When Mary Bacarella was interviewing for the executive directorship of the Pike Place Market Public Development Authority, she received a bit of advice from a few Seattle City Council members: Stay away from closing Pike Place to cars.
“It’s the third rail,” she remembers them saying. “It was one of the first things they told me.”
In four years on the job, she’s done just that. The pandemic’s impact on Market businesses and concerns about the health of downtown have been her primary focus in recent years. The issue of vehicle traffic on the brick-lined street has simply not come up.
But now the conversation has come to her. The loneliness underpinning the pandemic, as well as the dangers of crowds, has spurred a rethinking of public space. Seattle residents stuck inside their homes sought refuge nearby, often on streets and in parking spaces once reserved for cars.
It’s a shift that City Councilmember Andrew Lewis wants to see extended, even as roadways and office buildings slowly refill. As the city’s cultural heart, Pike Place was a logical landing place for exploring which temporary changes might be made more permanent.
He’s careful to say he’s not prescribing changes, nor would he have the authority to do so in his position at City Hall. The conversation will be an inclusive one, he promised. Still, he said, nearly two years into a pandemic, people’s relationship to shared space has shifted and it’s worth examining how the city might adjust.
“You go to great cities all over the world that have big, public pedestrian malls in the center of them,” he said, pointing to western Europe as well as U.S. cities like Boulder, Colorado and Charlottesville, Virginia. “I do think that if you look at Pike Place Market, it sort of lends itself to that kind of place-making to imagine this space as a pedestrian thoroughfare.”
But while the pandemic created an opening for such a conversation, it’s also made Bacarella nervous about rocking the boat at a precarious moment for local businesses still trying to recover. Pike Place is a working market. How will deliveries be protected? What about orders through DoorDash or Uber Eats? In her mind, she’s a steward of a cultural hub that will live on well after she’s gone and she’s aware of the weight of making changes to a 114-year-old institution.
“Ultimately, at some point, I will be gone and they will be left,” she said of the vendors. “And it’s their livelihoods that I’m worried about.”
“A perennial issue”
Ask Google Maps for directions to the “original” Starbucks in Pike Place Market and it will oblige, leading drivers directly to its doorstep.
“It feels like it’s our way to haze tourists who accidentally drive down that street,” said Gordon Padelford, executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. “Because it’s not great as a driver. I mean, you’re likely to be stuck, inching your way through people, for half an hour.”
Even on a quiet Tuesday, drivers nudge their cars past pedestrians and bicycles, their heads swiveling, looking for street parking that mostly doesn’t exist.
Concerns about traffic at the Market dates nearly to its founding. “A number of persons interested say it is obvious that the opening of Pike Place as a thoroughfare would interfere with the operation of the farmers’ department,” reads a 1919 article in the Seattle Daily Times about the Market’s enlargement.
“This is indeed a perennial issue,” said Port of Seattle Commissioner Peter Steinbrueck, whose family was instrumental to the Market’s preservation 50 years ago.
Nearly 14 million people have come through the Market so far in 2021. At its entrance is a large sign instructing drivers to yield to pedestrians.
The public development authority that oversees Market operations closes the street on particularly crowded days during the summer and around the holidays. During the pandemic, the authority allowed vendors could set up street cafes.
Since 2004, there have been nearly 150 collisions reported on Pike Place, according to Seattle Department of Transportation data. Most were fender-benders or sideswiped parked cars. Thirty-six resulted in injuries, mostly to pedestrians, although none were reported as serious.
“It almost self-regulates,” said Steinbrueck. “The pedestrians dominate the cars.” For his part, Steinbrueck said he’s not fully on board with barring through traffic, but said the arguments for doing so are “compelling.”
For Padelford, making changes to vehicle access is less about safety concerns — although he does worry about worst-case scenarios — and more about what it means to live in a city.
“The feature and the benefit is that you get to be around exciting, lively areas that inspire you and bring meaning to your life,” he said. “You bump into your neighbors, you try new cuisine, you try a new class, you have your eyes opened to different ways of living.”
Polling suggests it would be a popular move. Eighty-one percent of Seattle voters support restricting traffic on “shopping streets” like Pike Place to loading and unloading only, according to a poll sponsored by Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and the Northwest Progressive Institute.
Sebastian Weingart and Makeila Lundy stood on Pine Street on a cloudy Tuesday in the Market, trying to photograph each other in front of the “Public Market” sign. But each time they set up a shot, a car would creep behind them.
“You’re trying to take pictures of the sign and then you’re almost getting hit by cars,” said Lundy, who’s from Bend, Oregon, but currently lives with Weingart in Dresden, Germany. “And then you have to move every two seconds. So it would be safer and better for every tourist trying to take a picture on the sign” if there were fewer cars.
A “working market”
Most of what Councilmember Lewis thinks about these days is homelessness. But he’s been hearing from constituents who want him to take on the question of permanently pedestrianizing streets. Seattle banned through traffic on 25 miles of streets during the pandemic, and Mayor Jenny Durkan has begun a process to establish at least one designated pedestrian zone in the city.
“If people are coming to you saying, ‘we want to have this conversation,’ I think it’s your role in a representative democracy to try to facilitate that discussion, to make sure people are heard and make sure the process gets an airing,” he said. “And that’s what we’re going to do.”
Bacarella believes vendors are open to discussion. But she knows they’re worried about what it could mean for their businesses specifically and the feel of the Market more generally. Its reputation as a “working market” is a fiercely protected one.
“I think that’s what people love about it, is that it’s not just a pretty walk or whatever,” she said. “It is a working market; you see the people unloading, loading, doing their work here.”
“I think it’s a double-edged sword,” said Murphie Mathers, who manages Jack’s Fish Spot, which was founded by her father. “I think that on an off day like this during the middle of the week, when there’s really no one here, [car access] presents a lot of opportunity for local customers to come down here and park. If it were up to me, I would regulate it in the middle of summer and on the weekends and just say, unless you’re a business dropping off stuff, the street’s closed. But I think that in the middle of the week it does encourage a lot of local customers to come down here and shop with us.”
Leila Rosas, owner of Oriental Mart, the mainstay Filipino restaurant tucked inside the Market, said she does worry about people who drive quickly down the street. For her, it’s a question of balancing the necessary parts of commerce — deliveries, online orders through DoorDash — with her desire to see the Market comfortable for visitors.
“It just depends on the situation,” she said.
Lewis knows this debate has come up before and gone nowhere. It’s stalled because the proposals have not been rolled out carefully and transparently, and that failure to hear everyone’s legitimate concerns, he said, has resulted in the prevailing of the status quo.
Making changes to the Market’s traffic flow will require Lewis to work with the city’s new traffic engineer, whom he’s still yet to meet. To make any alterations to the Market’s physical infrastructure would also require consultation with the Pike Place Market Historical Commission. Coordinator for the commission, Minh Chau Le, said there’s no record of its members ever taking a formal position on car traffic in the Market.
In a statement, Seattle Department of Transportation said the department has worked in recent months to make it easier for businesses to expand their operations into the street. On Pike Place specifically, spokesperson Mariam Ali said, the department looks forward to hearing more about Lewis’ discussions with the Market.
Even proponents of limiting traffic acknowledge challenges, namely around deliveries and first responders.
“But they all feel like very solvable issues and concerns,” Padelford said. “And then there’s a lot more benefit and opportunities that come through this than any sort of impacts.”
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