A trail not a tunnel

While Pioneer Square is being buffeted by big projects and tough economic times, work is proceeding on an urban trail network to make the historic district more connected and foot-friendly.

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Pioneer Square, watched over by Chief Seattle

While Pioneer Square is being buffeted by big projects and tough economic times, work is proceeding on an urban trail network to make the historic district more connected and foot-friendly.

These are both the best and worst of times for the Victorian, and often Dickensian, Pioneer Square. 

On the "best" side of the ledger is a renewed effort to mobilize government, business, retailers, and cultural groups in a revival of Seattle's first urban neighborhood. The new Alliance for Pioneer Square is pushing to adopt the Main Street program to revive the district. Major projects are on the drawing board or moving ahead, including the multimillion dollar rehab of historic King Street station and the creation of a new adjacent plaza, and the planned development of the Qwest Field north parking lot with office and retail space and 600 new residential units.

On the "worst" side, at least for now, are disruptive transportation and infrastructure projects in the Square, SoDo, and the Waterfront that mean years of disruption. The Square lost its Waterfront Trolley connection due to the Olympic Sculpture Park project, but that was a prelude. The biggest challenge is the Viaduct Replacement Project's deep-bore tunnel. The Washington State Department of Transportation has alarmed the arts and heritage community with the tunnel's potential impact on the Square, from the threatened (but apparently averted) demolition of the artists' haven at 619 Western to the disruption of vehicle and pedestrian traffic during construction that could harm retailers. As one concerned citizen put it, for years "every day will be Seahawks Sunday," and we know what that did for anchors like Elliott Bay Book Co. The way WSDOT works to minimize and mitigate damage, from relocating displaced artists to barricading streets to shoring up the foundations of historic buildings that could be damaged during construction, is now under careful scrutiny. 

Alarm bells are ringing. So much so that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has weighed in stating its "apprehension" and "concern" for WSDOT's methods. The National Trust's involvement is a reminder that Pioneer Square is a national treasure, not just a local one, and that it has long been a leading example, a national model even, of the value of historic preservation to urban neighborhoods. The embodied value of maintaining the integrity of the historic district, while also allowing room for change and growth, are on the national radar. How Seattle keeps faith with Pioneer Square means a great deal not only to the city, but the preservation movement everywhere.

The tumult also presents opportunities. The redevelopment of the waterfront and the replacement of the sea wall, for example, could result in Pioneer Square being more connected to the Elliott Bay rather being walled off from the docks that gave it birth. Just about every person who came to early Seattle, and most of our goods, once flowed from the waterfront into Seattle's bustling commercial district which, in its earlier incarnation, also featured piers, a lagoon, and ships as part of a larger bay. Indians, immigrants, Chinese workers, and gold rushers all made their entrance here to one of the fastest growing cities in America. Linking the waterfront with the Square is a major goal of the district, a benefit of the Viaduct's removal; and as the waterfront re-design is now being conceived, how that makeover might link to the Square and at what point are timely questions.

There are other opportunities as well. Archaeological material dug up during the Viaduct replacement could generate new artifacts for display. The Square has had a goal to improve the neighborhood's walkability: safer streets and reclaimed alleys, better connections within the neighborhood. Second Avenue for example, slices off the Eastern portion of the district making it less accessible. The pedestrian corridors to the stadiums also feel a bit like a no man's land. Both the tunnel project and the surface option (favored by tunnel opponents like Cary Moon and Mayor Mike McGinn) will put thousands more cars on the downtown surface grid, and the Square will likely be heavily impacted. But, that should also shake loose some money to make improvements. 

The goal ought to be to help get the Square through the transportation grid re-do in one viable and vibrant piece, and maybe even bring it through in an enhanced condition. One outcome to worry about: Will tunnel and other projects result in new traffic patterns that stick the district in semi-permanent gridlock or with streets that are less safe for pedestrians? The short- and long-term answers are critical, for the more walkable the Square is, the better. Thursday Art Walks, Saturday markets, Occidental mall, hoofing it to Mariners, Sounders, and Seahawks games and the bars afterward, tourists wandering in from cruise ships to shop, clubgoers, downtown dwellers walking from loft to office, panhandlers, and Real Change vendors: the character and life of the Square depends on its feet, and its future on foot-friendliness.

So while the tunnel project (and controversy) grinds on, and while the economy struggles to pull out of the mire of recession, plans for making a major improvement to the Square's walking environment are underway in the form of an urban trails project called "Trail to Treasure." The idea was hatched back in the early 1990s by the National Park Service, which runs the Klondike Gold Rush museum and visitor's center at 2nd and Jackson. Strange to have an indoor National Park unit in the middle of the city, but the service has also wanted to extend itself more into the surrounding historic district.

The Trail to Treasure idea stemmed from the Park Service unit's desire to link the path Klondikers took coming into Seattle, hopping off steam ships and trooping into the Pioneer Square area to buy their gear or spend their gold dust in the innumerable bars, brothels, and gambling joints. A walking tour through the district, linking the waterfront with the museum, could help visitors replicate that past. It could also be a link in the tourism chain for those cruise ship passengers embarking from Seattle the Inside Passage to Alaska and British Columbia. To recreate the experiences of 1898, a link in Seattle enroute to Skagway is essential.

The project has broadened, though, embraced by both the Park Service and the Alliance for Pioneer Square, supported with funding King County's 4Culture and a Department of Neighborhoods grant. A full-fledged plan is being developed, and a concept published last August is being vetted with a project launch slated for later this year. It's a process, with lots of businesses, historians, the Duwamish Tribe, artists, planners, volunteers, and others involved.

The Portico Group, architects and landscape architects with experience in parks, museums, and visitor's centers, has been retained to guide the process of giving the trail a shape and refine its purpose. Meetings are being held and public feedback request. I attended one at the Klondike Museum on Jan. 25 where interested parties were asked for their opinions about what the trail ought to be like and who it should be for. We were asked to place stickers on aerial views of the Square to mark our favorite spots.

A few things seem given. One is that the "trail" will likely be "trails," less a single path than a network of routes through the district. One, for example, might concentrate on the Square's natural history and original topography. The landscape used to feature a spring and a stream, and the shoreline was much closer inland between Western Avenue and First Avenue. The Burke Museum's wonderful Waterlines Project has identified where the original land forms and shoreline were before much of the shore, lagoon, and wetlands were filled in to create the Pioneer Square and SoDo we take for granted today. The old shoreline meanders around the square like a drunk, but as a result hits many highspots. It would, in the words of artist Don Fels who worked on Waterlines and favors a trail based on it, help recapture a sense of the place before it was "literally chopped, diced, and washed away in the name of progress." Suggestions in the concept plan include a shoreline marking on the ground to maker the path and the addition of a "water feature" to Occidental Park to bring back memory of the original spring that made the area appealing to Indians and settlers.

Other trails in the network could focus on aspects of the district's history: colorful historical characters, Skid Road, Native American uses of the area (trails, beaches, longhouses, Chief Seattle's speech site near 1st and Main), the integration of maritime history with the Square's past, the experience of various ethnic and immigrant groups (the first Chinatown was in the Square), even arts and culture figures who were part of the Square's 20th century revival (Victor Steinbrueck, Linda Ferris, grunge bands). The possibilities are endless.

History can become an endless tangle, but Portico and trail boosters seem to recognize that any historic trail system will have to have a narrative and be coherent, interactive, and multi-modal: iPhone apps, sculptures, plaques, embedded artifacts, signs, tours, maps, historic guides, re-enactors, retail tie-ins. There are plenty examples of success around the country, from Boston's Freedom Trail to San Francisco's Barbary Coast Trail. They provide ways for people to explore and hear stories of an urban landscape; they can connect existing attractions (parks, historic buildings, open spaces, arcades, stadiums); they can take you off your usual routes and turn a walk into a discovery.

Trails are good for tourism, fun for the kids (especially with some interactive elements like spyglasses to look through or artifacts that can be handled), and they help citizens get a handle on their own city's hidden history. The Square already does that with the privately run Underground Tour, which is an entertaining short-course in Seattle history, and probably the most money anyone has made from basements outside of "Antiques Roadshow." But everyone seems to agree that history can be helpful if much more visible, that a public Above Ground Tour is potentially much richer if it can be explained, labeled, and encountered. A trail system will not only encourage out-of-town visitors to explore the Square more thoroughly, but it will help locals craft a more informed sense of place.

One notion is to create multiple entry points for the trails system where people have traditionally entered or departed the Square. On the West would be the Waterfront, probably a starting point at the Washington Street Boat Landing, a city landmark that is one of the only places where the general public has access to the water as they had in the old days. The landing is likely to undergo changes as a result of seawall and waterfront work, but its future and past functions are critical to the larger story. It represents an entry point for sailors and gold diggers, and is the key existing maritime link. 

Another, trailhead to the South could be King Street station, which then as now is a central rail hub for the area and a link with the International District. Seattle boomed when Easterners could arrive by Palace Car, and in the future the city hopes to thrive on rail commuters and related transit oriented development. To the East, another trailhead could be near the Smith Tower and the bus and light rail tunnel portal. Historically, nearby Yesler Way, was the original Skid Road, the path where felled timber found its way off the hills and to the mills and ships. It also gave the world the generic name for seedy commercial districts everywhere.

With grants, donations, and in-kind contributions, the project seems to have enough funding to get it through the planning phase, which should wrap up the first half of this year. The city Department of Neighborhoods gave the Alliance a major projects matching grant of nearly $84,000 in August. The lists of goals and visions will be refined, the scheme will focused, the preferred mix of media for telling stories determined. Funding the actual trail system, figuring out who runs it over the long haul (is it public, private?), and implementing it are all to come. But the pluses seem pretty clear: It's a project that gets the neighborhood pulling together, it refreshes everyone's sense of history and what makes Pioneer Square special, it's a potential new attraction to benefit cultural tourists, retailers, and school kids, and it promotes learning while getting people to move their feet.

Done right, it will also teach lessons about the complex past of Pioneer Square and early Seattle, how we transformed the land and water from wetlands and fresh springs to a city bubbling with life and urban strife. It will show us the roles of key people in a layered, urban history, people who built, re-built, rehabbed, revitalized, and remade an important place. 

The trail could also tell us as much about what we need to do as about how much we've done. The resurrection of the past, making it visible, will force us to consider questions about how the making of our future. Can we make better environmental decisions than the re-graders who destroyed the wetlands and washed away the hills? Can we still build major infrastructure in the 21st century? If Seattle burned down, could we replace it better than before as they did after for fire of 1889? How do we avoid the mistakes of the past which are evidenced in artifacts of prejudice, injustice, and exploitation? Are we as creative, as ruthless, as greedy, as high-minded as our ancestors? What other choices could they have made? Are we making the best choices ourselves? 

The treasure at the end of the trail might not be a ticket to the exhibits at Gold Rush museum where you can see Klondike nuggets, but more knowledge about who and what we are, and where we fit into the saga of an evolving Seattle.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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