The City Council's debate over height and density in Pioneer Square has, unfortunately, divided historic preservationists and those who hope to see more people living, working and shopping in the neighborhood.
The city council is expected to vote next week to revise the existing zoning for Pioneer Square after receiving extensive input from neighborhood leaders, local businesses, residents and preservation advocates. The council could choose to allow developers to build up to 150 feet (15 stories) on the east edge of the district and up to 130 feet in the middle of the district—the same height that the Pioneer Square Preservation Board supported for a proposed building on a vacant parking lot on Occidental that also would have housed the waterfront trolley maintenance base. Or it could go with a much lower limit of 120 feet for lots that abut Occidental park and those located farther to the east..
We don’t have to look far to recognize that new development and preservation are not competing interests. In fact, new development on Pioneer Square’s vacant lots is exactly what we need to maintain and enhance the historic integrity of the neighborhood. The status quo zoning hasn't resulted in new housing on surface parking lots, nor has it led to significant investment in historic properties. That's impacting the vibrancy of the neighborhood, the bottom line for small retailers and ultimately the sustainability and health of the historic district.
Portland’s Pearl District is as an example of how new housing development can support the preservation of historic buildings and the integrity of a historic district.
Pearl District, Portland
While the entire Pearl District neighborhood is not a designated historic district like Pioneer Square, there are many historic buildings in the area. The NW 13th Avenue Historic District in Portland—located in the heart of the Pearl—was designated in 1987 on the National Register of Historic Places. All but two of the 31 buildings within the district are “contributing” buildings, meaning their history and character are deemed significant enough to contribute to the overall historic integrity of the district.
The Pioneer Square Historic District boundary is much broader—stretching from Fourth Avenue to Alaskan Way and Columbia Street to Safeco Field—and includes a significant number of non-contributing buildings as well as vacant lots and low-slung parking garages that neither contribute to the character nor to the integrity of the district.
Over the last two decades, the Pearl District has welcomed new residential density in the form of preserved and adapted historic buildings alongside new, tall developments—proving that development and preservation can work hand in hand. Today, the district is a thriving, vibrant urban neighborhood envied across the country.
The Casey, Pearl District
The Casey (pictured above), located at 12th and Everett, is a 17-story LEED Platinum condo building situated on a quarter block immediately adjacent to the NW 13h Avenue Historic District. It’s an example of why height matters to the economic viability of infill development. It's hard for development to pencil out on this kind of small, quarter-block urban property if the maximum height is significantly restricted, as it is today in Pioneer Square.
The new residential buildings in the Pearl mean more residents are on the streets and in the stores, supporting retailers and creating a sense of vibrancy. New residents also equate to a stronger, healthier neighborhood that can support small business and retail and increase the likelihood of additional reinvestment in the existing historic buildings. In 2010, the retail vacancy rate in NW Portland/Pearl District in 2010 was 3.4 percent. In Pioneer Square, it was nearly 20 percent.
Tall buildings in Pioneer Square are part of our history. The Smith Tower stretches over 500 feet and was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River for fifty years after it was built. The clock tower on King Street Station tops out at 245 feet. The City Council approved the North Lot development project in 2009, which will include new residential buildings that reach heights of 240 feet.
We believe preservationists and residents want the same outcome: protected, quality historic buildings, fewer vacant lots and deteriorating structures, and more people in the Square.
The City Council should embrace the lessons from the Paearl District and adopt the modest height increases for Pioneer Square that are currently before them. More market rate housing in Pioneer Square will strengthen the neighborhood and preserve its historic character.
Anne Fennessy is a resident and business owner in Pioneer Square and a former member of the City of Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board. Jen Kelly is a resident of Pioneer Square and founder of The New Pioneer Square Blog.