What would the Pike Place Market do?

The model for a walkable, vibrant urban neighborhood for rich and poor is right under our noses. The Market is about more than flower stalls and history.
Crosscut archive image.

Seattle's Pike Place Market. (Chuck Taylor)

The model for a walkable, vibrant urban neighborhood for rich and poor is right under our noses. The Market is about more than flower stalls and history.

The new Museum of History and Industry has an exhibit that focuses on the "Seattle that Might Have Been." For over 150 years, people have come to Seattle with big ideas, and more of those ideas haven't happened than have. One thing that never came to pass was the plan to tear down the Pike Place Market neighborhood and replace it with high rises and parking garages.

The destruction of the Market has been proposed more than once over its 100-year history. It has also been saved more than once, most famously in the early 1970s, when the citizens of Seattle voted to protect it from an urban renewal scheme.

But let's play the "what if" game for a minute. Look at the picture to the right. It is a drawing by Victor Steinbrueck, a sketch of an architectural model of the Pike Place Market make-over that was exhibited at City Hall in the early ‘70s. This was to be the Market of the Future. Note the tall buildings, the skyscraper hotel, the eight-story parking lot and the high-rise condominiums.

The argument was made that the vibrant Pike Place Market was blight, that its neighborhood needed to be destroyed in order to be saved. You can see that the proposed redevelopment even preserved a tiny wedge of the old Market just to prove they were being helpful. Of course, the market was saved, but what would have happened if Save-the-Market activists like Victor Steinbrueck had been defeated?

That could well have happened. The city government, the mayor, the planners, the downtown business community, the newspapers and many of the Market's own merchants favored this plan. It was clean, urban and forward-thinking. And so was the Kingdome, which was built around the same time by many of the same interests. Seattle wanted to be a 'big league city' — and who wanted a bush-league farmer's market in the 21st century?

The funny thing is, the future has a way of surprising you. Seattle bucked the trend of massive '70s-style urban redevelopment and went another way: It committed to saving an entire neighborhood. Not simply a market for farmers and craftspeople, but an entire urban ecosystem. The renewal project would have killed an ecosystem in order to give Seattle the trappings of a big city. It would have substituted infrastructure for people. And I bet if it had been built in the 1970s, we would have already torn it down by now — just like we blew up the Kingdome.

Right about now some other big developer would be planning to make everything all over again. People would be decrying how quickly it had became obsolete, how ugly the concrete Brutalist structures of the '70s were, and they would be touting the importance of a mixed use, mixed income, thriving, diverse, urban downtown neighborhood and trying to make one from scratch.

By saving the Market then, we saved ourselves forty years of wandering in an urban wasteland. We skipped the tragedy and hard lessons-learned phase. But we didn't stop there.

We did the hard work of making something wonderful and complex work. Instead of simply saving buildings, the Market looks after people. It has written in its charter that its mission is to protect and serve low-income downtown residents. In their wisdom, the Market's saviors knew that we were not just saving buildings, but people.

They started a health clinic to look after the sick and the homeless; they created and preserved low- income housing; they made a senior center; they started a food bank. Most Seattleites don't know much about this part of the Market, but they should.

According to the non-profit Pike Place Market Foundation, the Market’s food bank provided over 4,000 families with enough groceries to produce 444,186 healthy meals in 2012. Its medical clinic provided healthcare to 4,879 uninsured patients, 90 percent of them low income. What’s the largest restaurant in the Market? It’s the senior center, which serves over 47,000 free meals per year to low-income and homeless seniors. The Market also provides 350 units of low-income and senior housing and its daycare and preschool served some 90 children from low- and moderate- income families in the last year.

Tourists come and say that the Market is the "soul of Seattle," but entertaining as it is, the soul is not found simply in fruit and flower stands and tossed fish. It is the spirit that drives the place, that has cultivated a community about community. The irony is, the neighborhood that the urban planners wanted to flatten is now the model of what developers are trying to accomplish, from SoDo to South Lake Union, from Yesler Terrace to the Denny Triangle. How do we give our neighborhood soul? How do we generate street life? How do we get rich and poor to live together?

The model is here. That is part of the genius of the Market: The answer to growing and renewing the city is to create and manage neighborhoods with the goal of taking care of people — all kinds of people. It is not about promoting tourism or saving history, but about creating a just city that empowers the little guy, that cultivates community for all generations, for the craftsman, the farmer, the busker, the homeless senior, the toddler and, yes, the tourist.

You want to develop a neighborhood in Seattle? You want to preserve the essence of a place? Ask yourself, what would the Pike Place Market do?

A neighborhood's soul resides in its residents and managers, in the values that pervade, in the commitment to living well and helping everyone to live as well as they can through good and tough times. It is a neighborhood that cultivates the entrepreneurism of the market without being driven only by the free market. To be a great city is also to be a fair city, an open city, a diverse city, an embracing city.

The success of the Market isn't that it has survived, though we're glad it has. It is how it has survived. It is because the people actively support its missions. The Market wasn't saved by a vote and left on its own. It thrives because of generations of engagement, management, planning, protection, expansion, evolution. This is the work of the Market Foundation over the past 30 years.

It has become a place that embodies the character of Seattle and all Seattleites, one that appeals to our highest aspirations of fairness and opportunity. It is the urban place where one can most enjoy a complete immersion in our Seattleness, and what it means.

This story was adapted from remarks given at the Pike Place Market Foundation’s annual “Care for the Market Luncheon,” March 12, 2013 at the Seattle Sheraton Hotel Grand Ball Room.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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