Pioneer Square: Historic character vs. height
Developers and preservationists are facing off over how to revitalize Seattle's oldest neighborhood without destroying its historic character.
Seattle Times staff reporter
When the grand old Seattle Hotel at Second and Yesler was demolished in 1962 to make way for what one historian called a "hideous" parking garage, a preservation movement was ignited that established Pioneer Square as the state's first national historic district.
Now developers and preservationists are again facing off over how to revitalize Seattle's oldest neighborhood without destroying its historic character.
A Seattle City Council committee on Wednesday will consider rezoning the edges of Pioneer Square to allow buildings up to 120, 130 and 150 feet high in hopes of encouraging the construction of more housing.
The rezone is part of a larger planning effort to bring new residents to south downtown neighborhoods that include the Chinatown International District, Japantown, Little Saigon and the Dearborn corridor.
But nowhere have the city's plans generated as much opposition as in Pioneer Square.
Developers and the Downtown Seattle Association are pushing the city to allow even taller buildings — up to 180 feet, or about 18 stories. They say that anything less would fail to jump-start development in a neighborhood that has high retail vacancy rates, a disproportionate share of social services for the poor and homeless, and few middle-income residents.
"The city's proposal isn't bold enough" to add the housing the neighborhood says it needs, said Jon Scholes, vice president for advocacy and economic development with the Downtown Seattle Association.
Preservationists agree that Pioneer Square needs more housing to bolster the struggling business district. One of its biggest draws, The Elliott Bay Book Company, departed last year for the trendier, and busier, Pike-Pine corridor.
But those charged with protecting the historic legacy worry that 18-story buildings would be out of scale with the 19th-century Romanesque facades that make up the historic district.
And while about a dozen parking lots and garages are the most likely candidates for redevelopment, preservationists are also concerned that allowing taller buildings could encourage owners to neglect their historic properties. They then could argue that their buildings can't be restored to historic standards and the only option is to build a taller and more profitable building.
Councilmember Sally Clark's committee has taken a look at the developers' proposal and is considering whether some blocks in Pioneer Square could accommodate more height than city planners recommended.
But, Clark cautions, the proposal to allow buildings of up to 180 feet would require additional environmental review and further delay what already has been a five-year planning effort.
"We want to entice people to live in the city. The question is how do we make it happen here. Pioneer Square has a fantastic character that we don't want to destroy. We want the new development to complement what's there," Clark said.
Developer William Justen, who proposed the 180-foot heights, accuses the council of "old thinking" about redevelopment and scale.
Justen points to Portland's Pearl District as an example of the successful juxtaposition of tall new buildings with restored brick breweries and warehouses that have been converted to lofts, galleries and shops.
He says the Seattle City Council's proposed height increases won't stimulate development.
"We're wasting our time. In 20 years, we're going to have the same 10 parking lots in Pioneer Square that are there today," he said.
Justen's plan would preserve 100-foot heights along First Avenue and Jackson Street, the main arterials through the neighborhood, while allowing the taller buildings to edge about half the district to the north and east.
Justen said he has no financial interest in Pioneer Square property, but he is a former real-estate director for the Samis Foundation, which owns about 10 historic buildings in the area — all of them rehabbed and leased, he said. He also served on a Pioneer Square advisory committee to the city.
Justen points to the statuesque, 42-story building at the northern edge of Pioneer Square and says, "Nobody complains that the Smith Tower is too tall."
But preservationists argue that 180-foot buildings will literally overshadow the existing district.
Lorne McConachie, chairman of the Pioneer Square Preservation Board and an architect with offices there, said the city's proposal for higher buildings is the maximum height the district can tolerate without compromising its historic character. He said he can envision several bunkerlike parking garages — including the famously hideous sinking-ship garage — being replaced by buildings of up to 130 feet that would stair-step up to the office towers beyond.
Similarly, he and the preservation board support the city proposal to allow buildings up to 150 feet at the eastern edge of the district, near where developers plan a mixed-use project on the North Lot of Qwest Field that will include a 24-story residential tower.
But allowing 18-story buildings where Justen has proposed them could detract from historic sites, McConachie said.
The prow of the sinking-ship garage is just across the street from the Pergola, Totem Pole and Pioneer Building. Officially known as Pioneer Place, the plaza is a National Historic Landmark and the jumping off point for tours of Pioneer Square. An 18-story building there would overwhelm the plaza, McConachie said.
Another redevelopment possibility is a parking lot immediately east of Occidental Park. McConachie said a 180-foot building would almost completely block views of the Smith Tower and sunlight from the park's plaza, the central gathering place and largest open space in Pioneer Square.
McConachie worries that tall new construction at the edges of the Pioneer Square would jeopardize buildings that aren't themselves landmarks but that contribute to the historic character.
"The greatest challenge to a historic district is gradual degradation," he said.
Many of the people and business owners who now live in Pioneer Square support the developers' plans to add taller buildings. They want what the neighborhood doesn't now have: a grocery store, thriving restaurants and shops and more working families. "The reality is that you can have tall, modern buildings next to historic buildings and still preserve the historic character. What it comes down to is, we need more residents," said Jennifer Kelly, an organizer of the new Pioneer Square Residential Council.
Kelly, who blogs about the neighborhood at www.thenewpioneersquare.com, moved to Pioneer Square with her husband in 2009 and though they love the neighborhood, she said, it's nearly empty after 5 p.m. when office workers go home and many businesses close.
"You can preserve historic buildings, but what does it matter if there are no businesses and nobody lives here?" Kelly asked. "The city needs to give developers some incentive to build."
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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