Saving Pioneer Square by teaching it some old tricks

Pioneer Square needs to get organized to revitalize itself. The Main Street program, which barely survived Olympia budget cuts, offers a tested approach that could bring small-town techniques to Seattle's historic urban district.
Crosscut archive image.

The summer farmers market in Pioneer Square.

Pioneer Square needs to get organized to revitalize itself. The Main Street program, which barely survived Olympia budget cuts, offers a tested approach that could bring small-town techniques to Seattle's historic urban district.

Washington's Main Street program, designed to help commercial districts redevelop and rebound, survived draconian state budget cuts, barely. Heritage advocates are breathing a sigh of relief, because the program offers proof that historic preservation makes economic sense.

With a new lease on life, the program has a chance to expand in new ways here, and the national Main Street staff was in Seattle last week to point out the possibilities. It was a bright spot following a near-death experience in Olympia that had people across the state worried about Main Street's future here.

A summary of what occurred: The budget proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire looked to eliminate the small Main Street program entirely. It has been run out of the Department of Commerce, Trade and Economic Development, and while its funding is relatively modest, some folks took it for an easy cut. But Main Street's friends rallied.

Developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the program guides business districts through a process of leveraging their heritage and retail assets to revitalize neighborhoods. The proof of its effectiveness includes state exemplars like Ellensburg, Walla Walla, and Port Townsend, which have become cultural tourism destinations. Nationwide, some 2,000 communities have tried Main Street during the last quarter century, and 1,200 remain active in the program.

In the end, the budget was cut by $77,000 leaving $68,000 for the coming year. Effective in July, the program will be shifted to the supervision of the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP). That offers a chance to reinvigorate the program with some new thinking. While Main Street combines both economic development and historic preservation, one upside of the new heritage focus is that DAHP is tied-in to how to take full advantage of state and federal tax breaks, grant funding and other benefits for historic projects. Allyson Brooks, head of the agency, says she's excited by Main Street's application in new areas. The program's meat and potatoes has long been rural and small town America, but Brooks sees potential benefits for urban neighborhoods in cities like Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane.

Developer Kevin Daniels has suggested that Main Street could provide an organizing catalyst for renewing Pioneer Square, a district receiving the attention of the city's Office of Economic Development. Daniels is one of the partners in the future development of the North parking lot of Qwest Field, considered key to the Square's future as a residential neighborhood. Last week he arranged for a National Trust field director, Lauren Adkins, to present the Main Street program to Pioneer Square stakeholders.

Adkins mentioned that she studied Pioneer Square in "preservation school." The Square was held up as a national model, and its rehabilitation is rightly famous. But it's also a reminder of the ongoing nature of stewardship. The "saving" of the Square in the '60s spawned an ongoing commitment.

The Square is complex, impacted by social pressures, economic fluctuations and fads, limitations, neglect, and infighting. Some outside experts, like city consultant Donovan Rypkema, have condemned both the whining of Square merchants and the hand-wringing of naysayers who fail to appreciate that the Square is enviably rich in resources, both historic, human and financial. At the same time, few would claim that it's living up to its potential. It should be the star of downtown living, not its homely stepchild.

Adkins went through her slide show outlining the program's key characteristics and principles. The gist is that Main Street comes to your neighborhood with a comprehensive approach, it's incremental, community driven, public-private, and builds on what you already have.

They start with small projects to support local retailers and businesses, often stuff like signage, awnings, inexpensive ways to fix up storefronts or improve streetscapes. They're more about the $7,000 facelift than the multi-million dollar rehab. They view their goal as helping businesses become more profitable.

The Main Street approach seems to embody the "acting locally" ethic, and a belief in letting a thousand flowers bloom.

The main thing is to implement a functional, local process for the retail district's main moving parts and to get people pulling in a common direction. As has been witnessed in Pioneer Square and the Pike Place Market, infighting is so common it almost seems an inevitable part of the culture. Adkins emphasizes the Main Street is a long-term program: "It's no late-night infomerical diet pill."

It's an economic restructuring and the early tangible benefits are often in the nitty-gritty details of how to help a mom-and-pop business work. There are also big picture challenges like getting people to view a district in a new light.

Is Main Street too rinky dink for an urban pioneer like Pioneer Square? Not if you look at its track record. The program is already working in big cities, including 20 neighborhoods in Boston, and inner city districts from North Park in San Diego to Federal Hill in Baltimore to downtown Wilmington, Delaware to Barracks Row in Washington, DC. It's in the details where neighborhood successes start: flower planters, block parties, discounts and special events, "buy local" initiatives.

Main Street sends in consultants who can teach retailers how to reorganize to generate more business, how to host events that bring repeat retail traffic, how to help business owners pitch for loans to buy their buildings. They teach shopkeepers to market and network using Facebook, and show them how to take advantage of preservation-related tax breaks. Some Main Street neighborhoods have organized to keep a diverse ecosystem of small businesses alive to avoid the worst effects of gentrification by using these strategies.

In Baltimore, Main Street participants helped break gridlock between residents and club owners to come up with a plan for peaceful co-existence that involved club owners agreeing not to over-serve customers. Working in the neighborhood made famous by the TV series The Wire, they helped counter the damage done by open-air drug dealing by filling the streets with customers for new kinds of retail.

In districts with adjacent stadiums or sports venues (like Pioneer Square), they've found ways to capitalize on non-sports events (concert days) and note that nabes can benefit by forging close relationships with sports celebrities looking to improve (or rehab) their images. The Main Street approach seems to embody the "acting locally" ethic, and a belief in letting a thousand flowers bloom.

Adkins cited working with the governor of Kentucky who said that if he could add one job each to his state's 36,000 small businesses, the payoff would be better than competing in a race-to-the-bottom for attracting one out-of-state employer. Main Street is founded on that kind of insight about the power of incrementalism.

Pioneer Square has plenty of cooks in the kitchen, and has already undertake some Main Street-like programs ( eg. the First Thursday Art Walk), but Main Street has a lot of national experience that could apply here. One value is its decades of success in finding solutions for everyday problems.

Pioneer Square has taken looking inward to some kind of limit. It could do worse than looking outside itself for ideas and techniques to help it get moving ahead. Maybe Walla Walla and both Baltimore have something to teach us in the power of implementing a deceptively simple-looking plan that's proven its power many times.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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