Why Pioneer Square is the Greatest

Why Pioneer Square is the Greatest

I commute to work every day by bike. I live in Capitol Hill, so I typically take 12th Ave down to Jackson, then Jackson all the way down to my building on the corner of 2nd Ave S and S Washington. But every once in awhile, when the sun is out and I'm feeling particularly grateful for this city, I take Yesler - up the hill, along the nice new bike path, and stop for a second in the middle of the freeway overpass to take in the view. Smith Tower on my right, the lower lofts of Pioneer Square on the left, and a slice of Puget Sound in between - this is my quintessential Seattle view, and a representation of the Seattle that I choose to fight for.

My business moved to Pioneer Square almost two years ago, and while I don't pretend to be anywhere close to the Pioneer Square resident that others who have lived and worked in the neighborhood for twenty years or more are, I have seen this neighborhood grow and transform in astounding ways during that short period of time; I love it more every day. Pioneer Square is where a lot of firsts have happened. It's the first home of Seattle's local economy (shipping), the first neighborhood that was developed after gold prospectors moved to town, the first neighborhood that Seattle's original social services called home, and the first neighborhood that was lucky enough to have a gigantic boring machine drilled through it (!).

I've been starting to see another first for Pioneer Square: sustainable urban development. As this neighborhood grows wealthier, it would be easy to do what many other gentrifying city neighborhoods tend to do - push out the so-called undesirables to make way for new, cleaner, and prettier storefront shops, cafes, and people. However, Pioneer Square is doing things a little differently - the reasons why being a source of endless motivation to me in my own work. As the co-founder of a space that is in the business of building strong communities, I realize that building companies with a social bottom line means that we need to take into account the lives of all people, which can get messy. Pioneer Square is growing - quickly - with exactly this mission in mind, while continuing to expand the local economy and support the local businesses who directly provide for this neighborhood's bottom line.

Here are four of the reasons (I could go on) why I think this neighborhood is such an incredible example of sustainable urban development that can be emulated throughout Seattle.

#1: The Preservation Board

As a storefront business owner in the neighborhood, you have a lot of face time with this local institution. Because Pioneer Square is a historic district, storefronts need to receive all sorts of permitting in order to build on or change their facade in any way. We went through 'permitting hell' - so eloquently labeled by other local business owners - when we first opened, and we'll continue going through this process every time we want to change something on the front of our building, like, for example, blinds. We've been wanting to install blinds in our first floor private offices that one can pull from the ground up so when the sun gets hot around 3pm, our tenants are kept cool in their offices but still have some sun peeking through. Despite our well-meaning intentions, we've been shut down every time by the Preservation Board to do so. I'm sure there is a reason for why blinds make up such a large facet of the overall Pioneer Square aesthetic, but I sure as hell don't get it. It's easy to ask: is the Preservation Board simply here to make my life harder?

But: when I bike back up 12th every day and take in all of the new cookie-cutter developments scattered throughout Capitol Hill, I get it. Walk down Occidental Avenue's old cobblestone pedestrian path. Stand on the 2nd floor of any building in Pioneer Square and you'll be able to see a view of the Sound. I'm not sure I'll ever understand the algorithm the Preservation Board uses to determine if some blinds are better than others, but I do understand the very real benefits that the Preservation Board brings to this neighborhood - the Preservation Board allows Pioneer Square to keep its flair. Lesson #1 in sustainable urban development: you've got to keep some hard lines.

#2: The local stakeholders

A neighborhood is made up of an elaborate jumble of a variety of different stakeholders - most of whom passer-bys never really get to see. That trash by the side of the road? That gets picked up by someone. That new development that partially blocks your once-unadulterated view of the Space Needle? That was approved by someone. That homeless person who sleeps in the alcove below your building every morning? He's asked to move every morning by someone. As a business owner, it can be hellish to understand this intricate maze alongside figuring out your own internal processes and financials. As a business owner in Pioneer Square, not understanding this complex web of stakeholders can put one out of business. To put this in perspective: you're a potential customer. You're shopping downtown one sunny Saturday, and start to wander down 1st Ave towards Pioneer Square. You've heard that this neighborhood is having somewhat of a comeback, and there are a couple of local shops you'd love to check out (London Plane and E. Smith Mercantile, in particular!). As you cross Cherry St. at 1st Ave, you start seeing homeless people lounging in the sun under the famed Pioneer Square pergola. As you continue down 1st Ave and start looking up at the different shops, you see two people fighting and yelling right in front of you. You cross to the other side of the street. When you walk up to one shop in particular, you notice that there is a pile of feces to the right of the shop door. Upon further inspection, you realize that this is human feces. EW. On a scale of 1-10, how likely is it that you'll come back to Pioneer Square to finish up your shopping needs anytime soon? I didn't think so.

This is the reality of Pioneer Square. The people who reside in this neighborhood are considered chronically homeless, meaning that they have severe mental or other debilitating issues that will prevent them from ever holding a job. Jeff Lilley, President of the Union Gospel Mission, describes these people as 'relationally challenged' - meaning that they literally have no human relationships on which to lean. That puts things in perspective, for me.

As business owners, even though we understand that this is the reality of where we choose to do business, it's incredibly frustrating to not know who to call when there are feces on the side of your building in the morning. Information is empowering, and it's important to make business owners feel like they actually are in control of their own storefront for two reasons: 1) Because you want business owners to stay in business if you want to grow the local economy, and 2) you want business owners, as one stakeholder in this complex puzzle, to feel supported, because if they don't feel supported they will end up detesting the environment around them, and that anger leads to gentrification movements.

The local stakeholders - like Cleanscapes, the Seattle Police Department, the MID, and others - have been making a concerted effort to introduce themselves to local businesses in Pioneer Square, as well as provide information on who to call for certain incidences and situations. This simple act provides an enormous amount of support to the local economy while still recognizing the realities of the neighborhood. Lesson #2: Provide a roadmap for the different avenues local businesses have to keep their business flourishing.

#3: The Alliance for Pioneer Square

I recently learned about Business Improvement Areas (BIAs), basically funding mechanisms for business district revitalization and management chosen by the City Council (Seattle BIAs include Capitol Hill, the ID, Columbia City, University District, West Seattle, and Pioneer Square). These BIAs are governed by a Ratepayer Advisory Board, made of up local business owners who decide and implement on planned business improvements to the neighborhood. The Pioneer Square Ratepayer Board is lead by the Alliance for Pioneer Square, and is also the most active in the revitalization of its neighborhood - this is not a coincidence.

The Alliance was launched in June 2010 to lead the implementation of the most recent neighborhood plan, set to expire next year (there's another neighborhood plan in development). Since then, the Alliance has grown from one to a small staff of seven, and the commitment of this amazing group of people to the revitalization of Seattle's first neighborhood is nothing short of extraordinary. There is one person on staff at the Alliance that most business owners know intimately - Karen True. Karen is charged with growing the local economy in Pioneer Square, and she meets individually with each new business owner to get them up to speed about the neighborhood. The relationships that she has fostered with all of the local stakeholders is incredible, and frankly, those relationships are what holds the neighborhood together. Because the Alliance meets and onboards new business owners, they induct these business owners into a culture where every person in the neighborhood matters, and where growth is something that happens while taking into account all stakeholders, instead of just some.

The lesson here? Neighborhoods need passionate leaders to foster the culture of sustainable development. Pioneer Square has 'em.

#4: Local gathering places 

In order for sustainable growth to happen, the people who live and work in the neighborhood need to feel like it's worth it. As we are primarily driven by the desire to connect with other humans, local gathering places play a hugely important role in sustainable urban growth. There are two examples in Pioneer Square that I just love: the Nord Alley (and the Alley Network Project), and Occidental Park.

The Alley Network Project was started in 2008 after Copenhagen-based Gehl Architects was commissioned to identify opportunities for place-making in Pioneer Square. Alleyways were chosen because the scale of the buildings, the narrow alley passageways, and the Pioneer Square architecture (thank you again, Preservation Board!) make the alleys visually alluring, so having the potential to be great pedestrian spaces. Since then, Nord Alley in particular has taken on a life of its own, hosting art exhibits, movie nights, dance parties, and this summer, World Cup viewing parties. The seduction of these alleyways lies in their antiquity, but because people are drawn to their aesthetic, the alleyways have served as natural gathering places for the Pioneer Square community to grow.

Right across the street is Occidental Park, which has long been the epicenter of Pioneer Square. Since the park also serves as a gathering space for the neighborhood's homeless population to lounge, there has been an effort over the last year to make the park more accessible to Seattle's general population. This has resulted in 'yarn bombings' - yarn wrapped around the trees in the park to keep them warm during the winter, summertime concerts, a Farmer's Market during the summer months, and many art installations throughout the year, including the current 'Just Be Your Selfie.' Because of this effort to make the space friendlier to Pioneer Square's work and home tenants, now when you walk through the park you'll see brightly colored mirrors on trees, a handful of gentleman playing a lifesize game of chess, couples and coworkers eating their lunch on the steps and on the tables provided, and homeless folks watching the scene and day go by. Lesson #4: Create open, friendly spaces for all tenants of a neighborhood to feel comfortable gathering; those shared experiences might provide an opportunity for us all to walk in the other's shoes.

There are other programs coming to Pioneer Square in the coming months that we look forward to - specifically, LEAD, or Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. The program basically provides an option for low-level drug and prostitution offenders to engage in community-based services and addiction help instead of jail-time. The goal is to provide offenders an option to receive help away from drug-heavy areas, as well as to support the improvement of public safety in the specific neighborhoods that LEAD is in. LEAD has been very successful in Belltown and recently received funding to move to Pioneer Square, so we are optimistic about what's next.

The bottom line: Growth does not need to happen for the sake of growth. Neighborhoods, and in turn, cities, can grow outward, upward, economically and elegantly, while still taking into account the lives of all people who are affected by that growth. Diversity - both racial and socio-economic - provide for a higher quality of life for everyone, and we need to remember this as we look towards the future.

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