To gain housing, Pioneer Square needs a boost

The planets are finally lined up for a renaissance in Seattle's historic neighborhood, but only if the City Council will provide the legislation to help overcome the inherent difficulties of building housing in South Downtown. Here are three things the council should do.

Crosscut archive image.

Looking east on Yesler in Pioneer Square

The planets are finally lined up for a renaissance in Seattle's historic neighborhood, but only if the City Council will provide the legislation to help overcome the inherent difficulties of building housing in South Downtown. Here are three things the council should do.

Seattle's first neighborhood, Pioneer Square, has essentially missed out on every major economic boom to hit the Northwest since the Gold Rush.

First, it burned down. Most recently, Elliott Bay Books decamped to the Pike/Pine Corridor leaving a big empty storefront.

But those of us who live and work in the arms of the old buildings down here believe Pioneer Square is finally poised to have its long delayed Syzygy moment. "Syzygy" is a term used mostly in astronomy to describe when the earth, sun, and moon are perfectly aligned.

Pioneer Square is suddenly hot. The internet and video game developers are filling up the empty office space and making the Seattle area one of three or four major hubs for game development — an industry that now annually rakes in more money that Hollywood takes in at the box office. They are joining hundreds of New Idea people with New Economy companies like Blue Nile, Isilon, ING/Sharebuilder, and Nuance Communications — likely more than a thousand new people in these companies alone.

Crosscut has just taken offices in the Globe Building above the Elliott Bay Books space; so has a brand new arrival, Seattle Parks Foundation. These new-idea people are now searching for lunch in the new restaurants opening up in the old spaces. Historic King Street Station is being rehabilitated by the City of Seattle. Just next door National Trust boardmember Kevin Daniels plans to start this year on the long-awaited, mixed-use development on the north parking lot at Qwest Field.

All of this is happening within an easy walk of what is probably the single largest public transit hub north of San Francisco and west of Chicago:  King Street and Union stations, where commuter rail, light rail, bus lines, and nearby ferries converge. In a few years, South Downtown will be a new front door to the city with demolition of the Viaduct and the construction of the new central waterfront park, a new Alaskan Way street, appealing new public spaces, and compelling connections to the downtown neighborhoods.

Even with the planets lining up, there are, as always, challenges in Pioneer Square. But for once, the neighborhood knows what it wants. With a few bold and direct actions by an energized City Council on matters now pending before it, South Downtown can take full advantage of the economic renewal and these converging trends.

During the recent economic boom up to 2008, housing, retail, and office space exploded in other neighborhoods. But almost nothing happened south of Yesler. Retail vacancy rates are double the rest of downtown. Thirty-nine percent of South Downtown land has never had a building on it. We have parking lots.

The neighborhoods in the South Downtown have been asking for market-rate residential development for a long time, but in the last five years, almost 90 percent of the housing built in South Downtown was subsidized or low income.

So what are the reasons for this complete economic disconnect between South Downtown and the rest of the city?

For starters, it is harder to build anything here, especially in Pioneer Square. There are strict rules for a Historic District on the National Register and the tough love of a Local Preservation Board charged with protecting the old buildings and the district's character. There is the high water table of a neighborhood built on landfill. The historic district rules and the geology work hand in hand to keep building heights too low for most new development to be economically viable.

The City Council is about to vote on new zoning for the South Downtown, changes intended, in part, to stimulate development of market-rate and workforce housing by increasing allowable building height and density. The hope is to turn some of the many parking lots into buildings with a mix of uses — including housing, retail, and commercial.

But there's a catch called Incentive Zoning. To get 60 percent of the increased height, the developer has to include within the project a certain number of housing units that are affordable to a person making 80 percent of area median income. And to get the remaining 40 percent of the increased height the developer has to contribute to open space, green streets, or other specific amenities.

Many developers say these requirements, on top of the additional difficulties of building in Pioneer Square, probably mean no market-rate housing will be built.

The Pioneer Square Preservation Board has opposed more height in the Square because of scale conflicts. One might lose an iconic view of the Smith Tower, a now nearly empty 1920's historic building, for instance. Consider for a moment the irony of stopping even moderate economic expansion so that people can stand on a street of empty retail stores and stare at a beautiful old building.

The rules of preservation have worked to help us save some buildings, and we should thank the people and organizations who do that important work. But if historic preservation is as much about protecting the place as it is the building, then the handwriting is pretty clear on the old brick walls of Pioneer Square.

Our community is in danger of falling down just as sure as an old, abandoned building unless we put the old buildings back to work, supporting an authentic neighborhood where people can not only live and work, but look out for and protect their neighbors and their community.

The New Idea and New Economy people now coming to work in Pioneer Square cannot live here because there is virtually no housing for them. The influential urban historian Jane Jacobs said every neighborhood needs a mix of older and newer buildings to allow for a variety of uses, incomes, and ideas within a neighborhood. "Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings," she wrote. "But new ideas need old buildings."

Here are three things that should be done right now to help more perfectly align our South Downtown with the stars. The City Council can make these things happen.

1. Incentivize new construction on the parking lot on the East Side of Occidental Park. The developer is allowed 130 feet of height for a mix of housing, retail, and commercial. The development was approved when the developer promised to build a trolley barn on the site, which turned out not to happen. A better and timely public benefit might be a small ground floor library space, a visitor center, and public restrooms.

2. Allow additional height for a mixed-use housing, office, and retail development on the parking lot directly north and east of Occidental Park at Occidental and South Washington.

3. Postpone the imposition of Incentive Zoning in South Downtown until December 31, 2014, when much of the construction and utility relocation impacts on Pioneer Square will have been completed, and the financial markets will have had more time to recover. Use the time to "road test" the appropriateness of those regulations on real development in the historic district.

I live in Pioneer Square and walk to work. I know how fortunate I am to be able to do that. A friend told me the other day, "The new wealth in Seattle is the ability to walk to work."

I think it is time to spread the wealth. Let's give lots of people, including those New Idea, New Economy folks who are choosing to work in Pioneer Square, a chance to live here, too.


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