Seattle’s Pioneer Square has tech, needs tribe

Photo by Katie Gregory, via Flickr

It’s happened a couple times now. I walk to my car from Zeitgeist Coffee or gaze up at the old brick at Occidental Park and think, “Why don’t I hang out in Pioneer Square more often?” Then I look around, realize I’m one of two or three stragglers out and about at 7:30 p.m., and remember.

Everybody went home — somewhere else.

With Zynga and now HTC joining companies like Isilon Systems, BlueNile, Yapta and Payscale there, Pioneer Square is proving it’s a place where geeks want to work. But until Seattle’s first neighborhood stays up past rush hour, it won’t rival Fremont, downtown and the booming South Lake Union as a place where geeks want to play.

Though it really, really should.

I mean, look at it. The benches. The cobblestones. The lampposts in fog. What better place to toast the future than on this rustic, uneven surface studded with relics of Seattle’s past and accidental tributes to its insecure present? When you get down to it, Pioneer Square is the most beautiful neighborhood in the city, precisely because it’s so mismatched. Homeless centers light neon signs. “Weirdo” murals work wonders. Even that hideous “sinking ship” parking garage has a certain charm.

Pioneer Square has the space. To have the vibe, it needs people, and not just 9 to 5. You could point to lots of reasons why they’re not turning out in droves, but since the legendary Elliott Bay Books made its headline-grabbing move to Capitol Hill last year, the area’s been drowning in feedback. The need for activity is a known issue neighborhood champions are working to fix, celebrating the area’s character, executing promising ideas and pointing out when they believe things are better than they seem.

Mónica Guzmán

One of the most vocal among them is resident Jen Kelly, who writes the New Pioneer Square blog (and is married to Banyan Branch Director of Operations and Finance Michael Kelly). The way she put it to me this week, whatever the diagnosis, the cure is a critical mass of people who get out into the neighborhood and feel like they have a stake in where it’s going.

The treatment is… tricky.

“Pioneer Square is every shade of gray you can imagine,” Kelly said. “You have to work within those shades of gray.”

Drawing new residents is key. Visitors don’t always see Pioneer Square as a place where people live, and current residents will tell you the rowdier ones act accordingly, especially after Seahawks games. (Sounders fans, I hear you’re better behaved).

Hope, for some, is coming in the form of 444 apartments going up on the north end of the CenturyLink stadium parking lot, a project that broke ground last week and is the first phase of a residence and office complex the county says is projected to generate $727 million in economic activity over the next decade. But that’s just a start.

Tech employees have a part, too, when they can play it. The neighborhood’s location, transit access, architecture and wealth of cheap lunch spots have served Pioneer Square workers well for years – during the workday (though higher parking rates hurt and faster Internet is promised). But as any networker will tell you, attachments form better at night. Not just with people, but places, too.

Thing is, whole swaths of the neighborhood shut down with the workday, leaving some great bars and restaurants off First Avenue (ever been to the Owl and Thistle?) as lit-up islands in the middle of lonely, sometimes spooky streets, or closing down an area altogether. After the popular (but WiFi dryCaffe Umbria closes at 6, there are few ways to take in the tucked-away romance of the plaza south of Occidental Park other than with a quick stroll. Unless, of course, it’s time for the once-a-month Art Walk, when the area truly comes alive.

As the neighborhood changes — if it changes — so will this dynamic. And on and on until, maybe, someday, Pioneer Square is as cool as it was meant to be.

Mónica Guzmán is a digital life columnist for GeekWire and a community strategist in startups and media. You can find her tweeting away at @moniguzman or reach her via email. Also see this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.

  • http://jetcitydigital.com Ron Schott

    Great piece, Monica! Thanks for stopping by the other day.

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      Thanks for inviting me to check out the office, @ronschott:disqus ! Spring Creek has a great view of that south-of-Occidental plaza (cool to hear their news, by the way). Are you a repeat customer at Umbria? Ever asked if they’ve considered staying open later?

      • http://twitter.com/questionsall Carl Setzer

        Ah, Umbria! Another fantastic shop. If I remember correctly, the owner is the on of the Torrefasione Italia founder (acquired by Starbucks).

  • Guest

    Cute article but longtime Seattle residents know this neighborhood has been going downhill for years and the city has done nothing to stop this trend. There are a lot of other crime/homeless related issues that need to be addressed in that area first before anything suggested in this article can come to fruition. With the recent budget cuts in the city it sounds like it will be at least a couple years until those issues are addressed. Ask many longtime local business owners and they will have some pretty big horror stories that they witness daily. 

    • http://twitter.com/TheNewP2 New Pioneer Square

      Actually, there are quite a few departments within the city that are devoted to this neighborhood and communicate with the businesses and residents frequently to help things to get better. We had a problem with parking, city council wrote a letter to the mayor, and we saw some changes. We have other city staff that meet with stakeholders to discuss street civility, the impact of the sports fans, a better police presence, etc, to work out better solutions for our neighborhood.

      Pioneer Square no doubt has some difficulties to work through, but they are the same “difficulties” that have been around for 10 years. As we (hopefully) climb out of a tough economy, and see developments like the North Lot and the Stadium Lofts materialize, not to mention the viaduct coming down and enhancing our connection to the waterfront, I know we’ll see incredible changes in our neighborhood. But change takes time — and those of us who are in the neighborhood take it as it is, and will appreciate every little thing that makes it better.

      • Guest

        I agree with you but I don’t think those changes are going to happen quickly enough to accommodate the boom that will occur somewhere in this city. I hope these changes do happen because it is has the potential to be what Monica is describing. I just don’t think we are even 2-3 years away from any meaningful change. I hope I am wrong. 

        The baby steps you described above are welcome changes but I just don’t see the change in Pioneer Square occurring as quickly as the ‘tech tribe’ Monica is describing will form. Changes in parking and sports fan behavior are all fine and dandy but the homelessness, crime, drug use, panhandling and public intoxication/deification that goes on there on a daily basis are going to take time to mitigate. I think the changes are realistically 5-10 years out but will slowly gravitate toward a positive direction. 

        • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

          You bring up a good point about thinking that the tech “tribe” will form somewhere, and that in a way, it’s a race. South Lake Union is nuts  right now. It’s sooooo hard to find a free seat for lunch on a weekday, and harder every day to find one at happy hour. South Lake Union’s had its own growing pains, but its transformation was fast in large part because it wasn’t cheap. On the street, it’s techifying at a breakneck pace. Can Pioneer Square keep up? Maybe not. But its got its own flavor, and maybe it’s a slow boil.

          • Johns

            Pioneer Square has history that SLU has pretty much paved over (and didn’t have as much of in the first place). If someone – anyone – could find funding to restore the waterfront streetcar, you’d have a much better tourism connection than you have right now as well. Agreed completely that homelessness/crime/drug use are all issues – I was through the neighborhood and saw 2 of the 3 – but that takes neighbors and businesses working with the city. New Pioneer Square’s efforts are to be applauded; having more people – and preferably some folks in the middle-income bracket – who are willing to invest the time in the neighborhood will make all the difference.

          • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

            Hope you’re right, @e9af93d0cf0a2fd560c1d3728ecf8176:disqus. Interesting point about SLU “paving over” its history. The old Cascade neighborhood barely got a word in. I guess that’s another reason I respect Pioneer Square, in all its imperfections. Where other neighborhoods remake themselves with the times, Pioneer Square still has pieces of itself from decades and even a century ago that stand tall and proud.

          • http://twitter.com/lukobe Benjamin Lukoff

            Even *over* a century ago! Pioneer Square is Seattle’s first neighborhood (hence its name) and will always have something the other neighborhoods lack.

    • http://twitter.com/c4mer0n Cameron Newland

      I’m with you 100%. Pioneer Square will never change/improve unless the shelters, soup kitchens, and free and subsidized housing move elsewhere. Even if that were to happen, the courthouse at 3rd and James will always be there to de-gentrify the neighborhood.

      There is no solution for Pioneer Square. It has been forgotten, and the trends indicate that new construction and Seattle retail core has been moving northward through downtown for decades.

      • http://twitter.com/lukobe Benjamin Lukoff

        Move where?

      • http://twitter.com/TheNewP2 New Pioneer Square

        Those of us actually working to improve Pioneer Square realize that the homeless shelters are never going anywhere (they all own down there) — and work on solutions that incorporate that aspect, not disparage it. The best day I had in our neighborhood was a Saturday during the Seattle Square market where you looked around the park and saw families, young couples, kids, tourists, all mixing in with the people who usually sit in the park (homeless or not).

        We know what the solutions are and are actively working on towards them — and for the first time in a long time, all the different stakeholders (sports, artists, retail, residents and human services) are working together towards that goal.

        • http://twitter.com/natetepp Nate Tepp

          In my history of how Seattle operates when this problem exists usually the “fix” is the affluent deciding a certain area is profitable and so they band together to just move the “problems” out of that area but not actually solve the root of the problems. Two neighborhoods that experienced similar changes are The Ave and Broadway. A lot of those people causing problems in those areas simply moved to Belltown and Pioneer Square. I fear that people now see an economic opportunity and will come in and “fix” the problem for themselves but not for the community as a whole. 

          “New Pioneer Square” I don’t want to insinuate I think that’s what’s going to happen with everyone working together in your area but that is just how it has gone down previously.

          If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. – John F. Kennedy 
           

  • http://josephsunga.com Joseph Sunga

    I remember working in Pioneer Square while interning for Shelfari.com back in the day. I definitely agree — they have a ton of cheap food spots especially since they’re super close to the International District. It’s definitely the living situation. Even in SLU, not many folks live here but it’s a hop, skip away from CapHill. I don’t know anyone who lives in the vicinity of Pioneer Square and that’s why you hardly see anyone there after 8pm unless it’s Friday/Saturday/Sunday.

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      I hear this term a lot when talking about how to “fix” Pioneer Square — “residential density.” The idea being that no matter what the business offerings or ambiance, a neighborhood gets the strongest foothold when people live in it, go out into it, invite others to do the same. It’s kind of a chicken-or-egg problem with businesses and employees: Should more people stay late so businesses serve them, or should businesses stay open later so more people hang out? But if more people actually move in, business hours will reflect that. So you have to ask, @josephsunga:disqus: Is Pioneer Square such a bad place to live?

      • http://josephsunga.com Joseph Sunga

        I’m not sure if it’s a bad place to live, but being born and raised here in Seattle — Pioneer Square doesn’t come first (or even top 3) for neighborhoods to live in my mind. I used to live in South Seattle, super far from everything in terms of the job market and when I decided to move closer — the neighborhoods that came to mind were: CapHill, Fremont, and Ballard.

        To me Pioneer Square is more of a destination neighborhood: Seattle Seahawks, Sounders, monthly Art Walks, comedy shows, etc.

        • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

          “Destination neighborhood.” Well said. …

  • http://twitter.com/questionsall Carl Setzer

    I’m not sold on the “horror”. You do need a certain level of comfort with, uh, myriad examples of the human condition.

    I lived just out of Pioneer Square through the 90s, and it’s much better now. I love it down there. I agree that there are so many great places down there (my bachelor’s party was at the Owl ‘n Thistle). When I worked at Starbucks, a bunch of us would head over to Salumi’s, Bakemans or Tats for lunch. And there was a group of us that would meet for a quick drink while waiting on our trains.

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      “You do need a certain level of comfort with, uh, myriad examples of the human condition.” I can see that. You might worry about safety, and that’s valid, but people are people. From one angle, at least – and I know this is a complex, sticky issue – it’s good to see places that visibly serve the homeless and disadvantaged in of the neighborhood.

  • http://twitter.com/SeattleMcCarthy Kevin McCarthy

    In 1997, Pioneer Square was the headquarters of the .com boom in the Seattle area, and was totally cool. I don’t think any more people lived there than do now.

    Since that time, half of the bars have closed down, and a bunch of iconic places to eat have closed as well. I don’t think there’s really any reason to stay there past 6PM.

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      Mobile food truck have flocked to South Lake Union. Couldn’t they come to Pioneer Square as well?

      • http://www.seattlefoodtruck.com Seattlefoodtruck

        They would probably have to be on private property since street parking is soooo limited. Maybe one of the nice lot owners would let them in! Seems like a good lunch location for a pod.

        • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

          Is it too much to ask for them to come for dinner?

      • johnhcook

        It will be interesting to see as Isilon, HTC and others build their presence in Pioneer Square how the neighborhood changes. I love the food truck idea. 

        Tear down the sunken ship parking garage and make it a permanent food truck station!!

        Love the column, Monica, but that parking structure has zero charm. Hate it. 

        • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

          Ha! I find it adorably fugly. For a food truck lot, I could see it go ;)

          • johnhcook

            Seattle history buffs can correct me if I am wrong, but I believe it was the destruction of the beautiful building which was located on that block which led to the preservation movement in Pioneer Square. I guess that’s the only blessing of that parking structure — the fact that all of the old brick buildings are standing because someone tore down that one.

          • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

            Yup. Jen pointed me to some of that history. It’s painfully spelled out in the Danny Westneat comment I linked to in that section…

          • http://twitter.com/lukobe Benjamin Lukoff

            I’d like to see the sinking ship garage stay precisely because of what it represents.

          • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

            I’m curious, @twitter-16944688:disqus: How would you define what it represents?

          • http://twitter.com/lukobe Benjamin Lukoff

            It represents a catalyst for the preservation movement. And, on a more mundane level, if you look at its design, it does resemble the old hotel in some of its details.

            To be honest, a usable building would probably be better there than a parking garage. But razing it entirely and turning it essentially into a parking lot? Not so sure about that.

  • http://twitter.com/billnordwall Bill Nordwall

    The new apartments, mixed-use buildings (and hopefully a supermarket) will go a long way towards making this happen in the next 3-5 years, but there are far more serious impediments to a healthy Pioneer Square that seem insurmountable.

    Sporting events
    For several hours before and after any sporting event at the Clink or Safeco Field, Pioneer Square is a sump for wasted sports fans from all over the Seattle metro area that overflow garbage cans, block sidewalks and alleys. More people living in the neighborhood isn’t going to make that go away.

    The bar scene is a mess
    With few exceptions, bars Pioneer Square are booze fueling stations. Between Tiki Bob’s, Cowgirls Inc, J & M and The Central Saloon, you have a binge-drinking, alley-pissing clusterfuck that would make any pop-collared Belltowner blush.

    Traffic/transit issues are going to get worse.
    WSDOT still hasn’t come up with a plan for what to do about the massive influx of car and bus traffic that will be coming straight through Pioneer Square after the viaduct disappears and the tunnel opens.

    I love working in Pioneer Square. In general, over the last 18 months or so, I’ve seen small-but-noteworthy changes for the good, and I have nothing but the highest hopes that the influx of permanent residents will effect real change. But I’m not holding my breath.

    • Johns

      Bill, real good point on the South Portal. Feet First’s EIS comments for the Viaduct were heavily oriented toward our concerns about the impact on pedestrians in the neighborhood being overwhelmed with vehicles. Frankly I worry about that more than I do the neighborhood’s current issues.

      I’m old enough to remember going out in Pioneer Square before ‘grunge’ was a marketing term. And I’ve certainly attended my share of M’s games. Chicago seems to deal with these issues around Wrigley – and NYC around Yankee Stadium, and Boston around Fenway – better than Seattle does. What are we missing?

      • http://twitter.com/billnordwall Bill Nordwall

        We’re missing NYC’s subway, Boston’s T and Chicago’s trains. Light rail in Seattle is a a good start, but it only serves a fraction of the city.

        • Johns

          Sure – and I don’t see us getting any of those cities’ rail footprint in the city limits anytime soon. That said, my point was more about the stadium issues and dealing with crowds at sporting events.

          • squared

            What, 71 bus lines and every form of transportation imaginable (Light Rail, Heavy Rail, Amtrak, Streetcar) aren’t enough for you?

          • http://twitter.com/questionsall Carl Setzer

            Squared, those transportation elements are focused at commuter times. Outside of morning/evening commutes, the offerings are much more limited. 

            FYI, the street car has been on hiatus for years. 

          • squared

            Sure, the Sounder has limited service outside of commute times, but the buses (both inside and outside of the tunnel) go strong all day, and above ground, late into the evening.  

            The streetcar I was referring to is the one scheduled to break ground early next year on a new line that will connect the neighborhood to both Capitol and First Hills.  Exciting stuff!

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      Good points, @billnordwall:disqus 

      “More people living in the neighborhood isn’t going to make that go away.”I wonder about that. Don’t have anything other than a hunch to go on (and knowledge that I’m not the only one with this hunch), but I think in myriad little ways getting a strong sense that people live right around where you are makes you more respectful of the space (how well that works when you’re teetering left and right, I can’t say). I think it’s true that it’s hard to get that sense in Pioneer Square, especially when the sport crowd makes up the bulk of people out and about time after time. So you might be right. In any case, sticky subject, and complicated. I don’t pretend to know the half of it.Transit could be trouble. No doubt. I went to Central Saloon once, a couple years ago. They had live band karaoke. I think I sang “Spiderwebs.” It was early. The vibe around there at night, compared to the day, is, well, night and day. It is the oldest bar in Seattle. Founded 1892. It’s been through some changes. Might be a chance it could go through some more.

      We’ll see what more residents bring…

    • http://twitter.com/pendrini 723V02 P3ND245 ︻╦╤─

      While attempting to list impediments, you’ve instead listed three of Pioneer Squares remaining assets. Sporting events draw people, and wether or not you like the style of people or the frequency of draw, these events do bring density and pedestrian traffic and that’s something to build on, not make “go away”. The bars, though perhaps not to your taste, do represent a viable business model – one that manages to keep Pioneer Square at least on the nightlife radar, brining some people to the neighborhood to bear witness to any new, perhaps more gentile, bar that might try its luck. And since when is sending drivers through a neighborhood in need of more people, more density, and more action, a bad thing? 

      • Johns

        Sending thousands of vehicles (not drivers) through a neighborhood that was designed before the automobile age is actually a very bad thing. The density and action that you want are people on the street; streets choked with vehicles generally aren’t the ones you want to hang out on.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=534202637 David Adams

      Ding ding ding we have a winner. I had a company in Pioneed Square for 5 year and lived there for 3. What finally precipitated the move was the sports fans. The parking, traffic  and the obnoxious fans during sporting events is just too much. It’s not just sometimes either, during baseball season it is all the time. When they decided to build the new stadiums where they are, after they killed the Kingdome, they doomed Pioneer Square. 

  • ctr

    I guess the one part I see that this article fails to mention is that this would compete against a certain other night activity that Pioneer Square is quite famous for. It is a large clubbing scene Thursday – Saturday. While the Monday – Wednesday the tech people and others could have fun in this part of the city, the mismatch between the clubbing 20 somethings and those that want to relax might be off putting to many during the most active time of the week.

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      Been to Trinity once or twice (including my bachelorette party), so yeah, know what you mean. You’d think there’d be room for a few different crowds though, right?

  • Anonymous

    Thx for the article Monica.  As someone who works at 419 Occidental Ave S, Suite 419 (come by and see us if you like), I agree that there is huge potential and we plan for staying for quite some time.  I will be watching, literally out my window, as they construct the new apartments and am hopeful that this will be the thing that brings a critical mass of people to the area to make it what it could be.  I hope to be starting my next 10 companies in Pioneer Square.

  • http://twitter.com/TomSchmitz Thomas M. Schmitz

    Pioneer Square was cool, then we had the earthquake and the violence.
    It’s never recovered. Before everything changed Pioneer Square had
    diversity in the form of who hung out. Remember the old Phoenix and all
    the awesome concerts? Remember the Catwalk and the goths? Now Pioneer Square after dark has a homogenous reputation for mainstream and uninteresting entertainment. At least that’s what people think. I love Seattle nightlife, but I haven’t seen anything that makes me want to go back.

  • http://andrewwoods.net/ Andrew Woods

    I love the Pioneer Square area, particularly the open brick area along Occidental between Cafe Umbria and the Grand Central cafe. The architecture of the buildings reminds me of the Northeastern US. I dream of creating and growing a company enough to have office space in pioneer square. I’m just not there yet. I often wish Seattle in general was a more metropolitan city, and part of that is more reliance on light rail and mass transit. Another part is staying open later. Too many businesses close early because they focus on the 9-5 crowd. I’d love to see that change.

    • Johns

      Oh, Andrew, you should have been here in the early ’90s :) I could run through downtown from Eastlake to 1st (to catch the last bus back to West Seattle) at 11:30 on any night of the week…and I might see a dozen people on the street. Even on a Friday night. It was DEAD. Do we have a ways to go yet? Of course we do. But to be downtown or anywhere in the central core at night these days…wow.

      • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

        I’ll admit. I can’t even visualize that ;)

  • http://www.sakenomi.us Johnnie

    Nice article, Monica!  We chose to locate our business, Sake Nomi (www.sakenomi.us), in Pioneer Square 4 years ago, in part because we love the historic feel of the neighborhood and its status as the heart of “old Seattle.”  It has certainly been a challenging time to establish a new business, but we’re hopeful that our investment in this unique neighborhood will be supported by the efforts of other like-minded entrepreneurs who believe in Pioneer Square’s potential to be a great “destination” (as well as residential) neighborhood.

    P.S.: Judging from our “regulars,” we’re probably the “geek-friendliest” bar in Seattle!

  • http://twitter.com/danad103 Dana D.

    I adore Pioneer square Moni…. thank you for spreading the love!

  • Guest

    If you have such a huge problem with the homeless population in PS, maybe you should get the city to open more mental health facilities/homeless shelters and stop turning these people back out on the streets. Or, god forbid, volunteer in one and see for yourself. Many of these “horror stories” are veterans with untreated psychological illnesses.

  • http://www.jumpstartinc.org John Dearborn

    Monica,

    As one who used to work there, as well as near your old digs in Dover, NH (as well as OH, NH, MA, CA, TX and Paris), I really enjoyed Pioneer Square. It had a great vibe and I loved the diversity and, of course the range of coffee options.

    Great article.

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      Thanks, John! When were you in Dover?

      • http://www.jumpstartinc.org John Dearborn

        Went to UNH (from NH originally) then worked in Dover and Portsmouth after college (many decades ago). Had a friend who owned a farm there – Pete Rousseau, on Dover Point Rd. Small world.

        • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

          And a world away from Seattle and Pioneer Square. It’s interesting. New England has historic buildings all over the place, many in shambles. In Seattle, architectural history is a little more precious and contained. It’s fascinating to me to see it all wrapped up in Pioneer Square…

  • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

    PS: There’s more discussion on Pioneer Square on Reddit: http://www.reddit.com/r/Seattle/comments/l29sa/pioneer_square_has_tech_needs_tribe_geekwire/

  • Veronica

    As Belltowners, my husband and I used to go to Pioneer Squere once or twice a week when Elliot Bay Bookstore was there. I think when they move they left a big whole in PS life. I still think that if I were Bezos or had his power and company money, I would open an Amazon brick and mortar store (sort of an Apple store) there. It would help the neighborhood, the city , and the company image.

  • http://twitter.com/andrewplayford andrewplayford

    I’m new to Seattle. When I first saw Pioneer square I thought of SOHO New York on a smaller scale. But the lofty buildings are awesome and perfect for tech! I really like this area!

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      Those buildings give such a cool mood to the place, @twitter-16395662:disqus 

  • http://www.globaltowncar.com/ Seattle Airport Transportation

    Excellent item, Monica! Thanks for avoiding by the other day.

  • http://www.globaltowncar.com/ Seattle Airport Transportation

    Thanks for the content Monica. As someone who performs at 419 Occidental Ave S, Package 419 come by and see us if you like I acknowledge that there is large prospective and we strategy for remaining for quite a while.