A new and sudden wave of entrepreneurs, moneyed investors and urban dwellers who’ve rediscovered Pioneer Square in recent years has come along and made the place sparkle with possibility. It’s a not-so-quiet renaissance.
AT THE LONDON PLANE — a soigné, whitewashed cafe and florist at the heart of Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood — past, present and future collide.
Opened nearly a year ago in a historic storefront along a cobblestoned section of Occidental Avenue South, it is the brainchild of restaurant wunderkind Matt Dillon, who also has opened a wine bar with the same name down the block and, across from it, the restaurant Bar Sajor, whose exposed, wood-fired oven casts a country-villa glow.
Dillon’s trio of establishments perform such a bold sleight of hand they almost make you forget where you are. Enter any of them and you’re transported to a secret corner of the City of Light.
But then, looking out from the cocoon of bourgeois refinement Dillon has meticulously crafted to the grittiness of the surrounding neighborhood, you snap back to reality. You’re in Pioneer Square. That Pioneer Square, the original Skid Road. Panhandlers with aggressive pitches. Rowdy sports fans. Drunken clubgoers. Hordes of tourists on walking tours.
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The neighborhood exists as much as a figment of our collective imagination as a bricks-and-pavement, physical place, and that image floating around our heads is mostly a negative one — that of a not-so-safe district with more problems than potential, with rank alleys and faded luster, a neighborhood that has lost its way and its soul.
And now Dillon, part of a sudden wave of entrepreneurs, moneyed investors and urban dwellers who’ve rediscovered the neighborhood in recent years, has come along and made the place sparkle with possibility.
A not-so-quiet renaissance is happening in Pioneer Square.
Gazing out at the Seattle skyline, CenturyLink Field and ferries crossing Elliott Bay from the rooftops of the sprawling new Stadium Place apartment and commercial complex at Occidental Avenue South and South King Street, as I get to do as a tenant there, the neighborhood’s new mojo is audible.
In addition to the chants of Seahawks and Sounders fans flooding its narrow streets on their way to the stadium on game days, and the chatter of artlovers during First Thursday gallery walks, there is the sound of construction and renovation.
The nearly 4-acre Stadium Place site, billed as the largest transit-oriented development on the West Coast because of its location a stone’s throw from the city’s major rail, bus and highway transit hubs, is adding glass-and-concrete flair to this historic neighborhood of brick facades.
Next door to the project’s showpiece, a sculptural, 26-story, mirrored-glass tower with about 330 apartments, project developers are building a $300 million, 23-story Embassy Suites Hotel and nine-story office building.
The scene outside Dillon’s London Plane is about to change drastically, too.
Federal Way-based Weyerhaeuser is moving its headquarters and 800 employees to a new, seven-story, glass-and-brick tower that will be built on what is now a street-level parking lot alongside Occidental Park, across Main Street from the cafe.
Many predicted the departure of the venerable Elliott Bay Book Company from its corner location nearby on First Avenue South to the Capitol Hill neighborhood in 2010 would be the death blow to Seattle’s long-suffering, original neighborhood.
Now, in pockets all over the neighborhood, swanky restaurants and bars are popping up in once-empty storefronts, including the cocktail dens Damn the Weather, E. Smith Mercantile,Intermezzo and Good Bar, and the dinner theater Café Nordo, which is scheduled to open March 12 in part of the space once occupied by Elliott Bay Book Company.
Dillon says he started to sense a reversal of fortune happening a couple of years ago.
“I could feel the neighborhood wanting to be active again,” he says on a recent afternoon at Caffè Umbria, the coffee shop next door to Dillon’s London Plane wine bar.
Every bit the working man with his knit cap, dirty Carhartt jeans and scruffy beard, Dillon lights up when he reminisces about hanging out on the creaky wooden floors of Elliott Bay reading sailing and art books when he was a kid, and going to punk shows at underground clubs in a neighborhood that even in the early 20th century was home to bordellos, saloons and gay haunts.
He loves Pioneer Square’s aging London Plane trees. He loves its alleys, which are about to get a makeover, thanks to yet another improvement project in the works. He prefers the neighborhood’s hulking old buildings with their arched windows and weathered masonry, “rather than these cookie-cutter, mono-cultural buildings that are going up everywhere else.”
For him, doing business in Pioneer Square seemed like a no-brainer.
With all of that history and atmosphere, along with the personal connection, he says, “Why wouldn’t I want to be here?”
The new Pioneer Square
WHY NOT? It’s a question that arises over and over in conversations with the key players behind Pioneer Square’s revival.
Looking out from the bright dining room of The London Plane cafe one morning, former Seattle Mayor Charley Royer, who lives in the neighborhood himself, sees only a template for the future — increased housing options, enhanced transit links to what is already a busy crossroads for commuters, and an improved streetscape.
A block away at South Jackson Street and Occidental Avenue South, a new streetcar line linking Pioneer Square to the International District, First Hill and Capitol Hill is in the final stages of development, creating a new entry point for people who might avoid Pioneer Square because of its infamously strained and confusing parking options.
Just to the west, the planned waterfront redevelopment, which Royer is helping to steer, will replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a pedestrian-friendly promenade, opening up the neighborhood to waterside attractions.
As the mayor most associated with Seattle’s status as a “livable” city, who in the 1980s promoted residential and commercial development in the neglected but now well-established Belltown neighborhood, Royer knows the difficulty of trying to remake an urban district and override negative perceptions.
A district that’s home both to homeless shelters and high-end apartments, beer-and-burgers sports fans and diners feasting on craft-cocktails and small plates? Really?
Royer’s a believer.
“This is a neighborhood that has feeling and character, and we’re not gonna lose it,” he says plainly.
Royer and developer Kevin Daniels, who personally spearheaded the long-time-coming Stadium Place project a decade ago, have both thrown their support behind the nonprofit advocacy organization credited with helping to turn around the area’s reputation and attracting newcomers, the Alliance for Pioneer Square.
The alliance’s Karen True spends a lot of her time doing what she calls “matchmaking” between business owners and prospective landlords in the neighborhood, and just getting parties on either side of that equation to imagine the possibilities.
When she started out two years ago, she got some flat-out rebuffs.
“I had some pretty blunt, ‘Never, ever would I come to Pioneer Square’ comments,” she says.
The neighborhood has taken more than its fair share of lumps over the years.
In the 1960s, urban planners wanted to bulldoze many of the district’s beautiful turn-of-the-century buildings to construct garages for office workers — that is until preservation-minded citizens and merchants took up the neighborhood’s cause.
The whole neighborhood burned to the ground in the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 but was quickly rebuilt.
This latest renaissance is also anything but random.
“We’re trying to curate the neighborhood a little bit,” True says.
For instance, the alliance successfully campaigned to have the streetcar line extended down Jackson to a cobblestoned, pedestrian-friendly stretch of Occidental Avenue South, only a couple of blocks from what will be a made-over waterfront.
But the buzz generated by luminaries like Dillon deciding on their own to move in has no doubt been a huge factor.
People who practically laughed in True’s face two years ago are calling up and asking, “Hey, what’s going on down there?” she says with a grin.
As the most high-profile developer to take a chance on Pioneer Square, Daniels is almost giddy about working in the neighborhood with his partners, who include developer and arts patron Charlie Wright, whose father, Bagley, was one of the major investors who helped build the Space Needle at the opposite end of downtown.
Daniels said he also had his work cut out for him trying to get fellow investors to reconsider Pioneer Square.
“Bringing them together with the retailers and the social services and the city, that’s really the genesis of everything,” he says. “Even with that said, you still needed more than those lovely buildings. You needed to establish hope.”
Daniels calls the departure of Elliott Bay Book Company “a great stroke of fortune,” because it forced businesses, advocates and the handful of residents to rethink things.
“We needed something to shake everything up,” Daniels says. “When they left, 50 percent of people said, ‘Oh, my God.’ And 50 percent said, ‘What can we do to fix it?’ ”
Today, Daniels and others who push for the neighborhood can celebrate a rash of openings rather than mourn closings. At Stadium Place, a Korean-style steak house will soon join other recent arrivals such as Josh Henderson’s Quality Athletics’ sports bar, the upscale general store Cone & Steiner and natural-clothing boutique Velouria.
Daniels is also planning to build a residential tower in the shell of a triangular warehouse across from CenturyLink Field, adding to a growing list of medium-scale apartment and condo projects slated for the area. Residential development is seen as one of the key components of a sustained revival.
FROM HER own vantage point in a loft apartment across from Occidental Park, artist Tariqa Waters has a bird’s-eye view of Pioneer Square’s vivid streetlife, and its challenges.
Waters and her husband, Ryan Waters, a guitarist who’s toured with the R&B singer Sade, moved to the neighborhood two years ago with their two kids after relocating from Atlanta.
Waters converted the old storefront where the stairwell to her loft is located into the offbeat gallery and semipublic stoop, Martyr Sauce.
Then last spring, she installed a socially conscious, public-art project called “No I in Self” consisting of a series of mirrored boxes placed more or less eye-level around the trunks of Occidental Park’s trees.
The idea was for spectators to aim their phone cameras at their reflections in the mirrored boxes, then take and upload selfies, with the surrounding park, in all of its faded beauty and human hardship, as background.
But someone vandalized the exhibit, bashing in the boxes. Waters, who had made acquaintance with several people who hang out in the park, later found out it was one of the park’s own denizens who did it.
Even more depressing, Waters says she had a hard time getting people to even walk into the park to take selfies because of fears that the park was unsafe.
She considers her exhibit a kind of social experiment gone awry.
“There’s a lot of history there, and it’s a living, breathing place,” Waters says of the park. “People have made that park home, and you don’t just go put an exhibit in someone’s home” — at least not without getting input from those stakeholders.
Even so, Waters says she doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable walking through the park alone anymore.
As it happens, many of the people who typically hang out in Occidental Park also want Pioneer Square to be a safe, viable neighborhood, especially those who stay in neighborhood homeless shelters and transitional housing.
At the Compass Housing Alliance on South Washington Street, a long- and short-term men’s shelter run by the Lutheran Church with a variety of day services such as showers, a post office and savings accounts, residents like 25-year-old Sean Walker say they couldn’t move forward without the social services based in the neighborhood.
On a visit to the cubicle where he’s allowed to live for up to a year, Walker speaks of trying to get back on his feet after losing his job due to an illness last year. This fall he could be found either studying for an exam that would qualify him to apply for a job with the U.S. Border Patrol or hanging out with acquaintances at Occidental Park.
Pioneer Square is his home, too, however temporary or tenuous.
“There’s more common interests than divergences” between the community she serves and more moneyed stakeholders, Compass Program Director M.J. Kiser says.
Mike Klotz and Derek Shankland have grappled with this convergence of interests since opening Delicatus, a lunch and dinner spot selling hearty deli fare at First Avenue South and Yesler Way, four years ago. The neighborhood was eerily quiet at night back then.
“We saw what could be,” Klotz says of those early days. But “at 5, they were rolling up the sidewalks.”
Basically, the streets were left to drug-dealers and prostitutes.
Klotz and Shankland didn’t have an issue with the area’s shelters and law-abiding street dwellers, but they made a point of calling 911 whenever they saw shady activity around their deli and at the infamous “Sinking Ship” parking structure nearby.
“Being the squeaky wheel helped,” Klotz says.
Slowly, with stepped-up police involvement and greater vigilance on the part of business owners and residents, illegal and uncivil street activity has decreased, though it’s still a problem.
But Bryn Lumsden, who opened Damn the Weather across First Avenue last year and has lived in the neighborhood for four years, thinks that despite the lingering issues, Pioneer Square has finally turned the corner.
“It’s too big of a venture to fail,” he says of the revival. “I guarantee you, nobody thinks they’re alone.”