It’s a big project with a lot of pressure, but Ben Franz-Knight is determined to help Pike Place Market grow with his city. The $74 million MarketFront expansion opens June 29.

Share story

The most important thing to know about Ben Franz-Knight is who he knows: Seemingly everyone connected to the Pike Place Market.

On a recent walk through the Seattle landmark, Franz-Knight was on a first-name basis with merchants, construction workers. He nodded at buskers and sanitation workers and visitors alike.

He’d better. As the executive director of the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority (PDA), it is his job to stay connected.

But the last few years have been about connecting the Market to the city’s new waterfront — and the future — by overseeing the conception and construction of the new MarketFront expansion, which will have its opening June 29.

“It’s one of the reasons I wanted this job,” Franz-Knight, 43, said recently. “I saw the waterfront coming. So instead of protecting our borders, I thought, ‘Hey, the world is going to change around us. Let’s be a part of it.’ ”

The project started in 2011, when the PDA spent $500,000 for a conceptual design on the parcel of land that was first developed in the 1920s and, after a fire, was turned into a parking lot in 1974.

The city transferred ownership of the land to the PDA and Franz-Knight got to work on what will be a $74 million expansion.

One recent afternoon, Franz-Knight donned a hard hat for a tour of the MarketFront construction site, across Western Avenue.

The project boasts 30,000 square feet of open public space, including a plaza and viewing deck that captures the Olympics, Mount Rainier and Puget Sound. (The public has until March 1 to purchase personalized “Market Charms” that will be installed in the railing around the deck; or bronze pig “hoofprints” that will line the walkways.

The jewel just may be the main commercial hall, where four new artisan vendors (Old Stove Brewing Co., Jarr & Co., Honest Biscuits and indi chocolate) will produce, on-site, in 12,000 square feet of production space underneath a soaring roof made of heavy timber construction. Old Stove will even have a mobile canning line running.

“When the sun is setting, the whole hall gets this glow to it,” Franz-Knight said, a little dreamily.

One building contains 40 units for low-income seniors, with seven live/work spaces for artists below. Next door, a neighborhood center will offer social-service resources in a partnership with the Chief Sealth Club.

And there will be 300 underground parking spaces and room for 33 bikes.

“It is just as weird and has exciting little moments that you don’t expect,” Franz-Knight said of the project. “Just like the Market.”

Franz-Knight, 43, grew up in Pullman and got his bachelor of fine-arts degree at the University of Washington, where he got his first taste of management at the student bike shop in The Hub.

“I was managing people and a small business, but also was part of student government,” he said. “That was good training.”

Back then, he looked at the Pike Place Market as “an exotic destination I could get to with my UPass.” The diversity, the activity, the smells.

After college, he moved to Los Angeles with his wife, then a costume designer and historian. He got a job as an administrator with the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corp., focused on preserving the seaside landmark.

“The Pier was the perfect place to learn and prepare for the Market,” he said.

Like Pike Place, the pier not only draws tourists, it is where a lot of city politics take place. Events and news conferences looking for a backdrop, and actions like restricting public smoking — something first enacted at the Pier.

“It helped me understand the dynamic of the Market really well,” Franz-Knight said. “I was accountable for the city’s cultural touchstone.”

Not only did he learn to negotiate, he developed a “high capacity for listening and a patience for the process.”

Franz-Knight returned to Seattle in 2010 to take the lead at Pike Place Market. (His wife, Kira, is a teacher at Ballard High School.)

The average response to his appointment? “Congratulations. And my condolences.”

Indeed, at Pike Place, Franz-Knight oversees 400 businesses, 500 residents, 90 farmers, 200 fixed leases and 200 artists.

“We serve as a buffer between small, independent businesses and City Hall,” he said. That means keeping the market safe and secure while allowing for creativity.

Six years ago, Franz-Knight managed a major renovation at Pike Place, including seismic, plumbing and electrical improvements that honored historical requirements.

The new MarketFront had to meet those same requirements, and meet consensus — from the slope of the walkways to the color of the paint on the floors of the senior units.

“You have to make sure that you strike that balance, that you move into the future and pay attention to the core mission,” Franz-Knight said as we walked back to his office. “You have to constantly be a student of history and look at the archives and past decisions.”

As if on cue, one of the construction workers called to him from across the street.

“Hey, Ben, you want to keep this?” he asked, holding up a light fixture.

Franz-Knight recognized it from the former Joe DeSimone Bridge, which once connected the Market to the garage.

“Keep it!” he called back.

A little bit of history — a familiar face — that Franz-Knight wants to see again.