Pioneer Square


What makes an urban space "alive"?

What makes an urban space "alive"?

Originally posted May 6, 2013


Portland is the perfect mini-vacation. You can leave Seattle in the morning and by lunchtime be sitting at a sidewalk cafe soaking up sun and snacking on appetizers Portland's Pearl District, which is amazingly similar Seattle’s Pioneer Square. Both neighborhoods were originally developed in the 1860's as rough-and-tumble commercial areas, leveraging their access to rail and water in order to support booming lumber trades. Today, despite nearly identical looking buildings and proximity to their respective downtown cores, these two neighborhoods are drastically different.

Portland's Pearl District has been experiencing an urban renewal since the 1980’s and is thriving with brewpubs, art galleries, and every flavor of gastronomic delight. In stark contrast, Seattle's Pioneer Square is largely lifeless. As designers, builders, and contributors to our built environment, it bears asking: Why? What can we do, or avoid doing, to improve the design and quality of living in Seattle?


Sidewalk cafes with a buffering wall of trees.

Elevated sidewalk - part restaurant, part street, part boardwalk.

Shared streets and sidewalks.

Residential courtyards spill out onto wide sidewalks just feet from the street.

Residence, sidewalk, mass transit, parking - all 30 feet from the front door.

Individual residential courtyards - part private, part public.


No parking - no reason to park.

Wide street without transit or bike lanes. Wide sidewalk, but no sidewalk "places".

New building - significant corner - no homes.

Where is this "place"?

A large public square - made for loitering, not lingering.

Occidental Park - all the makings of a great public space - not a soul to be found.

The caption of each photo points out some of the obvious differences between the two neighborhoods, amounting to some fairly basic urban planning reasons why Pioneer Square lacks the "life" of the Pearl District. The real questions remain: What now? What can those of us in the design and building community do about it? 

A recent program of RadioLab is surprisingly relevant in addressing these questions. The episode, Emergence, explained the rise of sophisticated ant colony behavior. Here, the random actions of individual ants, at first insignificant and driven only by scent pheromones, can influence the next ant’s actions, which then influences the next, and so on. Soon, complexity and order form, unplanned, and without an initial blueprint. The chaos of thousands of individuals becomes a cohesive, tight, sustainable community.

The following story discussed concept of "sway" as it pertains to urban planning. Simply put, it's the idea "I was on my way here, when I found my self 'swayed' by that interesting place over there. Now my idea of what the community holds for me is twice as large, twice as vibrant." To some extent it's even further simplified to the notion of "build it and they will come." It happen in Ballard. In the Pike/Pine Corridor. These places have life and it happened over a surprisingly short span of years. 

And now there is emerging life in Pioneer Square. Dovetail currently has the privilege of working with several culinary visionaries including award winning local chef Matt Dillon, his partner Katherine Anderson (proprietor of Melrose Market's Marigold and Mint), and Russel Flint.

We are collaborating with the design and construction of Matt and Katherine's The London Plane and Little London Plane, which follow right on the heels of just opened Bar Sajor- together accounting for three of the four corners of Occidental Park. Additionally, we recently finished building Russ's Rainshadow Meats Squared, a full-fledged butcher shop just doors from the other three restaurants. That's four new places in Pioneer Square. Will be it be enough to revitalize the area? Much like that story about the ants, individual efforts in isolation are just the first delicious scents of success. It's a brave start by some innovative thinkers and top-notch talent and Dovetail is excited to be a part of these efforts.

We seem to be on the brink of new life in Pioneer Square! But it won't be easy. No matter how good they are, a few restaurants alone won't transform the area. Luckily, more development is on the way. So we turn to you, our colleagues and friends, looking for some advice and insight.

  • What else has to happen to bring Pioneer Square back to life?
  • What mistakes should we NOT make?
  • How do the stadiums and sporting events impact the area and its potential?
  • As an individual, what would draw you to Pioneer Square?
  • What would Pioneer Square need to be like for you to call it home?
  • If you are one of those contributing to the redevelopment, what gives you the courage to do so and the confidence that it will work?
  • What advice do you have for other business owners thinking about opening up Pioneer Square?
  • How would you like to see your efforts supported or expanded upon?

We would love to hear your opinions. Please share!