City may push aside history, the poor in Pike Place & Pioneer Square

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Occidental Avenue In Pioneer Square

We know that Seattle’s rapid growth is putting pressure on our architectural heritage with demolitions and façadism. The city is being remade at an unprecedented level. But we’ve all long had the consolation that a previous generation of urbanists acted to accommodate growth while creating a heritage bedrock by saving the Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square and establishing historic districts. Cranes and wrecking balls might reign, but at least the classics are safe, right?

Maybe not. News in recent weeks is raising alarms that even what has been “saved” isn’t truly saved, even if it has proved a boon to urban vitality, affordability and livability. To wit:

A massive, out-of-scale new building has been approved for the perimeter of Pioneer Square over the objections of the city’s own Pioneer Square Preservation Board, a move some observers say is virtually unprecedented.

At Pike Place, a park named after the man credited with rescuing the Market from being converted into a parking garage is slated to undergo a makeover that might significantly alter its role in the urban ecosystem that was the very essence of the Market rescue mission: to serve the needs of downtown’s low-income residents.

And Mayor Ed Murray’s advisory board on affordable housing announced a series of proposals (the so-called HALA report) that went beyond the since-shelved suggestion to effectively up-zone single-family neighborhoods. They also included the still-live recommendation to eliminate conservation districts, criticism of design review in Seattle’s historic districts and a proposal to scale back the number of projects subject to the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), which looks at development impacts on sensitive areas, including historic districts and landmarks.

Added together, one has to look at the city’s attitude toward managing stewardship of key heritage assets and ask, WTF?

Growth has many cheerleaders in Seattle, and some of them are also avid preservationists. The caricature often presented is of aged NIMBYs resisting all change. But even the most indifferent student to Seattle history could easily learn that historic preservation has been used as a key aid to spurring and shaping urban development.  Indeed, Seattle has been a national role model of using preservation to boost urban vitality, an alternative to the brute force of “urban renewal” or simply letting the market run rampant.

Architect and activist Victor Steinbrueck, for example, believed Seattle would only be a great city if we paid attention to its full range of urban vitality, from old to new. His 1962 Seattle Cityscape sketchbook energized a generation that believed, Jane Jacobs-style, that character really mattered.

The rationale for saving Pioneer Square — promoted by Steinbrueck and others as early as the 1950s — was to revitalize our first urban neighborhood by protecting its historic character and making it work for art galleries, restaurants, clubs and the homeless. Its renovation has widely been hailed. The goal was to attract new people, tourism and businesses downtown and to provide a nexus for social services and adjacent low-income housing and shelter. Immense effort and care has gone into that. Key has been preserving the unique urban character of the Square — its main asset.

The Square is still ground zero for many projects, from the redevelopment of the North Parking Lot of Centurylink Field to the new Weyerhaeuser headquarters along Occidental to all the disruption of new streetcar tracks and the Bertha tunnel work. The growth pressures there and in SoDo will only increase. Now would seem to be the time for extra vigilance in preserving its character, which includes scale, design and attention to context. Insisting that adjacent design is compatible and doesn’t overwhelm or create new barriers is critical.

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An architect's conception of a proposal approved by an Ed Murray appointee after being rejected by a review board.

The city’s own Pioneer Square advisory board believes that a 120-foot-tall, market-rate residential tower proposed for 316 Alaskan Way South at Jackson Street is not compatible in its current form. Board members voted against approving the project 7-1, but the city’s head of the Department of Neighborhoods, Kathy Nyland, overturned the board's decision. The Seattle Weekly provides a good account of the controversy. One objection has been that the city is opening the door to development that will wall off the Square from a new waterfront that it is supposedly being reopened to downtown Seattle with the coming demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

A formal appeal of the permit approval has been filed by David Bricklin, a well-known environmental attorney, representing nearly 30 appellants, including residents and businesses in the Square. They claim that the decision is contrary to numerous sections of the Seattle Municipal Code and that the project’s design, location, materials, scale and alley and street impacts are not compatible with federal historic preservation standards. Chip away at the integrity of a historic district and you can potentially lose federal tax benefits and incentives that make preservation possible and aid low-income housing.

What’s concerning is that the city seems predisposed not to listen to its own citizen advisors and could be undermining their role if it follows through with the tilt of the critique of design review in the HALA report. The essence of HALA argument is that there is “too much” design review in Seattle and a general lack of “accountability” on the part of the reviewers and city staff.

An analysis of the HALA recommendations by Jeffrey Karl Ochsner, a University of Washington professor of architecture and an authority on the history of Seattle’s built environment, concludes that this “seems intended to allow developers to intimidate city staff by threatening lawsuits.”

Between HALA’s complaints about design review and Nyland’s overturning of the Pioneer Square Board’s recommendation to reject the design of 316 Alaskan Way, are we seeing signs that the city is responding to developers’ frustrations? Given the scale of growth and the appeal of historic districts, one can hardly come to the conclusion that design review is somehow holding Seattle back, even if developers complain.

Another red flag is waving over the Pike Place Market, where the city is looking to make some significant changes to Victor Steinbrueck Park. The small open space has long acted as a kind of living room for downtown dwellers, street people, Native Americans and shutterbug tourists.

According to the Daily Journal of Commerce, the city issued a request for proposal for a $1.6 million makeover. But the park’s original landscape architect, the legendary Rich Haag, objects to what he sees as an attempt by the city to gentrify the park. It seems odd that the city would seek an outside contractor to make changes to a park when the original designer is alive, well, active and nationally respected. But Haag is concerned that the city’s intent is to turn the park from a living room to a portal for tourists connecting to the revamped waterfront, and may be seeking to make changes—such as flattening the park’s distinctive berms—for the benefit of law enforcement, not park users.

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Richard Haag, during a 2007 visit to Gas Works Park, which he designed. Joe Mabel/a href=

Haag knows his parks — he designed the Bloedel Reserve and Gas Works Park, and he landscaped Seattle Center following the World’s Fair. He also was a co-founder of Friends of the Market and worked with his friend and colleague Victor Steinbrueck and scores of others to “save” the Market.

If you’re going to touch-up a Picasso, why not ask Picasso to do it?

One point of conflict appears to be that the city wants to funnel more tourists into the park while Haag wants to defend its role as a place for the homeless. His point goes back to the original purpose of the Market preservation efforts 50 years ago. And it’s codified in the charter of the public entity that oversees it, which was not simply to protect produce and craft vendors and historic structures, but to save an urban ecosystem that supported a low-income downtown population at risk of displacement.

The Market has been a catalyst for a cluster of support services for this population, even while becoming a major tourist draw and development magnet. In short, the homeless and low-income residents have a major place in the ecosystem and the Market’s mission, and they should not be pushed or designed out of the park, as Haag fears.

The city is looking for affordability and for the hot real-estate market to save us — that’s the gist of much of the HALA report, which preaches increased supply and deregulation and incorporates a catalogue of developer gripes. Yet the city will make matters worse if it bows to pressures to erode proven models of preservation, low-income housing creation, integration of social services and space, sustainability through adaptive re-use of structures, and the cultivation of attractive urban character that makes cities — our city — successful.

And if nothing else, it’s a reminder that nothing is ever “saved.” The success of one generation requires the vigilance of the next.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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