The Day Pike Place Market Almost Died (Again)

And the family that saved it (twice).

By James Ross Gardner May 20, 2011

PLANS TO DEMOLISH Pike Place Market had taunted its advocates for decades. In 1950 developers fought to raze it in favor of a 1,500-car parking garage. In 1963, they proposed a 3,000-vehicle carport. And in 1968: garage space enough for 4,000. That last proposal came with other radical changes, including 300,000 feet of office space and, according to some reports, a hockey arena.

Victor Steinbrueck, renowned architect and codesigner of the Space Needle, led a grassroots fight against the city and the developers, who eventually softened their proposal—though not by much. A newer plan titled, ominously, “Scheme 23” broke a proposed high-rise hotel into six smaller buildings (four would straddle the Viaduct), a car garage, and a newly refurbished plaza.

By 1971 the scheme (or variations of the scheme) had backing from Mayor Wes Uhlman, downtown retailers, the Chamber of Commerce, the Washington State Convention and Visitors Bureau, and both daily newspapers. Then the really bad news came: On May 15 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved $10.6 million to fund it. The Market as we know it was on its deathbed.

Steinbrueck’s group, Friends of the Market, rushed into action, and within 24 hours had filed a citizen’s initiative to establish a seven-acre historical district protecting Pike Place. “They were heavily outspent,” recalls Steinbrueck’s son, former city council member Peter Steinbrueck. Yet the Friends collected 25,478 voter signatures in just three weeks—10,000 more than they needed to get the Market Initiative on the ballot.

The city’s leaders had clearly under-estimated Seattle’s affection for Pike Place. On November 2, the Market initiative passed 76,369 to 53,264.

Today the park just north of the Market is named in honor of Victor Steinbrueck, who died in 1985. Thanks to his father’s hard-won victory 40 years ago, Peter says, Pike Place survives “as a kind of anachronism in a radically changed world.” He calls it “the genius loci of Seattle.”

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