the civil war." Crime is a problem, so is street behavior that makes visiting the Square unappealing or intimidating. Rypkema and others say the "edge" is part of the Square's urban appeal. You won't, and shouldn't, drive those folks out, because as Rypkema says, they've been part of the Square since the beginning. On the other hand, you can't let them take over and spoil the commercial environment, especially retail.

An influx of new residents (still some years off, even if the economy fully recovered tomorrow) would help dilute the population of street folks. More residents and street activity will reduce both petty crime and the scary atmosphere (think of the difference at the Pike Place Market where the heavily trafficked core feels family-friendly, versus the north end near Victor Steinbrueck Park which is often sketchy). Second, many people use Pioneer Square's sidewalks as their front porches (or bathrooms), so these people need good, indoor places they can hang out during the day. Third, you need to have and enforce civility laws, Rypkema says. People doing drug deals in your doorway or in front of your business as stealing value from you, and they have no right, he says. Seattle, he says, needs to get over the idea that people have the right to behave badly in public.

City Councilmember Tim Burgess is already on this crusade with a new round of civility laws, reminiscent of the Mark Sidran-era initiatives, targeting things like aggressive panhandling. He's also about to propose a return to foot patrols in Pioneer Square and the International District, followed by the U-District and Broadway. Burgess, a former Seattle policeman, is concerned with public safety and is hearing from people all over the city how angry and fed-up they are with street crime (he recently got an earful in Ballard). Seattle has dueling inner liberal impulses, the libertarian or social empath who wants to defend the rights of street people, the other more a stern Scandinavian social engineer who wants the city tidied up and is happy to see troublemakers put away.

One key element to creating great urban spaces is making them safe, and making them feel safe. One of the greatest drivers of sprawl, according to Joel Garreau and others, is the desire for people to settle in places where women feel safe. Big SUV's, indoor malls, and gated communities are less about male macho and conspicuous consumption than they are about keeping women and children safe while the men are toiling away at an office park or traveling in business class. There's a reason even urbanist Bellevue feels sanitized. If Seattle cannot attract families by creating denser urban neighborhoods that are safe, you won't be able to make more sustainable cities. Settling the civil war is critical to realizing Seattle's urbanist vision.

5. What would Leavenworth do?

There are programs (like the Main Street movement) that specialize in revitalizing historic commercial districts in cities from Boston to Chelan. They help bring communities together for a common economic development purpose. Unfortunately, Washington state has slashed and might eliminate its Main Street program funding due to the budget crisis, an unfortunate prospect since programs like this can form the heart of local economic recoveries. Pioneer Square might not be right for Main Street, but the kind of cooperation such programs generate is effective. And no, Pioneer Square doesn't want to be Leavenworth and sport Bavarian gingerbread and dress the homeless in lederhosen, but like it or hate it, Leavenworth is an example of a town that has its story straight, and has marched to success by adhering to a plan and creating a shared, and lucrative, civic fantasy. Many have noted the the Square could benefit from more cooperation among its retailers.

This can be tough, because shop owners are often independent and competitive, but things like clustering business (clubs, bookstores, antique shops, furniture stores, boutiques, for example) or putting on special events or offering collective merchant discounts or issuing scrip can be beneficial. So can working to restrict big chains: Locally owned mom-and-pops contribute much more to the economy by keeping dollars local. An example of Pioneer Square success is the First Thursday Art Walk, and some believe the lessons and effectiveness of that program in bringing in new retail traffic and bolstering the Square's arts identity is something that could be replicated.

6. Get our heritage act together.

At Rypkema's Pioneer Square presentation, a participant asked which other cities had done things that really impressed him. His reply: "Places that wowed me were places that didn't look elsewhere for the 'wow' factor." Ouch. Rypkema's rebuke is a statement about Seattle's provincialism: People, grow up and get some self-confidence. Do your own thing.

True, but it's hard not to compare Seattle unfavorably with some cities that seem to get it right, even on things that are uniquely ours, like our history. One reason Seattleites might not appreciate Pioneer Square is that few people here really know our city's history, nor is our heritage generally explored with much sophistication, putting Seattle in a larger context, updating our history to make it relevant and interesting. Pioneer Square, of all places, ought to own Seattle history (so why's the Museum of History and Industry moving to South Lake Union?). But besides the Underground Tour and Gold Rush Museum, you'd think there was little to Seattle but the Klondikers and the Great Fire of '89.

You ought to be able to pick up more above ground, and through osmosis. If you walk through New Orelans' French Quarter, you not only can eat great food and enjoy Big Easy-style schlock, but you will learn about jazz, voodoo, slavery, the Civil War, Southern literature, and French-American history. Seattle needs to do a better job of telling its multifaceted history in the places where it happened, and while you might preserve some great buildings, there is a dearth of plaques, specialty walks, Native American interpretation (Indian souvenir shops and Alaskan totem poles don't count), visible archaeological sites, etc. From grunge to gay bars, from Madame Damnables to understanding the way Native Americans lived here, from visits by Jack London or John Muir or Mark Tobey or Gore Vidal, to the police scandals of the 1960s, there's a wealth of color and historic detail that could enrich the cultural tourist's experience. This should be a slam dunk for the Square.

7. Forget Elliott Bay Book Company.

Peter Aaron of Elliott Bay made a smart business decision, perhaps the only one he could make, in moving the Pioneer Square icon to Capitol Hill. All book lovers wish them well, all Pioneer Square lovers will miss them. But it's not the Square's fault they had to go: Factors outside their control came into play, not the least of which are fundamental changes in book retailing that are national and international in scope. But important as Elliott Bay has been (and will be now to the Square's history), the neighborhood's identity is bigger than any one shop, and while the move helped spur needed public discussion of where Pioneer Square is headed, it's not the end of the story. Give them a plaque, visit them in Pike-Pine, but move on.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.