September 2002: Preservation in Pioneer Square
By Heather MacIntosh

Since the early 1960s, the Pioneer Square neighborhood has been inextricably bound to historic preservation. Its long life and rich history have leant a lot of meaning to the hundreds of buildings making up the Pioneer Square Preservation District. In 1970, it became the first district listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It was also the birthplace of historic preservation activity within the City of Seattle.

In 1961, Hotel Seattle (also known as the Occidental Hotel) was demolished to make way for the underwhelming "Sinking Ship" parking garage, located on the triangular lot between Yesler, James, and Second Avenue. This act catalyzed the city's early preservation activity by calling attention to the importance and fragility of Pioneer Square's exceptional historic resources.

Always Diverse

The neighborhood has been, since its earliest days, a place where residents and visitors lived and recreated. In its early days, Pioneer Square's affordable hotels and apartment buildings were home to countless new residents, most of them men, who came from all parts of the country to find jobs or create a new life for themselves on the nation's northwestern edge. Census records from the 1880s, 90s, and early 20th century illustrate the diverse ethnic backgrounds of Pioneer Square residents. Some came from points East within the US, many were recently arrived from Europe, and some didn't speak English.

This oldest Seattle neighborhood was also home to some of its youngest working residents, and more than a few outsiders. Don Paulson and Roger Simpson's excellent An Evening at the Garden of Allah, a historical account of cabaret life in Pioneer Square during the early 1900s, well describes the way in which gay Seattle found a somewhat comfortable place there.

On the Waterfront

Pioneer Square's relationship to the water was one of the primary reasons it was the first part of urban Seattle to develop in the middle of the 19th century. Yesler Avenue was the starting point (Yesler's Mill actually). The road's grade was originally much steeper than it is today. It was known as Skid Road, because logs skidded down from the east toward the mill. Murray Morgan's Skid Road provides a great view into the early world of Pioneer Square.

Today, only a small part of the Square actually touches the water. The Washington Street Boat Landing, a Victorian-styled structure at the base of Washington Street, is one preservation project desperately in need of a solution. The Pioneer Square Community Association has been considering how to preserve and better use this potentially beautiful structure, which is now sagging into the bay. Its proximity to the still-undecided Alaskan Way Viaduct plan, and the Port's coalescing plans for development of the southern portion of the waterfront, may have an impact on how and when the structure will be rehabilitated. When it is stabilized and put back into use, whatever that may be, the link between Pioneer Square and the water will be greatly enhanced.

On the Streets

The historic character of the district extends to its infrastructure. Pioneer Square is now seeing its streets, alleys, areaways, and sidewalks systematically improved. Great care has been taken to replace damaged or historically-incompatible materials with materials much more consistent with the original appearance of the historic streets, curbs, and areas immediately below the street level.

Overall improvements to the built, social, and economic environment of Pioneer Square were laid out in the community's 1998 Neighborhood Plan. The neighborhood's intense and sustained effort to consider how to make Pioneer Square all that it might be show in the document. While alterations to the historic buildings lying within the district are reviewed by the Pioneer Square Preservation Board, comprehensive planning activity and decision making stems from guidelines established by the neighborhood plan:.

Chris Martin took a cue from this plan, and created a business that keeps Pioneer Square's public areas clean. CleanScapes, created in 1997, contributes to the preservation of the district by making historic infrastructure visible, that is, not cluttered by debris and graffiti.

Support Systems

Pioneer Square's diversity extends to the economic makeup of its residents. The neighborhood has more social service providers than any other in the city. This is a decided challenge to the community as it strives for a balance of commercial, residential, recreational, social, and public interests. Mitigating between these many elements is difficult.

In 2001, three neighborhood groups merged to form the Pioneer Square Community Association. One of the primary goals of this synthesis was better community cohesion and communication. The Boards of the PSCA are rather large, and reflect the extended mix of constituencies shaping the district. Groups reflected in the PSCA's governance include: social services, residents, large employers, historic preservation, nightclubs, restaurants, property owners, professional service, retail, employees, stadiums and at large positions.

Given the many public and private interests converging in the historic district, support and communication with the City of Seattle is critical. The neighborhood plan outlines what it wants from the city, including enforcement of minimum maintenance standards ▀link to articleÓ and an embargo on more social services within the district. Recent boons to this connection with the city include the implementation of an Alcohol Impact Area, which will help curb chronic inebriation in the Square, and the approval of legislation providing 15.5 million in Section 108 loan funds, and 1.75 million in federal grant monies toward earthquake repairs in the neighborhood.

Threats to the District

Pioneer Square contains most of Seattle's oldest buildings. The area was rebuilt immediately after the devastating 1889 fire that destroyed much of downtown Seattle. As a result, Pioneer Square is mostly brick and stone. Masonry construction was the 19th century's answer to the problem of fireproofing. These unreinforced masonry buildings, constructed before earthquakes were a real concern, are especially susceptible to earthquake damage. Retrofitting goes a long way to protect them, but equally important is ongoing upkeep and basic maintenance.

The earthquake came at a bad time for Pioneer Square (not that there's a good time for a natural disaster). The economy was already beginning to flatten out relative to the frenzied growth of the late 1990s. Before Pioneer Square and the City could mourn the tragic death of Kristopher Kime during the 2001 Mardi Gras festivities, the earthquake shut down business, littered the streets with building debris, and frightened businesses and workers who experienced the quake first hand inside the historic buildings.

The press, both local and national, has done a very good job of painting a negative view of Seattle's economic trajectory. Pioneer Square has gotten a similarly unfair treatment in the press. Relentlessly negative stories of vacancy rates in Pioneer Square and other problems have, to some degree, undermined the district's recovery by presenting an unbalanced view of what's really going on and what has been accomplished already to make the neighborhood's plan a reality.

Big Deals

There are more than a few promising, recent preservation projects aiding the neighborhood's recovery. Here is an abridged list:

  • Pergola restored, now stronger than ever (see earlier story) 2002.
  • Cadillac Hotel saved from demolition. Historic Seattle will make an announcement soon about specific plans, 2001-2002.
  • Union Station rehabilitation and preservation complete in 1999.
  • Loan money, grant approved for earthquake relief (15.5 million in loans, 1.5 in grants) 2002.
  • Loans approved for rehabilitation of underutilized historic hotels for affordable housing (10 million from Fannie Mae) 2001.
  • South Downtown Foundation formed to mitigate stadium impacts. Provides funding for community development and preservation projects.
  • Substantial rehabilitations of the following buildings planned, thanks to new, current ownership (Goodman Financial Services):


  •   a. Buttnick Building
      b. City Loan Building
      c. 211 First Avenue
      d. OK Hotel (affordable artist housing planned)

    Each is a significant step forward.

    View last month's Neighborhoods article

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