How to revive Pioneer Square

Lessons in urbanism from New Orleans, Paris, and Boston. Plus, signs of how the recession is winnowing an oversupply or shops and letting the good ones flourish.

Crosscut archive image.

The Jordaan neighborhood in Amsterdam

Lessons in urbanism from New Orleans, Paris, and Boston. Plus, signs of how the recession is winnowing an oversupply or shops and letting the good ones flourish.

From where I live in Pioneer Square, I have a full frontal view of a new, six-story office building. More depressing than its mundane, suburban-style architecture is the realization that is will be quite a few years before all of its see-through office floors and empty storefronts will be filled.

Almost every week along the streets in Pioneer Square there is another “Going out of Business” sign that joins the growing number of “For Lease” banners slapped across display windows or parapets.  The Square appears to be in a deep doldrums, activated mainly by clutches of tourists diving into dank basements, sitting on roaming excursion buses, packed onto noisy amphibian boats; the seasonally fluctuating tsunamis of sports fans; and the hoards of nightclubbing Millennials.

Some people are still grieving the loss of the venerable Elliott Bay Books, which decamped to Capitol Hill. Certainly I am grieving for a place where I used to hang out for years. Other long-standing shops and restaurants have bitten the dust. The Trattoria Mitchelli was a place that helped revive the neighborhood when it was languishing 33 years ago. For a long time, the Trat was my morning hangout, even though I lived in a completely different part of the city.

The funky, labyrinthine Antique Mall in the daylight basement of the Pioneer Building is gone after years in that location. What I dearly miss in that corner spot is the long-departed Brasserie Pittsbourg, Francois Kissel's bistro of creativity and yummy French omelets where politicos, civic activists, and designers literally drew up a new Seattle over butcher-paper tablecloths. The Brass Pitt closed several recessions ago.

But is the Square really that depressed? Let's take a closer, more hopeful look.

Like many shopping districts in the last couple of decades, Pioneer Square benefitted from the excessive spending patterns of Americans. As a culture dominated by consumption, we accumulated lots of stuff, supported pricey restaurants, and partied like the world was about to end. That era is over — and it's over for the city, the region and country as a whole. Even the much-praised downtown Portland now has entire blocks lined with vacant storefronts.

Not to minimize the problems of Pioneer Square, but what is suffering is part of larger societal shift. Listen to market economists and some of the “resetting” we are doing as a result of the Great Recession. There will be a huge retrenchment of retailing with respect to both goods and services, partly owing to the Web (and retailers like And this is not merely tied to current recessionary conditions, but to long term trends involving the general aging of the population and the new preferences to live more frugally.  

One positive way of looking at this recession is that it serves to weed out many marginal businesses or those that depended on excessive spending patterns. This “economic Darwinism” leaves the remaining field more fertile for businesses with deeper roots and ones who have survived multiple downturns by luck or pluck. Of course, it doesn’t help small shopkeepers to stay if landlords refuse to adjust rent downward to fit the new economic reality; some simply have no choice but to close.

Unfortunately, one of the misguided forms of public policy regarding land use regulation is the notion that for a neighborhood to be lively, its streets must be lined with shops, galleries, restaurants, and cafes. This is reflected in codes that require these uses on the ground floor. In some locations that does make sense. But trying to make retailing sthrive on every street in a place like Pioneer Square is a foolish hope, even in the best of economic times. There simply isn’t enough demand.

This may be the case in Pioneer Square.

But that doesn't mean the right amount of retail would not flourish. Indeed, despite the mythology about Pioneer Square drying up, a number of businesses are thriving. Consider these examples:

Tom Pantaleoni just returned from China on an extensive buying trip to replenish his store Distant Lands that he owns with his wife Alessandra Zuin. According to the couple, while last year was “very rough,” their business is now beginning to come out of the slump and is seeing new and faithful customers.

John and Carolyn Siscoe have operated The Globe Bookstore for five years (and have also owned a sister store in the University District for 31 years). “When Elliott Bay Book Co. was here, people used to walk on by,” remarks John. “I could actually hear them say ‘Oh there’s a cute bookstore,” as they bee-lined to the behemoth down the block. Now we have people coming in and buying or our books.” So confident is the couple about the future that they just extended their lease for another five years.

Cora Edmonds runs the ARTXCHANGE gallery. According to Cora, “These last two years have been in our best ever. The store carries a ever-changing array of work by a wide range of artists working in different media and is staffed by affable, chatty people.

The venerable Glasshouse, long a landmark on Occidental, attracts both customers and people who want their photo taken in front of its cheerful, brightly-lighted storefront filled with sumptuous glass pieces. The glass–blowing operation in the rear continues to fascinate waves of visitors.

Despite the departure of several mainstay stores, there has been an influx of newcomers. DivaDollz, a delightfully unique dress shop, was plucked (literally) from the ruins of Katrina and transplanted to Seattle. Marcela’s  — also from NOLA — adds another quirky element. In this little boite, co-owner Anthony holds forth about the café’s culinary delights proffering samples of barbequed shrimp. Marcela, the place’s namesake, runs the compact kitchen. New Orleans’ loss is certainly Seattle’s gain.

Many other long-standing businesses such as the antique stores and rugs stores remain as they have been for years.

Pioneer Square has been seeing quite a bit of new life. The First Thursday art walks seem to have been rediscovered. There is on-going programming of Occidental Square ranging from temporary art by ARTSPARKS to evening dancing to music to a Saturday flea market. The square itself was re-designed to open it up to sunlight and make walking more comfortable. I haven’t seen so many events going on in Occidental Square in years. Most of it is pretty cool and nicely unpredictable, such as the recent snowboarding demonstration, complete with a massive mound of trucked-in snow.

Much of the energy has been infused by The Alliance for Pioneer Square, which recently formed to create a unified and strong voice for the neighborhood in city hall — something that had been lacking for years. Leslie Smith, the organization’s irrepressible executive director, is an articulate champion. Her board is co-headed by Kevin Daniels, a developer who is a forceful advocate of historic preservation, and former mayor Charles Royer.

Formerly filthy alleys that were perpetually strewn with trash and dumpsters have been cleaned up as a result of a city-sponsored program called Clear Alleys, operated by a company called Cleanscapes. The friendly and earnest staff of MID (Metropolitan Improvement District) — the public maintenance arm of the Seattle Downtown Association — makes sure that sidewalks and parks and squares are clean and presentable each morning. Recently-installed, dramatic lighting of trees along First Avenue makes the street more alive during the long, dark winter evenings.

One city that Pioneer Square might learn a thing or two from is New Orleans, and its French Quarter.  Much of New Orleans' reputation as a hard-partying place comes from the saloons on Bourbon Street. But go to other parts of the quarter and it's actually pretty quiet — even serene. Some streets are dotted by an occasional café or shop but for the most part they are filled with work places, housing, and boutique hotels. Retailing is confined to relatively small number of blocks to achieve a critical mass.

There are splendid urban neighborhoods in many other cities that aren’t chockablock with shops but still are walkable, interesting, and wonderfully livable. The Jordaan in Amsterdam is one. Outside of one or two streets, the place is filled with five- and six-story buildings that contain mainly non-retail businesses and flats. The occasional market or festival brings in crowds, but most of the time one can walk about and see only a few other people. The 11th and 12th arrondisements in Paris are similar districts.

These neighborhoods are older, pleasant, quiet, with a few interesting public spaces and event venues. No shame in that at all. The streets are often lined with apartments and offices rather than shops. These districts all reflect a sort of “dignified decay” where aging involves both quirkiness and patina.

Another persistent myth is that Pioneer Square is filled with inebriated street people, transients, and beggars who annoy passersby. I personally recall bringing my young son to Occidental Square ten years ago only to have a drunk smash his bottle on the ground, shards of glass flying into our lunches from Grand Central Bakery. That's diminishing. Yes, there are street people hanging about, but they seem generally benign and even affable.

These days, scenes of public drunkenness and urination come largely from out-of-control Seahawks fans who bring cases of beer into the Square at 9 am on Sundays for tailgating parties. After the game, the trash and unruly crowds are formidable. As one community leader has said, “The SPD seems to tolerate behavior in Pioneer Square that would never be acceptable in other parts of the city.” Not long ago, I had to chase away an inebriated, jersey-clad fan who was using the entry to our building as a urinal in broad daylight. Indeed, some other cities have limited the length and activities allowed for pre-game tailgating because of this kind of uncivil behavior.(Such coarse behavior is not the case with more family-friendly Mariners or Sounders games.)

Nonetheless, Pioneer Square still needs improvements. Here are a few suggestions:

•Re-engaging the arts community would be a key strategy, as artists are often the re-generators of urbanity. Fill those empty shops with live-work spaces, especially on the back streets. There is simply nothing like lots of people living in a place to make it more interesting. Ten years ago, the state passed a tax deferral statute for new urban housing. Let’s rework that law to create an incentive for artist housing.

•One large, ground-level space should be made into a community center, perhaps modeled after the Athenaeum in Boston. That great membership library, dating back to 1807, hosts lectures with provocative speakers, book readings, afternoon teas, discussion groups, classic films, regular exhibits, and events for children. The Athenaeum serves a crucible of local culture and community debates.

A Pioneer Square Athenaeum could combine elements of Town Hall, albeit smaller, the old Elliott Bay Books, and a community center, which the neighborhood has never had. There could be a lending library of books and publications relating to Seattle and its history, meeting rooms, display spaces, and a small fixed-seat theatre for lectures and revival films. (Years ago, there was such a small movie theatre at Third and Washington.)

•The City should consider lightening up a bit on the regulations that govern the district. In cities throughout Europe, their sense of history does not translate as much into keeping older districts “pure” — i.e., architecturally frozen in certain time period — as it seems to be here. Of course, most structures in Pioneer Square have a value that should not be destroyed or damaged by careless renovation. But is it absolutely necessary to maintain a rigid height limit even where there are now parking lots?

Historic areas elsewhere in the world include an occasional contemporary building that sharply contrasts with its much older neighbors. The contrast can make the craft of an earlier time even more visible and precious. So what if we allowed the parking lots on the east side of Occidental to be occupied by a new apartment tower? Allow the added height only with conditions of affordability, a LEED Platinum (or perhaps even Carbon-Neutral) design, and in return for providing a large, indoor, glass-enclosed community hall for wintertime markets, music, and festivals. Require cutting-edge design — not insensitive to surroundings but not merely blending in either. It could be a new landmark — a distinctive “campanile” for Occidental Park, replacing a field of lumpy asphalt.

But I can hear the cries of “spot-zoning.” All right, offer such a deal to anyone with at least 20,000 square feet of property without a designated historic building. Who knows? We might finally rid ourselves of the massively ugly “sinking ship” parking garage.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner. He was an architecture critic for The Seattle Times and is the author of many articles and books, including Citistate Seattle (1999).