Pioneer Square: Some great signs, but still at risk

My picks for this year's list of the "most endangered" historic properties in Washington.

Crosscut archive image.

Sometimes the interests of art, culture, tourism, preservation, and history do intersect, as with the 619 Western building in Pioneer Square.

My picks for this year's list of the "most endangered" historic properties in Washington.

The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation is collecting nominations for its 2011 "Most Endangered" historic properties list. Nominations are due by March 21. Last year's list can be found here. And, by the way, Oregon is inaugurating its list this year, with the same deadline.

These are perilous times for preservation and heritage in Washington, with the threatened closure of the state museums and the proposed gutting of preservation programs (like capital grants). One of the most endangered things in the state right now isn't a historic barn, ship or an old school, but the infrastructure of preservation itself: slashed budgets, reorganized and reduced management and coordination, the diminishment of resources for scholarship and research resources, the shuttering of museums and historical societies, the downsizing of advocacy and economic development programs. The Great Recession and resultant budget cuts, combined with revenue and tax limitations, are damaging our ability to conserve, nurture, and protect heritage across the state.

We're not talking about a single wrecking ball, but the budgetary and organizational equivalent of a neutron bomb, targeted, but devastating to everything within the immediate blast zone.

So, one thing I propose for the Trust's list is "Preservation and Heritage" itself. While not strictly a "property," the infrastructure is a tangible asset, and the dangers faced are unprecedented.

Moving down a couple of notches, I also nominate Seattle's Pioneer Square for the list. Other heritage groups highlight dangers posed to historic districts and neighborhoods. For 2010, Heritage Vancouver, for example, listed "Granville Street" and "Strathcona North of Hastings" on their most endangered list. Downtown Granville is undergoing a major face-lift with street redesign and plantings, all of which sounds good. Yet zoning, incentives, density targets, and neglect threaten a number of smaller historic structures that could be done away with in the name of fixing blight or modernizing the neighborhood.

The Granville dilemma is a reminder that attempts to improve or revitalize heritage neighborhoods, especially ones with commercial, retail and tourist appeal, can also have negative consequences. And while Pioneer Square is showing positive signs of re-organized advocacy from the business community and attention from the city of Seattle, it also faces huge challenges from major "improvement" projects. 

The Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement is already disrupting the neighborhood, and will for years to come (add in the seawall and the waterfront redevelopment). The tunnel work has jeopardized the artists' haven 619 Western Building and could damage more historic buildings in the area between the Square and the Pike Place Market. It is already necessitating the relocation of artists and studio space, a key disruption of the Square's economic formula and cultural identity, and the structure still might be demolished in the process. Also, the tunnel environmental impact studies suggest a major impact from increased surface vehicle traffic as a result of the tunnel project, potentially damaging to the district.

Surface advocates like Cary Moon of the People's Waterfront Coalition, are calling for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to do more to explain how tens of thousands of more cars on unimproved streets after the tolled tunnel opens and the Viaduct comes down will be handled. Is there enough money to mitigate such impacts? 

Many believe that the long-term answer to revitalizing the Square is to attract more residents and loosen development restrictions within the district. Thus the current push to raise building height limits. This raises big questions about scale, disruption, and damage to the Square's historic character. Previous economic development efforts have had mixed results: The development of SoDo as a stadium district, sold in part as a boon to the Square, has had some advantages, helping sports bars, for example, but also contributing to parking problems and retail disruption that damaged other key businesses, such as Elliott Bay Book Company (now happily relocated to Pike/Pine on Capitol Hill).

The Square is in transition, and as WSDOT's approach to the 691 Building demonstrates, proposed trade-offs need to be zealously watchdogged (as the Trust and other groups are doing) and public awareness raised about potential threats and the importance of the fabric of the district, not simply its individual buildings. The city must also ensure that WSDOT adheres strictly to the letter and spirit of federal and state preservation laws and requirements. And the city must consider that height-for-height's sake in the district could be damaging if it provides incentives for future tear-downs and demolition by neglect. A bigger challenge, even if nothing physical changed, would be economic recovery.

There is no question that the Square, much but not all of it in a discrete historic district, needs also to be connected to the city growing and changing around it. Its success lies in preserving what it unique, but adapting in the long run to make it stronger. This is already happening with the Square's growing position as a major transit hub and with more connection to Chinatown, SoDo and hopefully the Waterfront. But the Square will not be "saved" by destroying its essence, its buildings (another challenge is landlord neglect), major retail and pedestrian disruptions, or gentrifying it out of all recognition. It's a complex urban ecosystem (historic district, social service nexus, gamer mecca, arts hub, tourist attraction) that has to be treated with respect and sensitivity.

If nothing else, the Square's challenges are a reminder that you can't take anything for granted. No one is suggesting the Square's future be like a fly caught in amber. No one, not even the most ardent preservationist, thinks the Square's current potential has been tapped out. But neither is its viability assured by virtue of being our much-imitated national role-model of what historic preservation can do for urban neighborhoods, or by virtue of its importance in our city's history.

The Square's success, even survival, is by no means assured. Good things are happening, but its future is uncertain and it clearly meets the definition of being endangered by forces that are powerful, but not beyond our control.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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