Will success spoil Pike/Pine?

Seattle's old Auto Row is now a very vibrant urban village. Keeping it so will involve a lot more attention to grunge and grime, as well as ways to save high-character buildings from falling victim to rising real estate values.

Crosscut archive image.

Where alleys are missing, no place to put the garbage.

Seattle's old Auto Row is now a very vibrant urban village. Keeping it so will involve a lot more attention to grunge and grime, as well as ways to save high-character buildings from falling victim to rising real estate values.

Two decades ago the area bounded roughly by Pike and Pine Streets from I-5 up Capitol Hill to 15th Avenue — Seattle's original Auto Row — was a social dead zone of light industry, warehouses, and few residents. Cafe Paradiso’s arrival (now Caffe Vita) brought reason to stop in the morning, the arrival of The Cuff, a popular gay bar, brought reason to hang out at night. Not much, but they were the shape of much more to come.

After years of planning and development effort, Pike-Pine has become arguably the most lively round-the-clock "urban village" in Washington state and shows no signs of slowing. Pike-Pine is an urban rock star  of a neighborhood with booming bars, restaurants, new condos and full-tilt buzz ranging from bicycle polo to late night dodgeball.

The wildly successful Cal Anderson Park, built on the lid of a former reservoir, brings hundreds at a time for recreational activity, organized and otherwise. And soon the arrival of light rail and streetcar service will bring even more to the area.

And yet it's hard to read recent news or walk through on a weekend morning and not conclude that both the city and community are struggling to keep up with the accelerating urbanity of the area. In spots here and there the place is becoming a mess.

With great density comes great responsibility and as Pike-Pine evolves it approaches some tipping points. One has to do with the changing character of how people live and play there, which is: More people. More of the time. Doing more things. The transformation from moribund to hyper-metropolitan demands more attention from the city. Basic services must scale up to the challenges: upkeep of streets, sidewalks, infrastructure like parking machines; improved garbage collection; innovative ways to ramp up police coverage (a major police precinct sits squarely in the center of the neighborhood); and other ways to strengthen the growing community.

The work needed to create a vibrant neighborhood is substantial; the work needed to sustain it over time is far less sexy but just as important. Along lateral connector streets like 10th and 11th Avenues (which lack alleys in which to park garbage until pick-up), Pike-Pine has developed a "morning-after" problem that lingers through the day. The joint gets grungy — and not in a good way.

One example is parking pay stations. According to Mike Estey, Parking Operations Manager of SDOT, “crews have a 95 percent success rate of abating reported pay station graffiti within six days.” But that system requires someone to report the problem to kick the solution into gear (Graffiti reporting: 206-684-7587). The city’s proposed 2012 budget aims to ramp that function up and hire a full time graffiti cleaner for parking machines. That's a modest and welcome start; more such moves will be needed.

Otherwise, in tiny daily ways, people will begin to avert (then avoid) the area and a tipping point will be reached. The reputation for grime will stick, a perception that it is unsafe will adhere, and finally a sense of Pike/Pine as a no-go zone will emerge for many. A resulting neighborhood decline would be far harder to arrest then than it will be to prevent now by creating an insistent culture and practice of upkeep.

Beyond the basics, Pike-Pine faces challenges on a broader scale. Like old Ballard and Pioneer Square, the buildings are smaller-scale with lots of appealing masonry fronts — light, airy, loftlike. Economic pressures of modern high-density development circle these charming older buildings like vultures. Without some tools to protect them, the thinking goes, they could disappear in the next wave or two of development, replaced by multistory structures of an entirely different character. Bulldoze too many of the old "character" buildings (which are just-dense-enough but nowhere near the densities of new development) and the neighborhood’s fundamental appeal may change irreversibly.

One potential but complicated tool for preventing that outcome is now working its way through City Council: Transfer of Development Rights/Potential (TDR/TDP) legislation that would enable the buying and selling of development rights associated with some of the older, more appealing structures. TDRs work like an exchange bank for airspace rights within the construct of zoning laws. If you own the old warehouse building a beloved local coffee shop is in (or a building that is historically protected) and want to cash in on the area’s boom, you could use TDRs to sell off the development rights from to your property to someone, somewhere else, who could add those to their shiny new project. That neatly preserves the old charming building, provided you can find someone to buy those development rights.

TDRs are a complicated bit of legal and market maneuvering to make work well. A similar effort was tried downtown starting in 1985 and has met with modest success. One of the challenges Pike-Pine faces with such a program is that there is such an abundance of potential TDR space to sell, nearly 3.3 million square feet worth. Finding people with projects to acquire and use those rights may be very difficult.

Still, the effort makes sense as a market-engaging attempt to try to preserve the appeal of the neighborhood. The Seattle City Council’s Committee on the Built Environment has a working session on the legislation scheduled for October 12. The legislation is not expected to come before full council until early next year.

The success of the Pike-Pine neighborhood is well-worth guiding and preserving, whether through simple, fast steps like doubling-down now on upkeep or harder, larger steps like trying TDRs to encourage growth while still preserving the unique character of the place. You don't do density right just by wishing for it or putting in a street car line. It will continue to take lots of vigilant work to assure that one of the most enjoyable round-the-clock neighborhoods in Seattle will remain so.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Matt A. Fikse

Matt A. Fikse

Matt Fikse-Verkerk (Twitter: @mattfikse) covered urban affairs, politics, tech, and business at Crosscut from 2009 to 2014. He lives in Seattle and works for a biotechnology firm in Redmond, WA.