The homeowner describes Pioneer Square as "the most invigorating, the most intellectually stimulating, the most fun place to live in the whole city." She's noticed that the people who are drawn to live in the area are very independent-minded, "and they tend not to be influenced by buzz."

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ELEVEN YEARS ago, when Madeleine Strain was 3, she drew a picture of her mother with red eyes and furrowed brows. It read, “Daddy plays with me and Mommy cleans and weeds the garden.” Annie (the Mommy in question) was devastated.

Annie and her husband, Jeff, lived with Madeleine and her little brother, Daniel, in a cozy, two-bedroom fixer-upper in North Seattle’s Maple Leaf neighborhood. The place was filled with exactly what you’d expect: hand-me-down furniture, souvenirs, a kitchen full of rarely or never touched equipment, books, tools and a collection of things they never used but kept anyway.

With the family on a tight budget, Annie spent her time cleaning, polishing the old furniture (which she didn’t even like), gardening, cooking and running errands. She took precious care of her children, but passionately resented that she rarely had time to enjoy them. Meanwhile, Jeff was starting a company, working practically around the clock.

Shortly after Madeleine brought home the dreaded drawing, the Strains spent Christmas with Jeff’s family in Texas. Jeff and Annie went for a walk on the beach, and as they talked they realized, remembers Jeff, “that our focus was on our stuff. We were spending all of our time taking care of our stuff. And stuff doesn’t matter compared to our kids.” They wondered, “How can we change our lives drastically?”By the time that walk was over, they’d decided to sell almost everything they owned and rent a little place downtown. Soon they’d moved to an 850-square-foot apartment over Pike Place Market.

The Strains loved living downtown. They ate their way through the Market, rode the monorail to Seattle Center, biked to Myrtle Edwards Park. They were regulars at the Pacific Science Center and hopped on the carousel at Westlake Center. “We filled our life with interesting, enriching activities that we could do as a family together. It was exactly what we’d hoped it would be.”

Meanwhile, Jeff sold the company he’d struggled to build, and he and Annie finally had the resources to give their kids some space of their own. Annie searched for a condo downtown but couldn’t find anything affordable with enough room.

Because they felt they had no choice, the Strains bought a house in Madison Valley. They reassured each other that they would continue coming downtown, not accumulate “stuff.” But, admits Annie, “we fell right back into the same trap.” They realized they’d made a mistake.

In the meantime, the economy had tanked, and condo prices were falling. Their real-estate agent took them to see one in Pioneer Square that they’d actually seen three years earlier. It was two units badly combined and needed a lot of work. The new owner was selling it for less than she’d paid. They decided it was the opportunity they’d been waiting for.

Before they started on a design, Annie and Jeff each made a list of their top 10 requirements. Jeff wrote, “I want the space to be a reflection of how our family actually lives, and also of our hopes for our relationship with our children … bedrooms are for sleeping rather than living, children need a private space of their own but not a big space, the kitchen is the hub of the family, homework is a family activity, gaming is a bonding experience, and proximity strengthens relationships.”

Architect Paul Whitney designed exactly that. The condo is 2,400 square feet on two floors. The top floor is open, with the kitchen, living and dining rooms, and a wraparound balcony. Even the laundry opens to this space, which is also home to three guinea pigs, two cats and a gecko.

On the lower floor, each child has a 120-square-foot bedroom. There’s a small office, a bathroom for Madeleine and another for the boys. Annie and Jeff’s room opens to their bathroom, making it seeem much larger.

Annie describes Pioneer Square as “the most invigorating, the most intellectually stimulating, the most fun place to live in the whole city.” She’s noticed that the people who are drawn to live in the area are very independent-minded, “and they tend not to be influenced by buzz.” She loves that it has “this intense neighborhood scene, where everybody knows everybody.”

As for the homeless, mentally ill, addicted and other lost souls in the neighborhood, Jeff and Annie hope that exposing their children to such harsh realities will help teach them valuable lessons about everything from the devastation drugs and alcohol cause to the need to be an active society that takes better care of all its people.

And for every uncomfortable moment, there are so many more wonderful ones. Like the evening they heard music coming from Occidental Park and ran down to find a tango competition in full swing. Or the snowboard contest they stumbled across one afternoon, on a slope made from trucked-in ice.

“I do believe that the things that you remember in your life are moments like that,” Jeff says. “Living downtown, I get more of those moments and my kids get more of those moments.”

Leora Y. Bloom writes about beautiful homes in and around Seattle. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest staff photographer.