December 10, 2009

Pioneer Square gets ready for change

  • New projects, zoning changes and a multi-modal transit hub promise to bring major changes to Seattle’s historic neighborhood.
    ConoverBond Development


    While there has been much buzz in recent years about new neighborhoods like South Lake Union and Belltown, several major new projects and some significant zoning changes are helping to bring new life into Pioneer Square. In addition, neighborhood organizations are stepping forward to clean up The Square, promote its rich historic appeal, and declare its livable, walkable scale.

    For many, Pioneer Square has had its share of challenges, mostly from negative press regarding everything from Mardi Gras riots to chronic homelessness. Yes, the neighborhood has indeed had its challenges, however there seems to be new opportunities arising. A number of younger businesses, creative entrepreneurs and high-tech startup companies are putting roots down in The Square, reinforcing the neighborhood’s diverse and endearing appeal.

    Recent additions to the neighborhood include ING Direct, which this year leased 130,000 square feet at 83 King St. Creative companies such as GameHouse Studios, Integrus Architecture and Dry Soda Co. have all found a place in Pioneer Square, drawn to its historic charm and old city feel.

    Full of potential

    Photo by Benjamin Minnick
    ING Direct’s ShareBuilder business last year moved into 130,000 square feet at 83 King St.

    It may be surprising to realize that Pioneer Square belongs to a very exclusive and beloved nationwide group of historic urban neighborhoods that includes Boston’s North End, Baltimore’s Fells Point, New Orleans’ French Quarter, San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, San Francisco’s North Beach, Vancouver’s Gastown and Portland’s Pearl District. These old historic neighborhoods are a source of pride for their respective cities, and garner a constant flow of economic investment, tourism, urban revitalization and creative energy.

    Here in Seattle, as new commercial development has shifted north into the Denny Triangle and South Lake Union, Pioneer Square has changed little since the first major push for preservation and redevelopment occurred in the 1970s. Some blame the city’s historic preservation department for a lack of redevelopment incentives, while others point to long-time landlords as slow to update their buildings. Whatever the reason, there are now enough residents and local urban visionaries who believe that there is a real opportunity to revitalize Pioneer Square and reposition it as a 21st century destination where people will live, work and play.

    At the hub of transit

    The momentum of this latest push for zoning and policy revisions is largely being driven by the arrival of light-rail and the pending transformation of King Street Station into Seattle’s new multi-modal transportation hub. These major transit improvements will likely strengthen Pioneer Square’s appeal as a walkable and easily accessible urban neighborhood.

    Image by GG Studio
    The Pacific Commercial Building will have two new floors designed to replicate the original floors, which were heavily damaged after the 1949 earthquake.

    In the heart of Pioneer Square, the combination of King Street Station and the Downtown Transit Tunnel now offers bus, light-rail, Amtrak and Sounder commuter train access, while to the west Colman Dock continues to serve as the hub for Seattle’s ferry service. Pioneer Square is also at the convergence of our regional highway system, with new overpasses at the stadiums helping traffic flow to and from Highway 99 and interstates 5 and 90.

    The cornerstone of the neighborhood’s push to become a more vibrant, transit-oriented urban center is the north lot of Qwest Field. Plans by developer Nitze-Stagen envision towers of 20 to 24 stories, and a potential of more than 600 new residential units as well as offices, shops and parking. This development will likely be downtown Seattle’s largest mixed-use project, and will have a significant, positive impact on the immediate neighborhood.

    Among the additional projects being planned in and around Pioneer Square are those proposed by Urban Visions, whose holdings include properties to the west of the stadiums and on the southern edge of the International District. Both Nitze-Stagen and Urban Visions have played a vital role in working with the community to consider sustainable neighborhood goals that include zoning changes in both Pioneer Square and the International District. The zoning changes are designed to preserve historic structures while allowing vacant or dilapidated parcels to achieve a more appropriate and higher urban density.

    What’s old is new again

    At the intersection of First Avenue South and South King Street much activity is under way. ING Direct recently leased and moved into the renovated 83 King St. building. While just around the corner, the brick façade is up and work is under way to complete the new 505 1st Avenue South building. When complete in early 2010, this seven-story building will offer more than 280,000 square feet of office space. The use of materials and building proportions took their cue from the historic Triangle building to the south.

    Photo by Benjamin Minnick
    The pergola is one of Pioneer Square’s historic icons.

    A few blocks away, at the intersection of Second Avenue South and South Main Street, a unique renovation is under way. Developer Rob Brewster of ConoverBond is transforming the historic Corgiat and Furuya buildings into the Pacific Commercial Building. This complex historic renovation includes substantial seismic upgrades and the reproduction and addition of two stories that were damaged and removed after the 1949 earthquake. Exterior cladding of the two “new” floors features a concrete panel system designed to recreate the original stone arched façade.

    Brewster, a Spokane native who has developed projects in Seattle, Spokane and Portland, feels that Pioneer Square is ripe for re-development and has the “authenticity” that makes it a great asset for Seattle.

    “I’ve always felt like this could really be Seattle’s Pearl District,” Brewster said. “It’s got such great buildings, and the proximity to the stadiums, light-rail and all of the new transit make it so easy to get here. Pioneer Square could become a major new hub for the city.”

    When completed this January, the Pacific Commercial Building will have 17,000 square feet of retail space and 28,000 square feet of office space. The project’s open floor plans and high beamed ceilings are designed to appeal to creative companies. In the east portion of the building, the historic interiors will be preserved to allow for smaller offices and executive suites.

    Michael Sullivan of Artifacts said, “The addition and replication of two floors that were damaged and lost over 50 years ago makes this an extraordinary historic preservation endeavor.”

    A creative hub

    With a multitude of buildings both old and new, unique shops and eateries, and easy access to ferries, transit and freeways, Pioneer Square has continued its role as a major attraction for new businesses, creative and high-tech companies.

    “I’ve always liked The Square as opposed to high-rise office complexes,” says Matthew Gardner, principal of Gardner Economics, a land-use consulting firm that has had offices in Pioneer Square for eight years. “I’ve seen a large number of smaller and startup companies choose to locate. Being from the U.K., I admire the older buildings and feel comfortable here.”

    The appeal of these older buildings has also helped Pioneer Square become a hub for architects and other design-oriented firms. Notable architectural firms Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen, Jones & Jones and Runberg Architecture Group all call Pioneer Square home, as do relative newcomers that include Spokane’s Integrus Architecture and Portland’s Ankrom Moisan Architects.

    “When we toured Seattle looking to open our new office, we felt very much at home in Pioneer Square. It reminded us of the things we liked about Portland’s Pearl District,” said Dave Heater, principal for Ankrom Moisan Architects. “Being on Occidental Mall was a big attraction for us — it’s the heart of the area, with all types of people mixing during lunch, concerts and art walks. That’s the vitality that makes Pioneer Square unlike any other Seattle neighborhood.”

    Unique retail scene

    Though it’s known more for its rug stores, tourist shops and dozens of art galleries, Pioneer Square is also home to a growing number of independent retailers, cafes, restaurants and pubs. Traditional favorites like FxMcRory’s, Trattoria Mitchelli and Il Terrazzo Carmine have been recently joined by the likes of the Collins Pub, Salumi and Dry Soda Company. In the heart of the neighborhood at Occidental Mall, the Grand Central Bakery and Chef Tamara Murphy’s newly restored Elliott Bay Café provide great options for lunch. The retail mix also features hip coffee houses such as All City Coffee, Zeitgeist and Café Umbria.

    New retail at the base of both the Pacific Commercial Building and 505 1st Avenue will bring more than 25,000 square feet of additional space to Pioneer Square.

    With current projects under construction, significant transit improvements and zoning changes under way, Pioneer Square may be poised to change significantly in the coming decade. Slowly but surely, the pieces are falling into place as new leaders and visionary entrepreneurs step forward to help this gem of a neighborhood finally realize its 21st century potential.

    Scott Surdyke is an urban development consultant and project manager. He has worked on mixed-use developments in the Seattle area for more than 12 years. ConoverBond Development specializes in sustainable mixed-use projects and historic renovations. It is working on projects in Seattle, Portland and Spokane.

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