Bounded by Cherry Street, 2nd Avenue, Alaskan Way, and South King Street
Contributed by Project for Public Spaces
This place is ideally located, attractive and uniquely Seattle - but a lack of activities makes it more a thoroughfare than a true place.
Seattle's downtown is on the verge of redefining itself. It simply needs a well-placed push to break out of the self-imposed morass -- bought on by the fear of undesirables and a reluctance to embrace its ethnic diversity -- it has stuck in for decades. There are so many breakout opportunities and Occidental Square in the Pioneer Square District is one of the most important. The state of this square has kept the whole district from becoming a great destination. We would venture to say that property values are now at 60% of what they would be with a thriving square to give energy and stature to this critical historic area. PPS has recently undertaken two community planning efforts for Occidental Square, giving momentum to the reclamation of this vitally important place.
Although its location is central, this park does not live up to its potential as an important public space in Seattle. Its main function is as a short-cut, rather than being a place in its own right. Why isn't anyone staying? Why is this place less successful than it could be?
What would make this space better? PPS did an analysis of the use of the square, first in 1991, and then again in 2004, and made several recommendations:
What Puts Occidental Square in the Hall of Shame?
Pioneer Square is easy to get to - on foot, by transit and it is clearly visible when approaching it or passing by. Several Totems and a bandshell make it obvious that something is there.
Less successful in this category - the square has a dark and cold feeling, few places to sit and many of the people who are there seem to be hanging out - others are just passing through. We talked to some women walking though the space, who noted that the cobblestone surface is difficult to walk on, particularly for those who are cutting diagonally across the space.
This is the main problem. There is very little to do in the square itself and the buildings along its edges seem to have little relationship to the square. There is an outdoor cafe, a few shops on the square, and a coffee shop and other businesses across the street, but they seem to have little connection to it.
This seems to be a sociable space for a group of people hanging out waiting for meals at the nearby soup kitchen, but there are few others.
History & Background
Seattle's first settlements were built in 1851 in a clearing surrounded by dense forest, part of which is modern day Pioneer Square. As Seattle's oldest neighborhood and commercial district, the Square traces its origins to the saw mills on Mill Street - or "Skid Road," where logs cleared from surrounding forest were cut and moved to the bay. With the influx of gold carried in the pockets of returning prospectors during the Klondike Goldrush of 1897, Pioneer Square rose to become the center of banking on the West Coast.
The district's success was also attributed to a diversity of trade and commerce, as well as an infamous rougher side of saloons and brothels patronized by the pioneers and prospectors. Leveled by the 1889 fire, the district was rebuilt over the next two decades with a number of architecturally significant buildings.
The Square faltered after WWI when economic shifts caused commercial trade to move several blocks north and "Skid Road," took on a new meaning. By the late '60s, the abandoned area was threatened with an urban renewal project that would turn many historic buildings into parking garages. A fight ensued to raise public awareness and in 1970, the city of Seattle designated a 52-acre area to the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1978, the boundaries of the district were expanded to 88 acres, and an additional three acres along the district's southwest end were added in 1987. Today, Pioneer Square survives as one of the nation's best-preserved Victorian Era downtown districts and as a commercial and residential neighborhood.