Cary Moon is the founder of the People's Waterfront Coalition, which advocates for the surface/transit/I-5 option to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Here, though, Moon branches out, explaining why increased heights in Pioneer Square should be capped at the new limits proposed by the city's Department of Planning and Development, rather than the taller limits supported by the downtown business community. For the opposing view, see yesterday's op/ed by Pioneer Square business owner Anne Fennessy and neighborhood resident and blogger Jen Kelly.

The city council should stick with the new height limits for Pioneer Square, as originally proposed in the Livable South Downtown Plan, and not cave to last-minute lobbying from the business community for extra height.

Here's why:

Because building scale, light and views, and urban design really do matter in Pioneer Square.

Pioneer Square is unlike any other neighborhood in Seattle, shaped by the physical design of the street and sidewalks, the building heights, the worn and weathered quality of materials, the natural light, the fine grain of retail facades, the mature trees, the underground. Pioneer Square was the first neighborhood in Seattle – and one of the first in the nation -- to receive a Historic District designation. We’re now the stewards of this extraordinary living, breathing treasure. It’s essential to tend it carefully.

Windows in historic Pioneer Square. Photo copyright Madge Bloom,

Because many smart people invested their expertise in a public process, analyzing all the possibilities, to develop the DPD recommendations.

Community stakeholders, preservation planners, and the city’s Department of Planning and Development have worked together since 2005 to figure out how to stimulate growth in a way that protects the integrity of the historic district and enhances the creative, authentic neighborhood character. The new incentives and height increases in the Livable South Downtown plan emerged from careful analysis of development feasibility and the economic effects of various approaches. The changes (new base heights of 100’ and an additional 20’ or more if developers provide certain amenities that benefit the neighborhood) give owners better clarity and additional flexibility, and encourage infill development. The collective wisdom of these citizens and organizations and the five-year process deserve respect, not an 11th-hour end run.

[pullquote]The collective wisdom of these citizens and organizations and the five-year process deserve respect, not an 11th-hour end run.[/pullquote]

Because Pioneer Square is just now blossoming with exactly the kind of local, homegrown, creative economy that cities crave.

All the other factors that make a neighborhood thrive are shifting in the right direction, finally. If you didn’t notice, Pioneer Square is (almost) hot. Independent internet and game development businesses are congregating there, attracted to the neighborhood's historic buildings and creative vibe Cool cafes and restaurants– including a serendipitous eruption of terrific sandwich shops -- are flourishing. At long last, the North Lot development is on its way, adding as many as 668 apartments – exactly the volume of density and 24/7 activity Pioneer Square needs. Renovation of the historic King Street Station is finally happening. The viaduct is coming down. The emerging plans for Pioneer Square’s presence at the new waterfront are bound to catalyze redevelopment like this place hasn’t seen for 100 years.

Pioneer Square is already starting to succeed based on its own inherent, authentic qualities. City policies should nurture these local investments in organic growth, aiming for what Liz Dunn calls a “slow steady turning of the dial toward higher intensity of uses, connections and access.”

Because keeping the National Register of Historic Places listing is essential to the neighborhood as a whole.

If buildings are pushed too high, that can put pressure on individual property owners to intentionally neglect historic buildings, to tear them down, agglomerate parcels, and sell them off for bigger projects. This could cause a loss of contributing buildings---buildings whose history and character are significant enough to contribute to the historic integrity of the district---overwhelming historic character with large-scale new development, and jeopardizing the neighborhood's National Register listing.

[pullquote]Losing National Register listing would be a serious mistake. Seattle would lose the ability to preserve the treasured qualities of this unique neighborhood.[/pullquote]

Losing National Register listing would be a serious mistake. It would mean that not only would owners of historic buildings have a harder time qualifying for federal historic tax credits—an important financial incentive for preservation—but also that Seattle would lose the ability to preserve the treasured qualities of this unique neighborhood. State historic preservation officer Allyson Brooks explained the risk of further height increases in a recent letter to the city council: “Heights of 130 feet in the district will bring about a definite change in the scale and feeling of streetscapes and spaces. [O]ver time, the cumulative effect of too many buildings at this scale may result in the district being in danger of losing its National Register status.”

Proponents of even taller height limits in Pioneer Square point to Portland’s Pearl District as a model. This neighborhood may be enviable, especially to those who measure a place by the steep cost of living or shopping there, but it’s not comparable to Pioneer Square. It didn’t have the same building stock, or cohesive scale, or established commitment to historic preservation. Only a small part is designated as historic; the rest lacks the necessary continuity and integrity for that designation.

Condos in Portland's Pearl District

Gastown in Vancouver may be a better model. It has a similarly consistent historic fabric, building age, scale, urban design, and history of struggles with poverty, homelessness, undeveloped potential, and public safety. All this has been turning around in the last decade, and it's now the sweetest spot in Vancouver. Much of the new-economy action—locavore restaurants, creative retail, speakeasies, tech businesses, design and architecture offices—is happening there, mixed in with the low-income housing and social services.  Alleys are getting cleaned up and used for front-door entrances. It's thriving.

Why? Partly because  other neighborhoods nearby got dense enough that this area became valuable again. Vancouver treasures its heritage neighborhoods, and the city works hard to protect the historic fabric. Heights in this neighborhood are limited to 75 feet, and many buildings have been or are being refurbished, redeveloped, and preserved—at their original five-to-seven-story heights.

It is wonderful to see Pioneer Square business owners and artists and residents and preservation organizations get things going again. Council should enact the DPD’s well-crafted recommendation for zoning changes, and get this question of height limits resolved quickly so developers can stop waiting around for a sweeter deal.