June 2003: Critical Junction: Preservation between the Sinking Ship and King Street Station
By Heather MacIntosh

Though plans for the Seattle monorail's Green Line are still crystallizing, the route has been, for the most part, mapped out. And though no part of the monorail system will be a community planning cakewalk, no segment will be more difficult to plan and design than that between the Sinking Ship garage in Pioneer Square and King Street Station at least from a preservation perspective.

Though the preservation issues along Second Avenue downtown will no doubt play a significant role in monorail planning, preservation in Pioneer Square is inextricably bound to almost every aspect of life and work in the neighborhood. In other parts of the city, planners may be able to consider impacts to single buildings or small groups of significant structures, but in Pioneer Square, impacts to the built environment are linked to social services, public safety, and economic development in addition to the more obvious relationship between station and guideway design and the physical environment.

The Birth of Preservation in Seattle

Birthplaces of trends are often suspect. Is Haight Ashbury in San Francisco the "birthplace" of 1960s counterculture? Some would say yes; some would heartily disagree. Birthplaces of people and products are easier to pin down, like where Abraham Lincoln was born (near Hodgenville, Kentucky) or the birthplace of Pepsi (New Bern, North Carolina). The loss of the Seattle Hotel on the triangular block at Second and Yesler catalyzed Seattle's preservation movement. Most preservationists point to the site of the hotel's 1961 demolition as the birthplace of preservation in Seattle.

Eloquent public historian Paul Dorpat summarizes the dramatic loss and its replacement in a "Now and Then" treatment, "where once the softly lit arches of windows, long-stemmed ferns, and Ionic columns encouraged moments of relaxed meditation, now the oil-soiled concrete of an eye-sore inspires nothing."

This assessment is not completely true - the concrete structure served as a visible reminder of what could happen to the city's oldest neighborhood if planners pushing urban renewal had their way. The Sinking Ship, as it came to be called, helped inspire the city's first preservation advocates. A few people even consider it important enough to be preserved in its own right.

Most community members are glad to see the structure go.

If the preferred plan is followed, the guideways for the monorail will continue southeast along Second Avenue Extension through a portion of Pioneer Square that has been slow to recover from decades of neglect. Half of this area, from Columbia Street and Second to Washington Street at Second Avenue Extension, falls within the original boundaries of the historic district drawn in 1969-70. The remainder of the monorail route leading to King Street Station became part of the historic district after a 1974 expansion of the boundaries.

Buildings Along the Route

The blocks immediately south of the Sinking Ship garage have held significant community interest in recent years. The Metropole Building, at 421 Second Avenue South is somewhat Romanesque in style. Community concerns related to sale of alcohol at a grocery store in the building have escalated into a call for an Alcohol Impact Area (AIA) designation for the neighborhood. The AIA would restrict the sale of certain kinds of alcohol, single can sales, and prevent alcohol sales before 9am as a means of curbing chronic inebriation which impacts many aspects of public life in the neighborhood.

Is this a preservation concern? Considering the significant role illegal street activity has on public safety, property values, economic development, and public spaces, it is very difficult to separate this seemingly social or personal problem from stewardship of historic places and spaces and other physical preservation issues.

Fortson Square, a triangular park at the base of the Campbell Fuller Building, was a community project developed to increase and enhance public park space in the Square. This park and the adjacent Harbor Lofts building serve as the "front door" of Pioneer Square, and were given special attention by the community and its supporters in recent years. The neighborhood's award winning plan spells out many improvements, like Fortson Square, as critical pieces of a comprehensive strategy to make Pioneer Square safe, livable, and business-friendly.

The Campbell Fuller Building, immediately behind the park and oriented toward Yesler, recently saw some development interest, but plans fell through for a number of reasons. Initial efforts petered out before a Certificate of Approval could be filed, and no movement at DCLU occurred before development plans were scrapped.

Harbor Lofts, an affordable housing project adjacent to the Campbell Fuller Building is one of what the community hopes will be a number of affordable artist housing rehabilitation projects in the neighborhood. The building includes 11 studio-like units; soon, the nearby Tashiro Kaplan Building will add 50 more units of artists' housing which will substantially change the current social environment just south of Smith Tower.

The Union Gospel Mission, a homeless service organization in operation since the Great Depression, took up residence at 318 Second Ave Extension in the 1950s, and has been expanding its outreach ever since. The UGM has operations in a number of buildings throughout town; the Second Avenue Extension building houses a men's shelter. The UGM's shelter for women and children, located at 520 South King Street, stands at the northwest edge of the International District. Many homeless men congregate on the sidewalk in front of the center to queue for the many services provided by the shelter.

Second Avenue Extension was a 1929 concession to automobile traffic moving between commercial downtown and the industrial district to the south. Several facades were shorn off to accommodate the diagonal line between Smith Tower and the east side of the railroad stations; these buildings were refashioned with then-popular moderne-deco details. A number of buildings on the short leg of Third Avenue south, immediately north of King Street Station, were added to the Pioneer Square Preservation District in the 1970s after the initial boundaries were drawn. Many of these were built in the 1910s.

King Street Station

King Street Station was the first of Seattle's two grand stations built in the early part of the 20th century at the southern edge of the city's commercial core. Over the course of the last several decades, both buildings languished with less than minimal maintenance. Happily, Union Station was saved by reuse and extremely sensitive rehabilitation. The building now houses Sound Transit, the area's light rail authority. The glorious revival of Union Station emphasizes King Street Station's sorry state - originally inspired by San Marco in Venice, the building has sparked years of debate surrounding its rehabilitation.

Though a number of parties are involved in its development, the Washington State Department of Transportation has been leading the redevelopment effort since 1997. King County and the City of Seattle each began a renovation project at the station in the early 1990s, but the financial and ownership issues proved too complex at that time. The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway and several private developers considered private development on a number of occasions, but bowed out because the imagined return on the investment was less than desirable.

In 1998, the Washington State Legislature passed initial authorizing legislation, and in 2001, broadened the range of potential financing mechanisms. After an optimistic leap forward, the project stalled due to funding issues. Eventually, these were resolved, and rehabilitation activity should begin soon.

The proposed Weller Street monorail station will have an impact on the King Street Station, both visually and physically. The close proximity of the new monorail station requires the involvement of local and state preservation agencies - the building is on the city's, the state's, and the nation's landmarks register. The Pioneer Square community, and many preservationists who have long been following the rehabilitation of King Street Station are paying close attention to plans affecting this long neglected gem.

If you are interested in participating in the monorail planning process, be sure to contact the Seattle Monorail Popular Authority who conduct regular community meetings. The SPMA's website is easy to navigate and is regularly updated.

If you are interested in learning more about the Pioneer Square neighborhood and current events, contact the Pioneer Square Community Association at (206) 667-0687.

View last month's Neighborhoods article

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