Activating Streets: The makeover of Pioneer Square

The ISI has been studying streets and alleys in Seattle’s “first neighborhood” and suggesting ways to make them safer, more usable and appealing.
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Pioneer Square's Flatiron building

The ISI has been studying streets and alleys in Seattle’s “first neighborhood” and suggesting ways to make them safer, more usable and appealing.

A few weeks ago, I came across a small clutch of tourists looking at a map and meandering along Yesler Way. I offered to help them. As we chatted one of them peered around me and exclaimed, “What a lovely little lane!”

I wheeled around and saw that she was pointing to the alley just east of First Avenue. For years, I referred to it as “Rat Alley,” since its primary function seemed to be to maintain the rodent population. But the woman was noticing the result of gradual changes that have been taking place. The rats have been purged. Garbage bins have been removed or placed indoors. Lighting has been installed. And the many planters added overflow with greenery.

I related this story to Todd Vogel of the International Sustainability Institute, which is based in Pioneer Square. The ISI has been engaged in examining streets and alleys throughout  Seattle’s “first neighborhood” and suggesting improvements to make them safer, more usable and more appealing. The organization has issued a report called Pioneer Square Active Streets Strategy. Led by Liz Stenning, the study made use of volunteers to do “walking audits” of the district and relied upon the research and resources of Feet First, a pedestrian advocacy group.

Prompting the report was the fact that the district will be affected by a number of major transportation and development projects. After years of economic malaise, with high vacancies and a low resident population, new stores, restaurants, businesses and homes are coming to the Square. Almost daily, a new announcement is made.

The report notes the decrepit state of the sidewalks, curbs and streets. Indeed, just a few days ago, I tripped on an uneven sidewalk and did a painful face-plant onto crumbling concrete. I cannot imagine how someone in a wheelchair or on crutches could navigate sidewalks that are angled, fractured and punctured with holes. The entire district is a huge, class-action lawsuit waiting to happen.

Fixing that basic deficiency rises to the top of ISI’s recommendations. Other proposals address lighting, maintenance, encouraging outdoor café seating, better wayfinding signs, bike racks, promoting vending, activities and events and improving crosswalks.

Other cities are already doing similar things to their downtowns and older districts. Chicago is repaving many of its alleys not only to provide smooth, level surfaces but to promote the infiltration of storm water. For years, New York has been converting portions of streets into public spaces with cafes and street vendors. San Francisco has been turning some of its older alleys into linear plazas lined with housing, restaurants and museums.

The woman in the group of tourists I met made a brilliant observation. Rat alley was not an alley, it was a lane. Americans tend to view alleys in a negative light. They serve the backsides of businesses. Odiferous dumpsters are found there. They are frequently dank, dark, dirty and even dangerous.

So rather than merely making alleys cleaner and nicer, we should transform them altogether. Districts such as Barcelona’ Gotik Quarter, Rome’s Trastevere and Amsterdam’s Jordaan have lanes even narrower than our alleys that are filled with people, cafes, and tiny shops.

As far as it goes, ISI’s report presents good information and ideas. But public spaces are complex and not necessarily just about physical attributes. They are as much about social aspects. They also have roles that differ by time of day, weekday and season. The recommendations need to be augmented by an understanding of these complexities.

For example, where are blank walls and how could they be enhanced through lighting, artwork, color or graphics? Where are good spots for bikeshare stations? Many cities are actively embracing this means of transport. The flatness of Pioneer Square (and the International District and the waterfront, for that matter) is ideal for the use of bikes by residents and visitors alike.

Further, similar districts like the French Quarter in New Orleans actively encourage street musicians and vendors, including painters and Tarot card readers. By comparison, our streets are almost devoid of life. And really, do we have to fence in restaurant patrons like cattle? I’m talking to you, State Liquor Control Board. Take a trip to Portland. No fences there.

Now, I know some people will complain about the presence of street people. To those I say: Get over it. They are largely harmless, even if some people consider them unsavory. Many other cities have similar social issues, but have no problem attracting a wide range of people to their older districts. Neither should we.

The ISI work offers some great food for thought. Let’s add more to the menu.





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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).