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C200: A Tale Of Two Downtown Neighborhoods

2011 March 22
by Jon Scholes

< Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood >

Today, two important downtown Seattle neighborhoods are currently assessing their futures – at least by way of land use rezones – which will have significant implications on their growth, vibrancy and livability in the years to come. Would it be easier on everyone if the neighborhoods of South Lake Union and Pioneer Square just simply traded places in Seattle? Would both neighborhoods be better for it twenty years from now?

Now, I recognize that this would likely have goofed up some of our history and the trajectory of our city’s economy, culture, etc. if these neighborhoods were in different places 100 + years ago, but stick with me here and imagine if today we could pack up the historic buildings of Pioneer Square and relocate them to the shores of Lake Union. And consider for a moment if we could sprinkle the dozens of global health and life sciences organizations that call SLU home today, around King Street and Union Stations – the largest transit hub west of Chicago – just south of the Downtown office core.

In Pioneer Square, familiar arguments are being made against new density in the neighborhood, for fear it would erode the historic integrity of the neighborhood (even though today the neighborhood has a retail vacancy rate twice that of Downtown). In South Lake Union, similar concerns regarding height have been raised, but for different reasons – the need to protect views of the Space Needle and preserve view corridors to the Lake are some of the reasons people have argued against significant new height.

Perhaps everyone’s interests would be better served if the two neighborhoods switched places and just maybe we’d wind up with better urban neighborhoods and come closer to meeting our local and regional goals for transit oriented development and density.

The low slung historic buildings of Pioneer Square moved a few miles north would protect views of the Space Needle and Lake Union. Moved south, the red hot global health and life sciences sector and the even hotter Amazon campus would have tremendous access to transit, something they lack today
in SLU. The friction between more density and historical preservation in the “new Pioneer Square” would be a thing of the past and more density around the transit stations in South Downtown would be cheered and embraced, for it would provide places for all those young lab workers and software engineers to live near their jobs. We’d finally maximize and leverage the hundreds of millions of dollars in public investment that has been made in transit infrastructure and service at King Street and Union Stations.

Yes, this suggestion absurd, but it raises the question of whether as a community we’re up to the task of redefining the conversations about growth in urban neighborhoods. To get it right for both neighborhoods, we need to broaden the conservation and consider the positive outcomes we are trying to achieve through neighborhood rezones and excite people around those visions. Consider that we spend thousands of dollars on consultants focused on the “impacts” of growth and density, but rarely the benefits. Perhaps we’re challenged here in Seattle since so much of our neighborhood building has been focused around single family zones and their business districts and we haven’t demonstrated success yet near major transit hubs and downtown.

But that shouldn’t hold us back. We need to adopt a “Yes We Can” attitude when it comes to creating great urban neighborhoods in Seattle. Right now we have a “We think we might be able to, but oh dear what about (fill in the blank),” which holds us back and slows us down.

We can’t move these neighborhoods, but we can take deliberate and informed steps to realize our values and goals when it comes to creating great urban neighborhoods in downtown, and we can start talking about the benefits of high quality urban neighborhoods, not just the perceived impacts.


Jon Scholes is the V.P. of Advocacy and Economic Development at the Downtown Seattle Association.