Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Seattle's Neglected Past

The picture above is of the Historic Hotel Seattle. Built in 1890, directly after the Great Fire, the triangular-shaped building stood in the heart of Pioneer Square until 1961. In that year the hotel, possibly the oldest building in Seattle, was razed for a parking garage in the name of Urban Renewal.

Now, I don't want to dwell in the past here, and I will acknowledge that, in fact, the demolition of the Hotel Seattle did have its benefits. It initiated the development of the Pioneer Square Historic District. It also, arguably, helped motivate Victor Stienbrueck and others to stand up against a simlar "urban renewal" of the Pike Place Market, now Seattle's biggest tourist attraction. In addition, the constructed parking lot is probably as close to architectural beauty as you can get with a resting place for cars. It even has a nickname, The Sinking Ship.

What I do want to quibble over is the poor state of Pioneer State today. In the past half-century Pioneer Square seems to have remained stagnant as the rest of Seattle has bustled on. It is as if the Historic designation of the area has utterly baffled developers and property owners, who would rather leave the land as is and look to less permanent neighborhood properties for their far flung ambitions (ie. Belltown, Cascade).

Take, for example, Occidental Park.

Looking West this is probably one of the most beautiful areas of the city. The ivy-infested brick building hints at a classic European city, while the native Totem Poles to the left prominently say Cascadia.

But facing East the picture is starkly contrasted. The noses of parked cars creep uncomfortably close to the pedestrian's space and the uninspired buildings have their backs turned, as if the street, rather than the Park, is a better place to attract clientele (and unfortunately this is quite possible).

Why has nobody had the adventurous desire to take advantage of this amazing spot, to seamlessly integrate the square with the rest of the space? Perhaps adding some arched brick structures while removing the cars, refacing shops and cafes to pour out onto an extended square, and renovating or adding loft apartments, with balconies peering down into the contained activity.

This same problem of neglected beautfy typifies most of the Historic Pioneer Square District. While appointment-oriented art galleries and game-day pubs have flourished with cheap rents, fine dining restaurants and luxury condos are rare to say the least. With a lack of solid pedestrian traffic the soft red-brick streets and plazas are only utilized by the homeless and others, too busy looking out for the law to enjoy the charm underfoot.

Perhaps the relative infancy of Seattle has given rise to a set of architects who have only learned to create something out of nothing. Perhaps these developers have never been taught the prudence of working within limits. Whatever the case may be, as we Seattlites continue to cry fowl against sprawl and the creation of new suburban communities it may help us to look back into the heart of our oldest neighborhood and challenge ourselves to provoke a true Urban Renewal.

1 comment:

Sabina Pade said...

Josh, the parking lot alongside Occidental Park is, if I'm not mistaken, a parcel known as 200 Occidental that was to be the site of a service barn for the waterfront trolley. In the most recent project I'm aware of, the barn would have been topped with residential.

Alaskan Way Viaduct re/de-construction, and concomitant re-thinking of stretcar routing ostensibly have been the impetus for shelving waterfront streetcar work.

Not impossible we could see the SLUT continued along Pine down to 1st Ave., then out S. Jackson to 23rd Ave., for example.

Streetcar aside, I love that ivy-clad elevation in your photo, and have always wondered why such cladding isn't more commonplace.