Pioneer Square's takeoff: Be there or be left out

Call it the Tom Douglas Effect: Moves by smart investors are leading to more businesses jumping in.
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Smith Tower

Call it the Tom Douglas Effect: Moves by smart investors are leading to more businesses jumping in.

After several years of losing businesses and enduring tragic incidents, Pioneer Square is being transformed with new buildings and new entrepreneurial energy. In contrast to previous initiatives that were more speculation than substance, this round of new investment is serious and tangible. And as with lots of other examples of urban revitalizations elsewhere in the country, this one has been stimulated by a handful of very intelligent and enthusiastic people making calculated decisions.

After more than a decade of being fussed over with governmental agreements, the north lot at CenturyLink Field is finally being developed in a full-scale, mixed-use project bring hundreds of apartments and new retail businesses to that part of the city that was a century ago the terminus of railroad lines. Kevin Daniels' expansive project is, thankfully, not attempting to ape the buildings around it with cloying faux historic details. Rather, it is using distinctly modern, sharply sculpted forms to stake out a dramatic bookend to the south edge of the district.

This development is taking a page from much older European cities where new buildings often present a contrast to their surroundings, which heightens the qualities of both the old and the new. Often, community pressure has resulted in buildings that try to blend in. But contemporary building methods and materials rarely can match the craft of older eras.

When a major project like this starts coming out of the ground, it attracts the attention of many other people. Most, however, don’t want to be pioneers as they know that pioneers often get killed. So they hold back and wait from someone else to blaze the trail. In this case, the trail is cleared and it seems to be hot.

The convergence of several things is serving to attract others to build or move into the Square. The elevated viaduct is slated to come down within a few years, opening up views and easier access to the waterfront. A significant piece of the Waterfront Plan by James Corner Field Operations calls for reconnecting the district to a series of public spaces. High-tech companies are eagerly seeking spaces that are grounded in history and have a quirky charm unavailable in most contemporary structures.  And many younger people are looking for living and working spaces right in the core of the city — a phenomenon that is occurring around the globe.

There have been past efforts to revive Pioneer Square that have either failed or not had a critical mass. And of course, there have been some major setbacks such as the decamping of Elliott Bay bookstore. What is different now is that it's not just talk and speculation; people and companies are making serious investments, leases are being signed and buildings are being renovated. Moreover, there is an organizational energy that has not been present in the past. And there are efforts that involve both the city and the private sector.

Karen True of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, a formidable, well-organized group that is becoming the steward of the district, notes that not long ago she had to practically beg businesses to consider locating in the district. Now people are coming to her with inquiries about available space and rates. Says True, “The change has been remarkable in just a few months.” True is delighted with the shift away from an era overloaded with raucous, meat market bars like Tiki Bob’s, which is being replaced with a more sedate establishment called the Stadium Lodge.

What we are now seeing in Pioneer Square are elements of a 21st century economy using the “good bones” of buildings constructed in the late 19th century. These buildings are ideal not for the demands of large national corporations but for smaller, home-grown businesses that are using much different business models.

One need only to walk through the venerable old Masins Furniture building at Second Avenue to see the fascinating combination of old world craft and cutting edge technology. Old-growth timbers support wood floors that are now supplemented by raw steel bracing as a defense against earthquakes. A sinuous steel staircase dramatically ascends to a floor occupied by the HUB — an organization that provides working spaces for small entrepreneurs. Surrounding the lounge-like open area are a clutch of businesses involved in new forms of investment. As Lindsey Engh with the HUB puts it, “These are companies that want to stimulate creative thinking in areas that promote social good. While they choose to make investments, maximizing their bottom line isn’t the highest priority.  Some are true donors, but others are somewhere between non-profits and for-profits.”

Sharing the building with the HUB are Social Venture Partners and the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, an accredited school of business that imparts sustainable business practices throughout their curriculum. BGI moved from its original location on Bainbridge Island a few years ago and already has conferred hundreds of degrees. SVP provides funding for non-profits involved in education of children, including those with special needs, as well as to the Mountains to Sound Greenway and the Washington Environmental Council.

The building includes a generous event space on the ground floor. It has a small raised stage, a sound system, big monitors and a catering kitchen. Plans are in the works for a café that would occupy the wedge-shaped tip of the structure, which is encased by large storefront windows. The intent is to have a lively, active center of innovative business practices and social events. Already, people can be seen coming and going even late Sunday evenings when Pioneer Square is relatively quiet.

A stone’s throw to the south, Katherine Anderson is not far off from opening a new store with an innovative approach to food rather than social capital. With restauranteur Matt Dillon of the Sitka and Spruce fame as a partner, London Plane will take over the space at the corner of Occidental and Main that was occupied for decades by a bank. Similar to the creative mash-up at the HUB building, London Plane will contain an operating bakery, a café with both sit-down or take-out service, and a flower shop.

“I am a bit worried about the drunks,” say Katherine. But not the street person version, as you might expect, but rather the sports-attending and clubbing crowds that surge through the neighborhood periodically. Pioneer Square has long had a reputation for being unsafe because of a concentration street people. Unsavory-looking to some people as they might be, their presence is nothing compared with out-of-control clubgoers and  sports fans after a Seahawks game — urinating in building entrances, vomiting and screaming for hours into the night. It's behavior that the city should not be tolerating but seems to be in this neighborhood. Civility laws seem to be selectively applied.

Anderson is not deterred at all by the normal daytime atmosphere. Though originally from Seattle, she has lived in other cities with far worse street conditions. For some people in this region, Pioneer Square will always be associated with indigents. The mythology is persistent, despite that population being relatively benign.

Anderson opines that Occidental Avenue is the most beautiful street in the city. Indeed, it holds its own when compared with other gracious, tree-lined lanes in other cities — in both the U.S. and abroad. It's one reason that she and Matt Dillon have chosen prime corner locations for their businesses. Anderson and Dillon will own and operate Indigene, a wine bar, at the corner of Occidental and Jackson.

Dillon is soon to open Bar Sajor, a full service restaurant on the opposite corner. Every day, eager locals can be seen trying to peek into the restaurant's windows, which are now papered over for their full height. All three food- and drink-serving places will have outside seating. Along with the authentically Italian Caffè Umbria coffee bar, Occidental will soon be lined with outside cafes. Despite the weather, we in Seattle love our cafes. But then we are not that dissimilar in climate to Amsterdam, which is chockablock with them.

Another shop soon to open on another stretch of Occidental is Rain Shadow Meats. Run by Russ Flint who has a shop in the Melrose Market near Anderson and Dillon, promises something that Pioneer Square has likely not seen in many decades --  a real butcher shop. Observes Flint, ”I’ve always loved Pioneer Square. In many ways, my business fits perfectly with the traditional businesses that were around when the city began.” In addition to offering select choice cuts of meat, his new shop will include a lunch counter. He sees being open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Already some businesses are beginning to extend their hours due to the new and anticipated population.

And others have been jumping on board as well. Il Corvo formerly in the Pike Hill Climb is opening a café on James Street at the north edge of the district and will be serving fresh, hand-made pasta dishes. Gaba, a sushi place, is opening in a renovated storefront near First and Main Street. The three young owners Mary Chiu, Phil Sinz and Billy Beach have sunk a ton of sweat equity into outfitting the interior. Finally, the Cherry Street Coffee House, which has for many years anchored the north end of the district, will bracket the south end with a new shop on First Avenue South, south of King Street.

All of these entrepreneurs are both very smart and willing to take risks. When people of this caliber begin to invest their own money in what have been considered unusual if not edgy locations, others take notice. It's the Tom Douglas Effect. When that enterprising chef opens a new place, other people say, “Hmm. It's time to think about doing something there.”

Now, we need to see what the new owners of the Smith Tower will be doing with that quirky Seattle landmark. I fondly recall seeing live productions of the original ER in the theatre space at the street level. And, of course, the lot next to Occidental Square is just waiting for a creative infill development by Greg Smith and company.

Unfortunately, for some people, Pioneer Square will always been viewed as a place to avoid. Nothing will likely change those ingrained notions. Nonetheless, Pioneer Square is changing and changing dramatically. Those of us who appreciate the place will simply have it to ourselves.


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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).