By Jack Stubbs
“There are a lot of changes on a lot of different levels for the neighborhood; we’re seeing both construction pains at street-level as well as the beginnings of the implementations of private development that has been in the planning works for a long time,” said Lisa Howard, executive director of advocacy group Alliance for Pioneer Square, an organization that looks to encourage positive revitalization of the city’s oldest neighborhood.
Seattle’s Pioneer Square, a three-acre neighborhood situated between the downtown core and the Stadium District, has long been integral to the history of Seattle: the original founders of the city settled there in 1852, and many of the neighborhood’s buildings were burned in the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. Pioneer Square was named a Historic District in 1970.
Currently, the neighborhood is experiencing a sustained period of change as various capital improvement projects and new commercial and residential developments continue to shape the area. In the current era, developers are trying to strike a balance between both respecting the historic fabric of the neighborhood and bringing something new to the continually evolving enclave. As one example, Denver, Colorado-based Urban Villages is developing RailSpur, a project that will entail the retrofitting revitalization of three 100-year-old buildings comprising a full block in the neighborhood.
The development, named after the historic RailSpur district and inspired by the alleyways between the buildings leading from the Great Northern Railway and the Port of Seattle, emphasizes the activation of the alleyways and adjacent streetscape through vibrant retail uses. However, beyond this programmatic objective, the broader goal with the project was to provide a successful addition to an evolving neighborhood, according to Angi Davis, project manager at Urban Villages. “I think what is unique about the project is that it isn’t about one particular building or aspect of life or business in the neighborhood. What we are intending to do is take the three buildings that we own and the public areas around that and look holistically at South Pioneer Square in terms of the entire community,” she said. “We’re not trying to recreate something that’s already happening in Pioneer Square; we’re bringing in new and interesting concepts that Pioneer Square might not have already seen.”
The project is comprised of three marquee buildings in the neighborhood including the seven-story Manufacturers Building located at 419 Occidental Ave.; the six-story Westland Building at 100 S. King St.; and the former Schoenfeld Furniture building, a two-story structure located at 115 S. Jackson St.
Urban Villages plans to break ground on the first building at 419 Occidental Ave. sometime in July 2018.
Various mixed-use developments coming online throughout the neighborhood mean that Pioneer Square is experiencing a sustained period of change—and neighborhood organizations are trying to plan accordingly, according to Howard. “We’ve been having a few harder conversations [about preserving Pioneer Square], because developers are attempting to do projects that were either put on hold or not addressed for so long, but the Pioneer Square Preservation Board is in place to make sure that we can move forward in the neighborhood, and that the historic infrastructure is protected,” she said. Alliance for Pioneer Square has a number of in-the-works initiatives in place—such as the Pioneer Square Streetscape Concept Plan and the Pioneer Square Parks and Gateways Concept Plan—that are meant to facilitate dialogue about how the neighborhood can continue to grow most successfully. “We want people to have a shared understanding and perspective even if they don’t necessarily agree what’s happening, they can have a venue where they can come together and discuss [these changes],” she said.
Alliance for Pioneer Square also leads the Pioneer Square 2020 Plan along with the city’s office of Economic Development, which is an initiative meant to ensure that the neighborhood can scale effectively over time. In the longer term, the hope is that Pioneer Square will retain its historic character.
But the central location of the neighborhood—which is the city’s largest transit hub—also means that it has become a magnet for new development, according to Howard. “I don’t have the fear that Pioneer Square is going to fall by the wayside. I think it’s such an important part of the history of Seattle, but it’s also located in an area that’s such a center point for the city,” she said. “We’ve gone through so many ups and downs, and it’s a time of such rapid change for Seattle as a whole…the neighborhood serves such a diverse stakeholder group that as we move forward, we work to keep the balance within the neighborhood that serves a diverse population and fills different needs for the city.”
And the neighborhood continues to be shaped by a number of capital improvement and infrastructure projects. As one notable example, The Center City Streetcar—on which construction began in Fall of 2017 along 1st Avenue in Pioneer Square—will eventually connect the existing South Lake Union and First Hill streetcar lines. The 5-mile, $177 million project plans to provide 23 streetcar stations and connect 12 different neighborhoods throughout the city.
However, the large-scale project recently hit a roadblock: on March 30th, Mayor Durkan directed the city to halt the ongoing projects relating to the Center City Connector Streetcar and on June 29th requested a thorough analysis of the capital costs of the development. Specifically, Durkan asked for a final technical review by City departments including the City Budget Office, SDOT, Seattle Public Utilities and Seattle City Light to verify updated ridership projections, material costs and labor, utility relocations and project timelines, according to the project’s web site.
Another project set to shape the neighborhood is the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct on the waterfront, an undertaking set to begin in 2019 that will make way for a new surface street built by the city of Seattle after the new State Route 99 tunnel opens to drivers.
In the meantime, project teams for new developments—and projects that require the revitalization of historic buildings—are facing the challenge of how to preserve the history of the existing built environment in the neighborhood. And Pioneer Square represents a unique prospect when it comes to merging the new with the historic, according to chief development officer at Urban Villages Jon Buerge. “When we first started looking at Pioneer Square, I was really blown away because of the fact that it’s largely intact from a historic standpoint. Because of urban renewal and growth, most neighborhoods are not fully intact; they’re usually sporadic historic buildings. But in Pioneer Square, it’s pretty uniformly historic, and that is very appealing from a place-making standpoint,” he said.
Developing in Pioneer Square in particular means that there are a number of associated challenges around the cost of these revitalization projects, especially since older buildings usually come with various seismic issues. “These historic buildings are challenging, particularly in Seattle with the seismic issues…it’s also very costly, because a lot of the buildings have fallen into disrepair and haven’t really created the vibrancy that will ultimately be there,” he said.
And Buerge thinks that given the extensive activity that continues to occur throughout the neighborhood, more focus should be given to these associated infrastructure challenges, which are particularly acute in Seattle. “As a city and as a community, there should be more focus on making sure these buildings aren’t only safe but also that they’ll exist past seismic events. Many of the buildings in Pioneer Square are unreinforced masonry buildings. There’s a lot of development activity occurring there…from a community standpoint, this should be incredibly urgent, and I don’t know that it is,” he said. “Growth is always a challenge and an opportunity; I do have concerns about the growth occurring in Seattle—because cost of living and other issues have to be addressed—but I think we need to be planning for this growth and not trying to stop it. It’s the same thing with Pioneer Square. We know that Pioneer Square is going to change and that there will be pressure with growth and new development.”
Along with Urban Villages’ RailSpur project, there are several other existing and in-the-works projects that continue to shape the neighborhood. In June 2017, Unico Properties unveiled its plans for the $80 million rehabilitation of the Grand Central Block of buildings—the Grand Central Building, City Loan Building and the Buttnick Manufacturing Building—a three-building project totaling 150,000 square feet that will look to successfully activate the adjacent Occidental Square and preserve the 100-plus year-old buildings. Previously, Urban Visions developed the 200 Occidental, an 8-story, 182,346 square foot Class A office building that the Weyerhaeuser Company occupies as its corporate headquarters.
And while projects coming online are at various stages of completion, one of the common threads and associated challenges of all of the developments—including the in-the-works RailSpur as one case study—is how to strike a balance when so much is changing throughout the historic neighborhood, according to Davis. “We don’t necessarily feel like we need to duplicate the efforts of what’s already in Pioneer Square…but 419 Occidental is a historic building, and there are a lot of complicating factors that go along with that restoration and rehabilitation,” she said. “It’s about working within the neighborhood guidelines to create something that is applicable for the 21st century in this new age of technology and retail-focused buildings within the confines of a historic structure.”