Old and In the Way

Is Pioneer Square preserving itself to death?

A small line extends from behind a red rope down First Avenue South. Beefy security guards check names on a guest list, listen to the pleas of women in glittery minidresses hoping to jump the line or dodge the cover charge, and pat down patrons, asking if they're carrying mace or knives. In the entryway, the silhouette of a scantily clad go-go dancer gyrates above.Welcome to Friday night at Aura. Pioneer Square's newest nightclub advertises itself with a topless woman seductively chewing a fingernail and toying with a pink hoop earring. Inside, hip-hop is pounding as the steadily growing crowd angles for positions at the neon bar where Hennessy cognac and Skyy vodka flow. From here, you can see the dancer, shaking her white Daisy Dukes on a platform above the main floor, a small chair set behind her for use as a prop.Three women enter the club, and immediately two men swoop in. One invites the trio to join him at the mellower downstairs bar, where the Las Vegas–inspired VIP "booths" are actually beds. The other offers to take them upstairs to the crowded lounge above the main room. The women huddle and begin negotiations. Two want to go to the crowded upstairs bar, while the third would prefer downstairs. Outvoted, she pouts a bit, but follows everyone up.An army of barbacks and bussers sweep the room constantly, looking for empty glasses. A beer hits the floor, leaving a puddle. Within minutes, a man with a mop darts into the crowd, sops up the mess, and disappears, causing only the tiniest distraction.Surveying all this from the balcony is owner Matthew Chu.Aura is packed, and that's no fluke: Chu claims to have turned a profit every month this year. But all those long nights are taking a toll on the 26-year-old entrepreneur, who is battling a cold.Chu moved to Seattle from New York five years ago. Until recently, he split his time between the Northwest, his native Taiwan, and China, where he managed his father's chain of English-language schools and bookstores. By age 23, he had money saved and the desire to open a large, upscale restaurant.Over the next two years, landlords laughed him out of their offices—until a friend who tends bar at Venom in Belltown pointed out that booze sales had weathered the recession, and suggested Chu open a nightclub instead."I don't drink alcohol, I don't dance very well, and I have a fiancée," Chu laughs. But he saw the potential in selling liquor to the masses, and he started getting better receptions from property managers once he reconsidered his intentions.Yet rather than settle in hotter areas like Belltown or Capitol Hill, Chu set his sights on Pioneer Square. "I love the history of Pioneer Square," he says. "That's why I came here."But since then, he's found himself battling neighborhood preservationists, despite having obtained all necessary permits from the city.When Chu opened Aura, he frosted the windows, with the name of the club spelled out in voids. After doing this, he got a notice from the Pioneer Square Preservation Board saying the windows didn't match the historic nature of the surrounding buildings, and that he needed to defrost them. The preservationists threatened to go to the state Liquor Control Board in the hopes of getting Chu's liquor license revoked—death to a business that takes in almost all its revenue from alcohol sales.When Chu went to a Preservation Board meeting to defend his windows, he says one woman told him she just didn't think the club looked like a place she would want to go. Chu describes this woman (whose name he doesn't recall) as older, maybe in her 50s, with grey hair. "She's not exactly who we're trying to get into the club," he says, stating the obvious.Chu has yet to alter his frosted windows. But thanks to his scrum with the Preservation Board, he vows he'll never open another business in the Square.For decades, the operating philosophy of Pioneer Square has been to preserve the look and feel of the neighborhood as it stood in the Gold Rush days. Businesses sport signs with old-fashioned fonts, and any new brickwork must match other buildings, many of which have stood for over a century.This m.o. has led to constant battles between developers and business owners and the immensely powerful Preservation Board. In the meantime, the Square has faltered. Scenes like the throng at Aura happen only on weekend nights. Most days and weeknights, only a handful of souls roam the streets. And the vacant feel is only getting worse: Longtime businesses like Elliott Bay Book Company and Olander Flowers recently moved out—after a spate of galleries exited the area around Occidental Park in 2006, leaving little more than a city information kiosk sitting alone on the bricks. This exodus has occurred while neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Belltown have been erecting condos and adding food, nightlife, and shops."Pioneer Square doesn't have much of an identity anymore, except being old," Chu says.Chu's fight over a seemingly minor aesthetic detail isn't unusual. On April 7, in a conference room below the main floor of City Hall, eight of the nine members of the Pioneer Square Preservation Board gather for their bimonthly meeting. Nearly every sign, awning, and new paint job has to go through the Board.An advertiser trying to get one of Hotmail's "New Busy" ads placed on a wall above the Hawk's Nest, a sports bar near Safeco Field, is back for a second attempt. He assures the Board that the orange color is toned down from the last time they saw the ad. Vice Chair Erin Doherty says it's still "a little edgy," but she and the rest of the Board are reassured by the textured background, which mutes the effect somewhat.Ultimately the committee decides to approve the sign, but only on the condition that the orange won't be any brighter than it is in the current version.Aaron Nauman isn't so lucky. He is attending the meeting on behalf of father-and-son developers Rob and Bob Steil. The Steils own Squire Properties, whose assets include a building across from Qwest Field on Occidental Avenue (Pioneer Square is bordered by Cherry Street to the north and Royal Brougham Way to the south). At the top of the building's north wall is a Washington Lottery billboard. The ability to use that space for massive advertisements was grandfathered in when the city designated Pioneer Square a "historic district" in 1970, and set up tight rules for what can and cannot go in the area. The Preservation Board is responsible for deciding whether those rules are being followed.Nauman says the Steils battle constantly with the Board over what they are allowed to put on the billboard. In this case, they want a sign with numbers that are switched by a machine as the lottery jackpot goes up, so they won't have to send a person up a ladder a couple of times a week. "It's dangerous," he tells the Board.But the Board is unmoved. The rules say no large electric signs. And while the billboard wouldn't include blinking lights or constantly moving parts, the changing numbers do require electricity. So the Board unanimously votes it down. Member Ryan Hester even goes so far as to call Nauman's proposal disrespectful of the intent of the Preservation Board back in the '70s, when the billboard was allowed in the first place. His face flushing, Nauman hurriedly leaves the meeting after the verdict is rendered.While getting past the Board isn't easy for anyone, there does seem to be a favored class of businesses. When James McClinton seeks to get an "Open" sign for a deli and grocery he plans to open called Pioneer Square Market, the board quickly approves it. "Our code says we're happy to have a market," says Board chair Lorne McConachie, an architect who specializes in restoring historic schools and who recently helped give Ravenna's Roosevelt High School a facelift. The other Board members laugh approvingly.Guy Godefroy, the entertainment director at Trinity, a nightclub at the corner of Yesler Way and Occidental Avenue, says he had an experience similar to Chu's. He asked the Board if Trinity could put a Chinese lantern over the sign outside the Asian-themed lounge that fills one section of the three-room club. The building, previously known as the Mt. Fuji Hotel, used to be a red-light hangout for gold rushers and loggers. So the Asian theme seemed a natural fit. But still, says Godefroy, "it took us two years to get the designs approved"—not because the Board demanded major changes, but merely because it took that long for the Board to evaluate the proposal.It's not just nightclub owners who say dealing with the Board can be a problem. Rob Brewster is the president of Conover Bond, a Spokane-based development company that recently remodeled the Arctic Hotel on the northern edge of the Square. Conover is completing renovations of the Pacific Commercial Building on the corner of Second Avenue South and South Main Street, and plans to bring in retail and office tenants. Brewster says that getting anything done in Pioneer Square is hampered by "overly aggressive historic-preservation efforts.""There's an absolute failure [of] the city to understand the cost of holding a piece of property while you go through a long and unnecessary process," he adds, noting that it can take years to get first the city's, then the Board's, approval for every small detail of your project."I think everybody treasures the stock of historic buildings, but beyond that you get a mix of opinions," says Gary Johnson, a planning advisor with the City Department of Planning and Development (DPD), who tries to convince businesses to move into struggling neighborhoods. He estimates that he's spent more than a decade trying to get Pioneer Square to become a humming, active neighborhood—first at the Department of Neighborhoods, and now at Planning and Development (DPD). "I think that Pioneer Square is one of the most, if not the most, complicated neighborhoods in the whole city."Board Vice Chair Doherty is an architect who led preservation efforts in historic neighborhoods in Ohio and New York before coming to Seattle in 1993. She joined the Preservation Board two years ago, and admits that the difficulty in getting things approved is very much by design. "Our charge is to encourage activity, new tenants, and growth," she says. "But at the same time, we have to protect the historic nature."Doherty says that the Board is hesitant, for instance, to approve bright new signs for businesses because "we're not convinced that's actually giving them more business." She adds that with technological advancements like iPhones, there are other ways to build a business. As for the especially difficult gauntlet nightclubs must run, she says her concern is preventing public drunkenness. Doherty's criticism of the clubs isn't unfounded: As last call approached on a recent Saturday night, a woman slumped against a concrete slab in an alley, fresh vomit on her sandals.Robert Weaver, a longtime Seattle preservationist who sits on the King County Landmarks Commission and formerly chaired the Seattle Landmarks Board, says that's the kind of scene the Preservation Board is supposed to prevent. "If we want to turn Pioneer Square into Belltown, well, that's going 180 degrees in the wrong direction."The Board certainly has been successful in protecting Pioneer Square's historic ambience. Even chains like Bank of America have old-fashioned signs above their doors. But the Board seems to have failed in the other aspect of its mission, as Doherty explains it: to encourage new tenants and growth.If you want to know where 40 years of preservation has gotten Pioneer Square, walk down to Occidental Park on a Thursday afternoon with Godefroy. Before taking his current job at Trinity, he spent more than a decade spinning records in the Square's nightlife scene. He points out the bocce-ball court, which sits empty, with no sign of recent use. A few men, appearing homeless, smoke cigarettes on the benches.Godefroy points out the empty storefronts and vast spaces that he says are just begging for vendors. "Look at this. It could be sick!", he says in exasperation, counterintuitively using the term in the positive sense, a la "bad."It wasn't always so desolate down in the Square. Sunny Speidel, president and CEO of the Underground Tour, founded by her father Bill, says that when buildings started going up in Pioneer Square in the mid-1800s, it wasn't long before it began drawing tourists and shoppers, stopping on their way to seek fortune by mining gold in the Klondike or cutting timber in the densely wooded Cascade foothills. But those who came though were not so much of the antique-rug-buying variety. "There were times when it was the center of the city, and there were times when it was the district of sin," says Sunny. [Note: This story has been changed. Sunny Speidel was incorrectly identified.] Dorothea Georgine Emile Ohben, aka Lou Graham, arrived in Seattle in 1888 and promptly began buying real estate, including a house at the corner of Third Avenue South and Washington Street, where she encouraged drinking, political discussions, and, upstairs, indulgence in carnal pleasures. Government officials received free service.In his 1967 book on Seattle's early history, Sons of the Profits, Bill Speidel devotes an entire chapter to Graham, calling her the "hostess with the mostest." According to Bill, more city business was conducted in her parlor than at City Hall.Then there were the drug dealers, Sunny says. One of the more notorious was a woman named Violet MacNeil, who ran a "doctor's office" where she prescribed patients laudanum—opium dissolved in alcohol. She sold it for $10. "And then they'd come back again and again," says Sunny.MacNeil also had a cure for those trying to kick the addiction with which she'd afflicted them—a cayenne enema. "It was pretty lively," Sunny quips. She adds that while the Square has ebbed and flowed over the years, it was still a vibrant hangout as late as the 1990s.That's how Godefroy remembers it. He grew up in Rainier Valley and started spinning at Pioneer Square nightclubs in 1993, when the neighborhood played a critical role in the burgeoning Seattle grunge scene. Soundgarden and Alice in Chains made appearances at the Central Saloon. And if they weren't to your taste, there was always live blues at the Fenix.One of the club owners Godefroy worked with "used to say you could stick your arm out the door and hit three people," he reminisces. Tourists took the waterfront trolley (now out of service) down to shop or visit galleries, and Pioneer Square had the biggest nightlife scene in the city."If you could get a liquor license, people would fall into [your bar]," he says. Two decades ago, Godefroy claims, the Square, packed with different kinds of music fans and arts patrons, was busier on a Monday than it is on a Saturday now.The easiest explanation for the demise of Pioneer Square is the Mardi Gras riots nine years ago. On Feb. 27, 2001, hundreds of people packed the Square's nightclubs for a massive party. Fights started breaking out among the crowd, but cops, skittish after accusations of police brutality during the World Trade Organization protests only 15 months earlier, hesitated to intervene.A teenager named Jerell Thomas punched a 20-year-old man named Kristopher Kime in the face. Kime fell, striking his head on the sidewalk, and died later that night. Thomas pleaded guilty to manslaughter. News reports contained various allegations of violence and sexual assault occurring throughout the Square that night. According to the Seattle PI, 41 people were arrested in the wake of the riots. [Note: This story incorrectly attributed The Seattle Times and has been changed.] Fate wasn't done with Pioneer Square. Just before 11 a.m. the next morning, the 6.8-magnitude Nisqually earthquake shook the city. Several buildings sustained minor damage and many businesses closed temporarily. Dutch Ned's and the Fenix Underground, partially owned by actor John Corbett, both closed their doors. Dutch Ned's owner Tina Bueche moved on to a clothing store. Onetime Fenix co-owner Anthony Frazier says it reopened for a time, then moved to what is now the Showbox SoDo, but never regained its former success.Godefroy says those things were all bad, but other forces were already in motion that made it nearly impossible for the Square to recover. "Twenty years ago, there wasn't Fremont or Capitol Hill," he says. Those neighborhoods had encouraged developers to build apartments and condos, and then started adding grocery stores and music venues. When the Square faltered in 2001, those neighborhoods were waiting with open arms.In 2002, the city hired an East Coast consultant named Donovan Rypkema, who specialized in reinvigorating historic districts, to try to help rebuild the Square. But various factions—nightclub owners, residents, landlords, and retailers—disagreed over how to rebrand and market the Square, and the effort was eventually dropped.Unlike Chu, who says that his current nightclub marks the beginning and end of his dealings in Pioneer Square, Godefroy is determined to help turn the neighborhood around. He says he's sympathetic to the Preservation Board, even if sometimes they are a pain in the ass.He points to the ugly "sinking ship" parking garage across the street from Trinity. It was once the site of the Occidental Hotel, which hosted a memorial service for James Garfield after his 1881 assassination. After being destroyed in the fire of 1889, it reopened as the Seattle Hotel, which was eventually converted into office space. In 1961, the building was razed and the garage built, and historic-minded Seattleites like Victor Steinbrueck were outraged. Within a decade, the city officially declared Pioneer Square a historic district, and created the Preservation Board to protect it."When you're dealing with a historical district, if you screw it up, the history's in the dump and you've got a Red Robin," Godefroy says.To help facilitate an accord between the old and the new, Godefroy joined a group of property owners and tenants, convened by Greg Nickels last fall, to try to figure out a way to turn the Square into a vibrant neighborhood a la Ballard or Fremont. Known as the Pioneer Square Revitalization Committee, they have huge challenges ahead, starting with agreeing on what a revitalized Square should look like.That's a source of endless frustration to Scott Surdyke, a project manager with Conover Bond and an active participant in the committee's meetings, though not a member himself. He blusters late into an interview with Seattle Weekly in a coffee shop downtown, then launches into a description of his recent experience checking up on a Conover project in Portland's Pearl District. He says he was stunned by the wide array of retailers, high-end restaurants, food trucks, and shoppers crowded into the streets of a neighborhood that shares many historic similarities to Pioneer Square. "And you're, like, why can't we do this?" he says.Surdyke is especially obsessed with a DPD proposal to bring food carts into Occidental Park and onto some of the larger sidewalks and pedestrian thoroughfares in the Square on a regular basis. Again, Surdyke points to Portland's success. People patronizing the city's food carts drop in on nearby shops wherever they are, he says, referring to a study conducted by the City of Portland showing that retailers in neighborhoods with food carts have seen an increase in sales. "It's so unbelievable the business opportunities that those food carts are creating," he gushes. (Proper restaurants in the Rose City, however, haven't been as keen on the presence of their mobile rivals, Oregon Business has noted.)But the food-cart plan has not been well-received by the Preservation Board, which will have to approve it. Doherty says she's concerned the carts will attract crowds of younger people who will leave behind trash, or in some cases, the carts themselves will clutter up Occidental Avenue and other sidewalks with unsightly chairs and condiment tables. And Person Gallery owner Catherine Person isn't convinced that carts won't detract from local businesses. She fears they will block street signs that would otherwise be visible to passersby. The Board is more receptive to allowing an occasional Saturday market in Occidental Park over the summer—but that's about where their tolerance seems to end.City planner Johnson, also trying to convince the Board to get behind the carts, is noticeably frustrated. He says other neighborhoods are more than happy to bring anything in that will help gin up business, but in the Square it's more difficult to get everyone to buy into an idea. "I think people are, unfortunately, seeing it as a threat," he says.Former Board member and longtime Square resident Sara-Jane Bellanca perhaps sums up the Board's feelings best. "I don't, certainly, see [food carts] in Pioneer Square at all," she says. "I think we should give this a lot of thought before we try to emulate a major metropolitan area."She doesn't clarify exactly what she believes constitutes a "major metropolitan area," but according to the Census Bureau, the Seattle metro area has 3.3 million people, compared with Portland's 2.2 million.While nightclub owners and developers like Conover's Brewster may find a common source of frustration in the Preservation Board, he says that nightclubs are also partially responsible for hindering a more successful Pioneer Square."I think we need to do a good job of cleaning up the frat-party nightlife and modify that into something classier," Brewster says.The differences of opinion among nightclub owners, developers, preservationists, and residents is part of what's stalled Pioneer Square development in the past, says consultant Rypkema. Last December, he returned with a presentation on how to save Pioneer Square. He starts with a slide showing the signs of Pioneer Square's demise: "For Lease," "Retail Space Available," "Going out of Business Sale.""Here's the problem, however," he tells the group in an online video of the meeting. "Those are images from December 2002, when I was here the last time."Rypkema says people need to stop worrying so much about unanimous agreement and start marketing the neighborhood as a whole. He adds that the Square needs to attract more residents and fill empty storefronts left behind by the likes of Elliott Bay Book Company. The planned "North Lot" project—a massive apartment and retail complex on part of what is now the parking lot outside Qwest Field—is being developed by Nitze-Stagen. With offices here and in New York, the company threw a party in March to celebrate getting one of the major permits required to begin. But builders were originally supposed to break ground in 2008; as of last summer, that date had been pushed to sometime this year. In the meantime, Rypkema told the revitalization committee they need to start filling existing space with businesses and people.The Seattle Times reported last month that Pioneer Square suffers a 24 percent commercial vacancy rate—higher than the 19 percent vacancy rate throughout downtown. The neighborhood has seen a boost from tech companies taking advantage of the low rents, but there is still a lot of unused real estate. Most of Smith Tower—briefly the tallest office building in the world outside New York City—is currently unoccupied.The vacant spaces do attract different, no-rent tenants: homeless men and women, many of whom have done a turn at the nearby King County Jail. There are also drug dealers. Last week, the Seattle Police Department arrested 19 people in connection with "Roll the Rock," a three-month investigation into crack-cocaine dealing in the Square. But once again, the Square is locked in a fight over what to do about it.Business owners were very supportive of City Council member Tim Burgess' ordinance against aggressive panhandling, which Mayor Mike McGinn vetoed last month. Megan Mary Olander says the transient population is the reason she is closing her flower shop, located for 28 years across the street from the former home of Elliott Bay Books. She's relocating to Capitol Hill, just as Elliott Bay recently did."It is hard to see poverty, mental illness, and addiction on a daily basis with only promises to help and change it for 28 years," Olander says. "We need a location with vibrancy, parking, [and] freedom from conflict, instead of the sports traffic, aggressive panhandling, and the perception of danger."Sentiments like Olander's are behind the Pioneer Square Community Association's fight to stop the newspaper Real Change (generally sold by low-income and homeless people) from relocating its offices from Belltown to the Square at the end of this month. "We feel it is imperative that service providers seek out other neighborhoods of Seattle that have not exceeded their 'fair share' of services," PSCA Executive Director Leslie Smith wrote in a March letter to the mayor.But Real Change executive director Tim Harris argues that many of his vendors are already in Pioneer Square, thanks to the shelters and low-income housing there. "It really comes down to class bias," he says. "They keep using the word 'perception.'" You know, perception, you can't do anything with that."Pioneer Square still comes alive on Friday and Saturday nights. The Black Eyed Peas picked Trinity to host a party after their appearance at the Tacoma Dome last month. Fans were lined up outside the door well past midnight hoping to get a glimpse of will.i.am or the rapper Ludacris, who is touring with the Peas.By the time the headliners showed up, the main room was so packed that every attendee had little choice but to jump up and down with the crowd as everyone sang along to the Peas' party anthem "I Got a Feeling." Burly security officers guarded the stairs to the VIP lounge behind the main room's DJ booth. Band members—minus Fergie, who didn't make an appearance—would periodically emerge to whip the crowd back into a frenzy.At last call, men and women in collared shirts and miniskirts streamed out of the other bars and clubs in the area. But come Sunday afternoon, the Square had returned to a state of near-empty quietude.Sunny Speidel says the first step to turning the Square around, as she sees it, is to end the hand-wringing. She echoes another suggestion of Rypkema's: Stop whining. "We need to stop thinking about 'saving' Pioneer Square," she says. "It needs support, but it doesn't need saving."The success of the Underground Tour is dependent on the historic nature of the Square, and Speidel is loath to start tearing buildings down. But she also believes that rather than fighting the nightclubs over their windows or worrying about the homeless population, people need to accept them as part of life in the Square and move on.Speidel adds that the one good thing about the departure of Elliott Bay Books and other long-term establishments is that it's forced people to realize that they need to start getting along with each other if Pioneer Square is ever to become a vibrant destination for more than just hip-hop stars' after-parties.Getting everyone on the same page won't be easy. The shop owners and architecture lovers will always be frustrated by nightclubs and their patrons, even if they come ready to spend copious amounts of cash in the neighborhood.But maybe there's some hope for accord. At a recent Revitalization Committee meeting, Godefroy, out of his normal jeans and hooded sweatshirt and into a button-down and slacks, received a warm reception to a new neighborhood map he presented. "Don't worry," he said, in case there were any preservationists in the room. "It looks historic."lonstot@seattleweekly.com

 
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