Newcomers, money shadow Pike Place Market's future

In the next few years, federal guidelines for urban renewal will no longer protect Pike Place Market. There are looming mandates to be financially sustainable. And newcomers' lack of market memories could be the biggest threat of all to preserving the market.
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The Pike Place Market

In the next few years, federal guidelines for urban renewal will no longer protect Pike Place Market. There are looming mandates to be financially sustainable. And newcomers' lack of market memories could be the biggest threat of all to preserving the market.

In just two years, Pike Place Market will transfer from the strict guidelines of a 40-year federal urban renewal plan to the control of the city of Seattle. Seattle City Council and the mayor will be obligated to confirm a transfer agreement another two years later, in 2014.

When the transfer from the federal HUD urban renewal plan is complete, the market and its control will become the council and the mayor'ꀙs responsibility. Their control will extend over market property far larger than just the sales area we and thousands of tourists know so well. The entire site occupies 22 acres, divided up for many uses under a public development authority charter agreement with the city.

Will this historic site and its uses as a public market continue to be one of Seattle'ꀙs cherished landmarks? What powers, if any, might influence elected officials to make changes? Is any of this prime real-estate vulnerable to denser commercial development?

Concern for the market was recently raised by Joan Paulson, a longtime market supporter and a former employee of both the city and the Pike Place Market Preservation & Public Development Authority, the landmark'ꀙs management organization. She says she wants to know if the market'ꀙs character is secure. She'ꀙs not citing any conspiracy, but with her extensive knowledge of market history, she believes revisiting the market'ꀙs operational structure can be important to the future of the area, which has become almost sacred ground to preservationists.

First, there'ꀙs an opportunity to assure that the transition doesn'ꀙt lead to a takeover by some unknown development or investment group, something that almost occurred once before. She noted that the existing charter agreement requires the market be financially sustainable. Could the need for operational funds generate sufficient temptation to seek development that would provide income? The city has made clear its general support higher densities in Seattle. Might that preference threaten the market'ꀙs ambience or character?

Whether there is any real concern over the market'ꀙs future depends on whom you talk to. While the market was originally created to provide a place for farmers to sell their products at no or low cost, there is concern that the income from modest rents will not be sufficient. And the market isn'ꀙt exactly an island. The character of surrounding neighborhoods, access, parking, the design for access to the Battery Street tunnel, and the somewhat fickle nature of tourism will all play a role in the market'ꀙs future.

Intelligent discussion of the Pike Place Market is complicated by the very diversity of interests it embodies. Economics, legal issues, varied uses, and a half-dozen competing user groups, all add up to a complicated history (a good short version is available on Wikipedia).

There are differing opinions on what changes are possible under the existing PDA charter agreement with the city. PDA director John Turnbull and Carol Binder, executive director, believe little or no change is possible, since much of the existing market lies within a historic preservation district. They say the terms of their charter are clear and unbreakable.

Martha Lester of the city council central staff commented at a recent meeting that she is not aware of any movement within the council to change the status quo in the charter or any basic market policies. The possibility of zoning or code changes mostly applies to other market properties just outside the historic district.

Much of the market'ꀙs future is wrapped up in the complex legal language within the charter agreement and the complexity of the site itself. The 22 acres are divided among a number of uses, each with defined use agreements that range from public housing to retail sales, parking, food services and crafts.

Oversight of the market rests with the Pike Place Market Preservation & Development Authority (PDA), a form of government corporation established under state law. The PDA itself is overseen by a 12-member volunteer council.

Established in 1973, the PDA manages 80 percent of the properties in the city-recognized Market Historical District. Its charter requires it to preserve, rehabilitate, and protect the market's buildings; increase opportunities for farm and food retailing; incubate and support small and marginal businesses; and provide services for low-income people. PDA revenues derive from the market's tenants through rent, utilities, and other property management activities.

Operating independently of the PDA, the Market Historical Commission has the mandate to preserve the market's physical and social character as "the soul of Seattle." The commission must approve any substantive change in the use or design of buildings and signage in the Historical District, even when these actions are taken by the PDA.

Besides those various organizations, there are also such groups at The Market Foundation, three individual merchants associations, and The Buskers Guild. Then there are such services as the Pike Place Senior Center, The Food Bank and The Pike Market Clinic.

Managing the market, its property, and its maintenance and operation is not unlike imagining a presidential state dinner where, instead of having one chef, you mistakenly hired a dozen world-class chefs, with egos to match. Former city council member Charlie Chong once described the market as a 'ꀜcan of worms.'ꀝ There are, and have been, continuing disputes between management and those who rent day stalls, food sellers, crafts people, restaurants etc. At times the conflicts have required City council intervention.

While the PDA's current managers adamantly believe that the charter is too solid to be dismissed, the terms of that charter are a creation of government. The question is, could the city modify or dissolve the charter agreement? Jorgen Bader, a retired attorney for the city who was involved in drafting the charter, recalls there were differences of opinion on whether the charter agreement could, or should, be modified to increase or decrease the ability to be dissolve it.

The City Clerk'ꀙs office files contain a discussion between an attorney for the city, Donald Stout, and Gerry Johnson, a private attorney now associated with the market. They mention the potential provision for city intervention with the establishment of a trusteeship and termination of agreement.

The PDA is firm in believing that the Historic Preservation District protects most of the market. Yet not one of the district'ꀙs buildings has been given individual historic status. The assumption is that the overlay district protects all buildings within its boundaries. There are skeptics who believe that when the development potential of real-estate becomes valuable enough, there might be sufficient financial interest to legally test the preservation designation.

If there is any real threat to the market and the values it represents, it may be rooted in the fact that preservation of anything requires institutional memory. As Seattle grows with new people from distant places, they can'ꀙt know what energy and inspiration created the public market.

There are those who cherish the uneven floors, mysterious passageways and the smell of fish mixed with the aroma of food of all ethnic origins. The market has a sound and smell of its own.

The market was once almost lost to an East Coast investment group through some bad legal and financial advice. What we have learned from experience is that with the best intentions, a management group like the PDA can make poor choices. The lesson, if any, is to be vigilant and continue talking about the market and its value. Interested citizens like Joan Paulson only ask that we pay attention.

Since 40 percent of Seattle residents are new to the city, is there is any possibility that future Seattleites might like the market to be different? Attitudes change. Will future city politicians see old construction methods and policies in need of high-density, green development?

If humor is your thing, consider: New Mayor Mike McGinn'ꀙs supporters talk of legalizing pot. Where better to explore this pursuit than the Market'ꀙs Victor Steinbrueck Park, where tensions and controversy often surface? It could become the most mellow park in the city with the passing of bongs and park visitors leaning on the fence overlooking the waterfront where, without the viaduct, 100,000 vehicles will create the most massive traffic jam in America. And somewhere in the bowels of the city there might be a massive tunnel boring machine stuck for lack of funds to keep it moving.

Aside from people without historic perspective, the danger to the market may come from the need for financially sustainability. If rental income from those who toss fish or sell delightfully fragrant candles can'ꀙt support the PDA staff and operations, will the PDA look to development to bring in higher rents and more income? Then, would Walmart, McDonald'ꀙs and Walgreens want a market outlet?


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