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There's a Whole World Underground

Now that Pioneer Square is up for "renewal" of the Pacific Place variety, it's time to open and restore the space under the sidewalks.

LATE ON A FRIDAY NIGHT IN SEPTEMBER, the noise on First Avenue in Pioneer Square is huge. White, collegiate partygoers throng the sidewalks, moving from bar to bar, having paid the "joint cover" that allows admission to seven clubs for $10. The street itself, except for its median of trees, looks like a scene from American Graffiti, packed with lowered trucks full of kids from Renton and Mountlake Terrace and sports cars thumping their woofers. Catcalls fly from car windows, but they are barely audible above the music; live bands play right next to plate-glass windows and wide-open doors.

In the lot next to the House of India on Cherry, a young couple humps on the hood of a parked car. She's wearing only a bra and skirt, which is up around her waist. His khakis are open and unbelted and starting to creep down his hips. People walk by, turning to stare as they pass. Two young men, amused at the display, stop and playfully pretend to try and cut in, then move off, doubled-over laughing. After a minute or so, the woman drunkenly sways and reaches back to put on the T-shirt she has been using as a pillow. He zips and buckles up and kisses her goodnight before she drives away.

As the bars let out for the night, hundreds of drunken suburbanites are milling in Pioneer Place Park at First and Yesler, hailing cabs, and occasionally getting surly with one another. The cobblestone plaza serves as a temporary waiting room for partiers who are not quite ready for the night to end.

But when all the people who don't live anywhere near here have finally gone home, Pioneer Square is quiet. A man on a bench under the elegant, steel-and-glass pergola sleeps upright, shrouded in blankets. One notices, suddenly, how gorgeous the architecture is. The pergola's white globe lamps bathe the scene in turn-of-the-century light. The great arched red-stone doorway of the Goethe Institute, that strange portal, opens onto the quietest part of the night in what could be one of the great neighborhoods of the world. The scale of the buildings, the tall trees, the smell and sound of the bay make Pioneer Square every bit as humane and romantic as a neighborhood, say, in Paris or Barcelona.

Quite obviously, Pioneer Square, Seattle's oldest neighborhood, is more than a party room for suburbanites and sports fans. It's historically significant -- for one, it hosts the country's smallest National Park, a storefront museum on Main Street that doubles as the headquarters for this federally protected National Historic District. Also, even though many of the neighborhood's original ornate façades were removed a long time ago, it's still regarded as having the largest and best-preserved collection of late Romanesque buildings in the country.

Pioneer Square is home to around 1,000 businesses (triple the number of a decade ago) and close to 1,500 people. The number of residents hasn't changed much in the last 10 years, as the loss of semi-legal "loft" housing has been balanced with a correspondingly small number of new apartments and condos. But the city expects the number of people living in downtown Seattle to increase 120 percent by the year 2010, and many of those people will certainly move to Pioneer Square. The neighborhood also serves as home to many homeless people, with over 1,000 shelter beds and 17 social-service providers, from the huge county-run Downtown Emergency Services Center on Third Avenue, to private shelters like the Union Gospel Mission and the Bread of Life, which offer religious teachings to their patrons.

With so many interests putting a claim on the heart of downtown, and with the booming economy making it all but impossible to avoid a dramatic change of one sort or another, tensions in Pioneer Square are rising. Business owners, artists, residents, and advocates for the homeless are all vying to direct the area's future. The matter has become especially urgent because developers and landowners are already carrying out their plans. William Justen, Director of Samis Land Company, the neighborhood's largest landholder, said a year ago in the Puget Sound Business Journal that "the next twenty-four months will be the era of Pioneer Square. It will go through a major transition." He continued by saying that he wishes to turn one part of the neighborhood -- the corner of Second and James -- into a retail plaza to rival Pacific Place.

Tina Bueche, who owns and operates Dutch Ned's Cafe on First Avenue, one of the big weekend party places, says disparagingly that it looks like developers are going to do everything in their power to "clean the place up." Similar sentiments were heard at a rally in early February, where artists and city council members Nick Licata and Judy Nicastro lamented the loss of the Jem Studios, 90 units of housing in the Washington Shoe Building. The building, one of the 14 that Samis owns in Pioneer Square, is scheduled for conversion to offices this May. "This is an emergency," said Nicastro at the rally.

But there may be a way, for the price of a relatively small investment by the city, for everyone to get what they want -- for Pioneer Square to remain a party place, a neighborhood, and a retail center. There are 20 blocks of single-story loft space close by, unwanted and unoccupied, much of it in no worse shape than the Shoe Building was 25 years before it became such a valuable commodity. These 20 blocks once held a thriving business district of bars, stores, banks, and hotels, and were accessible by an abandoned series of underground walkways before being condemned by the city under the flimsiest of pretenses. It's not Georgetown. It's not SoDo, where Eddie Muarer, the Jem Studios leaseholder, is hoping to relocate the Shoe Building tenants. It's in Pioneer Square. One story down. Underground.

Downstairs

Bill Speidel's Underground Tours -- run since Speidel's death in 1987 by his daughter, Sunny -- are typically seen by Seattleites only when they're showing visitors around town. The tour (which explains the building of the Underground, the great Seattle fire, the rowdy prosperity of the Alaskan Gold Rush, and even a 1969 episode of the horror-detective show Kolchak: The Night Stalker, where the sleuth pursues a vampire through the Underground's old storefronts) provides a detailed overview of Seattle's past.

Seattle in 1889 was a mess. The sewers ran backward at high tide, half the business district had burned down, and a nine-year-old boy drowned in a pothole on Commercial Street (now First Avenue). The city decided to solve many of its problems by raising the streets a full story -- 20 feet in some places -- above their original level. Retaining walls were built along the curbs, and the gaps (soon to be roads) were filled with ballast stones, lumber scraps, dead horses, and sand. Over the course of a year -- during which a handful of people drove off the elevated roads to their deaths in what the newspapers called "involuntary suicides" -- the merchants in Pioneer Square raised their sidewalks to the new street level. But they didn't stop operating the businesses on the original first floors of their buildings. Instead, they installed skylights and fancy wooden sidewalks in what is now known as the Underground.

In fact, business thrived in the Underground until 1907, when the city closed the whole maze due to preemptive and exaggerated worries about bubonic plague. After its condemnation, the Underground became a venue for criminal activity -- opium dens, gambling halls, and speakeasies. Seattle's underworld demimonde faded as World War II rejuvenated a society demoralized and battered by the Great Depression. Even crime abandoned the Underground at that point. And that's pretty much how it's stood ever since.

What's down there now looks like a giant basement: cement walls, cobwebs, rooms that link to other rooms that link to other rooms. But there are also the hand-milled stones in the streetwalls, the occasional sign or cracked storefront window from the old days. Those are the details that attracted Bill Speidel to the place; a desire to preserve them made him start up the historical tours. Back in the '60s, Seattle was on an "urban renewal" kick -- a binge of tearing things down, scheduled to include Pioneer Square. The city had already demolished the Seattle Hotel (now the "sinking ship" parking garage on the triangular block where Yesler and James meet) when Speidel took up the cause. In 1971, the area was declared a National Historic District -- you could say that Speidel saved Pioneer Square.

Sunny Speidel shares her father's love for the neighborhood. She says it's one of the last really funky parts of the city. She describes the intertribal healing ceremony performed by local shamans in the area last year; the ceremony was designed to make peace with the ghosts of the village of Duwamps, which stood here when Seattle was founded in the mid 1800s. She mentions Lesbian Night at the South End Steam Baths the year before, reported as a qualified success, but fun anyway. I remind her that the baths are gone now, part of the Terry-Denny development.

"The homeless and the bars down here protected us for so long from the kind of hideous development that went on in the '80s," Speidel says, acknowledging that the area is moving into another era. "We aren't the suburbs, and we can't offer that... cultural safety. I think people moving down here now know that. The variety and the good chaos down here are critical. And I think it's attractive."

Out her office window, we have been watching a frustrated BMW driver trying to enter an alley off Yesler -- the entrance is blocked by an illegally parked delivery truck. "Look at that," Speidel says, pointing. "I mean, people who want that suburban lifestyle, to drive back to their condo garage, now -- they're not going to want to deal with that. They'll choose to live elsewhere."

Rumors of the Big Wave

The thing is, people who want the suburban lifestyle are looking toward Pioneer Square, which is undergoing the most sudden, comprehensive patch of change since the neighborhood burned to the ground and was rebuilt from scratch in 1889. The transformation is largely due to Samis Land Company.

Samis is the descendant company of Sam Israel, the absentee landlord who presided over his neighborhood land empire with benign neglect for the second half of the last century -- a boon to artists until his death in 1994. The legal wrangling over his holdings ended two years ago, and now each of Samis' 14 buildings are eligible for redevelopment. Already, the Butler Block Building (on the northwest corner of Second and James -- the former home of Ruby Montana's Pinto Pony, which celebrated kitsch Americana 20 years before it was cool) is being renovated and expanded upward into a 460-stall parking garage. In May, the Terry-Denny Building on First Avenue between Yesler and Washington (whose lobby used to house the Colourbox nightclub) will be completely renovated, becoming 40 market-rate apartments. And then there is the Washington Shoe Building on Jackson and Occidental, which is scheduled for renovation this summer. The coffee shop, antique store, kite shop, and gallery that currently occupy the ground floor will be forced to move or disappear.

Of course, in a historic district, there are rules about construction and renovation. Buildings and storefronts must harmonize visually with the other buildings in the area. Metro's new King Street Center at 201 Jackson suggests the flavor that new construction will likely have (Samis aside, talk of new projects abounds, including a proposed housing development in the north Kingdome parking lot and a more vague project that could land on the eastern edge of Occidental Park). King Street Center is upscale but tasteful, in the tenor of the 19th-century architecture of its surroundings.

Samis also owns the U.S. Rubber Building at 319 Third Avenue South. Renovations aren't scheduled yet for this hulking hive of lofts, but its residents must be nervous: They are hanging on by the same sketchy arrangement Samis had with the tenants of the Shoe Building. Residents of these "work-live" spaces are in legal limbo -- their homes are legal only as workspace under city code, but the Seattle Fire Department won't investigate unless there's been a complaint (the city doesn't like to crack down on these spaces because it doesn't want to seem unsympathetic to artists, particularly when cheap space is rapidly disappearing). There are no low-income apartments or studios opening in the area anytime soon.

Samis' Justen, who used to head the city's Department of Construction and Land Use, refused to comment for this article. Other executives at Samis did not return The Stranger's phone calls. Justen has made his plans for the area clear, though. In the February 8, 1999 issue of the Puget Sound Business Journal, Justen explained that he wants to build a retail complex anchored by the seven Samis properties surrounding the intersection of Second and James (where Samis headquarters is located), which would "rival Pacific Place." Justen is quoted as saying, "I want to master-plan the retail. I want to market the Second and James neighborhood, just market each building." In the same article, Justen reveals that he plans to move into the neighborhood as a demonstration of his commitment to "revitalizing" Pioneer Square. Rumors abound among residents as to where the new king of the neighborhood will reside: The leading theory is that Justen will have a penthouse built for himself atop the Shoe Building, which, after its conversion to offices, will otherwise be non-residential.

East Village West

Pioneer Square wants to be a neighborhood, but it's got troubles. It feels more like a cross between Bourbon Street in New Orleans and one of those big gas-and-food plazas on the interstates back east. Frankly, it's missing a center, businesses to make it feel like home: a real grocery store, a hardware store, an old cafe. Instead, it's saddled with stores selling "40s," or worse yet, tourist fare -- rugs, T-shirts, and toys. Pioneer Square has been in decline as a neighborhood ever since the Great Depression. A truly vital Pioneer Square exists almost beyond living memory.

I call up activist and tavern keeper Tina Bueche, and arrange to sit down with her at Dutch Ned's ("Dutch Ned" was a "fill jockey," who for the first 30 years of the city's existence ran wheelbarrows of sawdust down from Henry Yesler's sawmill -- where Yesler Way today crosses I-5 -- to fill potholes). I want to know what the business community is looking for, how they want to see the neighborhood change. Bueche (pronounced "bee-key") is a businesswoman and activist, the sort whose concerns are usually limited to legal issues and their effect on her business. But when I ask her, she voices concern for the quality of the area as a whole. She laments the closing of the Shoe Building, citing it as "the last major cheap stronghold of artist work-live space in the city." She says commercial rents are skyrocketing, and that there are rumors that the Gap is looking for retail space. Like elsewhere in Seattle, small business owners like Bueche are afraid of the inflationary effect chain stores would have on rents, as well as the deadening influence they'd have on the street scene. "A non-mainstream arts community is being displaced," she says, "blanding down" the area and resulting in "narrower boundaries of tolerance and interest."

Bueche says the place appears to be changing for the worse, and brings up a complaint lodged late last year with the Historic Preservation Board about the tiny flashing lights around the Bread of Life Mission's nativity scene. The complaint is emblematic to her of the "pettiness" of the affluent newcomers, which she fears will soon permeate the neighborhood.

Indeed, as the people who choose to live in Pioneer Square have become more upper crust, new and old residents alike are becoming more vocal about their surroundings. That has had positive and negative consequences. Cathryn Vandenbrink headed up a recent effort to pass a city-wide noise ordinance, which Mayor Paul Schell vetoed just before the WTO conference, because he feared it would stifle free speech. Vandenbrink has been a resident of Pioneer Square for 14 years, is married to a well-known local artist, and is raising her children in the neighborhood. She says she is proof that "it's not always wealthy newcomers who complain about noise. It's getting louder." She says she's not "anti-club" -- she just feels that the party nights in Pioneer Square shut out other possible uses for the neighborhood (like living there). She says beer-guzzling frat boys intimidate the homeless and deprive other residents of sleep. Though it might be hard to get behind an effort that could cut back on freedom of expression, you can see Vandenbrink's point when it comes to Pioneer Square. The place is pretty obnoxious on a Friday or Saturday night.

Bueche worked on the noise ordinance committee with Vandenbrink -- but the two were not in complete agreement. Bueche, who considers hard partying a legitimate mode of expression, had hoped for a special entertainment zone to be declared in Pioneer Square so that bars could continue to operate as they do now. But as the push for quiet time becomes more adamant, she thinks an entertainment zone is unlikely. I ask her about the Underground. Could Pioneer Square clubs exercise the low-impact practices that punk and hiphop venues have had to follow for 20 years as they tried to avoid police harassment? When I suggest to her that there is a great deal of inexpensive, well-insulated (read: quiet) space under the streets of Pioneer Square, her eyes light up. "Awesome!" she says. "That is a terrific idea!"

Carrie Moon is a landscape architect who helped put together Pioneer Square's neighborhood plan, and was then hired by the city to coordinate its implementation. She tells me, "It's an exciting time." The number one priority, Moon says, is to preserve space for low-income housing (when people in Pioneer Square talk about low-income housing, they aren't usually talking about homes for the down-and-out; they're referring to housing for artists, young urbanites, gay kids just out of terrible small towns, and writers and actors who wait tables for a living). But given Samis' goal of turning Second and James into Sixth and Pine, and the lack of available space, it's hard to imagine just where this low-income housing will go (there is one agency, the Pioneer Square Community Development Organization, that's been building low-income housing in the area, though too slowly to keep up with the evictions brought on by accelerated development).

The neighborhood plan -- which may or may not see the light of day due to funding troubles -- calls for the restoration of the turn-of-the-century bathrooms under the Pioneer Place pergola as well as the historic preservation of the walkways that spread out under the area's sidewalks. Who knows -- if the bathrooms are opened up, the rest of the Underground could follow, loosening up rental space enough to accommodate amenities like low-income and artist housing. But the city appears to be moving in a direction contrary to what neighbors want, at least when it comes to the Underground. Four block-long segments under Second and Washington are being filled in this month: Carol Smith at the city's Department of Engineering says the Historic Preservation Board has deemed these parts of the city architecturally and historically insignificant, and that by filling them in (cost: $250,000), the city saves the $750,000 necessary to shore up the streetwalls and sidewalks to make the walkways safe.

Nonetheless, Moon hopes that reopening the Pioneer Place comfort station, first on the wish list awaiting funds (the project, according to estimates gathered by Speidel, will likely cost somewhere around one million dollars), will draw investors interested in opening the rest of the Underground. I ask Sheila Prieur of the Pioneer Square Community Development Organization what potential the basements accessed by the manmade caverns under the neighborhood might have for low-income housing. She pauses. "Well," she says, "I know plenty of artists who tell me that they don't care about natural light; they just need cheap space."

Skid Road

In the 1800s, Yesler Way served as the dividing line between a civilized, Victorian Seattle of churches, stores, and family houses, and the lawless, rowdy district of card rooms, prostitutes, and "box houses" (the precursors to strip clubs, but with drinking allowed). Teams of horses would drag logs down the hill from the sawmill belonging to Henry Yesler (Seattle's first developer, and a real asshole) to the docks, giving Yesler Way the appellation "skid road" and lending the term "skid row" to anyone wishing to describe a decayed quarter where indigent drunks live on the street.

Now the city, after decades of neglect, is suddenly paying close attention to the transient population in Pioneer Square. The area is a focus of City Attorney Mark Sidran, who has proposed numerous laws designed to clean it up, including restrictions on malt liquor and fortified wines (these types of booze are already banned by a voluntary "good neighbor" agreement between stores and the city), and the infamous sidewalk-sitting ordinance. Many feel these laws have laid the foundation for the displacement of the homeless -- who are, ironically, the area's most stable and stabilizing element.

But even the neighborhood plan, cooked up by more well-to-do residents, makes a point of stating the importance of keeping the two big missions in the area. And relations between business owners and the homeless -- while sometimes strained -- have been better than in other parts of the city (notably Belltown and the U-District, where private security firms have been hired to patrol the streets).

Walter Carr, who owned and operated the quintessential Pioneer Square institution, Elliott Bay Books, from its founding in 1973 until its sale to Bothell's Third Place Books last year, tells me that street people were the least of his problems. He says the most frequent perpetrators of damage to his store were not local homeless people (who he calls "harmless... not violent"), but "young, high-fivin' white guys" and "intoxicated sports crowds" whose teams had just lost. Sure, with over 1,000 shelter beds in the area serving everyone from chronic alcoholics to the mentally ill, he's seen some raging arguments on the street. But Carr reports "far more direct physical damage and incidents over the years from nighttime suburban drunks."

Bueche also says she's got no problem with the homeless. She admits that the Pioneer Square Business Improvement Association does sometimes borrow "ambassadors" from the neighboring Downtown Seattle Business Association to patrol, but says she usually hires off-duty police officers, whose experience and judgment tends to settle rather than exacerbate problems (WTO protests aside).

At least one homeless advocate agrees. Larry Cooney, the executive director of the Bread of Life Mission, says his organization is on good terms with neighboring businesses, and that the police and the city are not pressuring his clientele to keep a low profile -- "not at all." Bread of Life has 75 beds, serves two meals a day for homeless men and women, and runs a 25-bed resident rehab program. Time will tell how difficult this work will become, as companies like Samis, which has much to gain from upscaling its turf, weigh in at city hall. The missions aren't going anywhere for a while, though. They own their buildings.

Many Problems, One Solution

Sunny Speidel is working on a restoration project that could serve as a model for an open Underground. She's looking to restore the ornate marble public bathrooms buried under the pergola in Pioneer Place Park (the wrought iron pergola was originally built to shelter the entrance to the bathrooms, which were sealed over in the 1950s).

In 1909, the bathrooms boasted both a cigar and shoeshine stand, and recorded 15,000 flushes one Sunday on the eve of the First World War. Though Speidel can't take me down to see them because they are condemned, pictures show the bathrooms in messy but renewable shape. They are crowded with wooden beams, installed to support the paving-over of the entrance. Speidel hopes to one day include the bathrooms as part of her Underground tour. But apart from a few council members taking an interest, support and funding for such a project has not yet presented itself.

I suggest to Speidel a far more ambitious project: the eventual full restoration of the Underground to access industrial, loft-quality space for artists and low-income housing, as well as hip and historical (and soundproof) passageways for the neighborhood's party crowd. It's hard to say how much an undertaking like this would cost, but I can make an educated guess: It costed $2 million to make a 25,000-square-foot warehouse on Capitol Hill--which was being converted to condos--seismically safe. Given that there is six times that much open space in the thoroughfares... toss in some exits and sprinklers, and the removal of the firewalls that divide each block into sections, and it would probably take something like $20 million to do the basic work necessary to make the passages safe for the public. The return would be incredibly worthwhile. "I think it'd be just great," says Speidel. "Exactly what this city needs."

Of course, there are obstacles. The blocks underground are not conjoined as a grid: Each is isolated by the retaining walls that lifted the streets and kept the water out (Speidel likens it to a giant Belgian waffle). Passages could perhaps be cut through the retaining walls and banks of fill under the roadways, however, to connect them up. The Seattle Engineering Department tells me that the infrastructure of each part of the Underground is individual and peculiar, so there is no way as of yet to determine where these cuts would be possible. But it is an intriguing prospect. If we could create a connected Underground, crowds of drinking folks could move from bar to bar between blocks without disturbing neighborhood residents or overwhelming the street scene upstairs.

When it comes to fire hazards, representatives from the Seattle Fire Department say they haven't been asked to look at the Underground, and can't talk about its condition or the measures that would need to be taken in order to open the area to free public access. But one can assume that an up-to-date system of lighting, sprinklers, and clearly marked exits would minimize the threat of fire.

The Underground is not a windy grotto: The space consists of right angles, like the hallways of a warehouse. For the sake of public safety, sections of the Underground would only be opened as multiple occupants were ready to move in or open businesses (building owners would have to be interested in renovating and re-opening their basements). The factors that would make the Underground a safe and enjoyable place to be are the same as those that make a residential street safe: the close proximity of people who feel they are part of a community. Neither wet floors nor rats would be a problem, as the city, in its overkill response to the fear of bubonic plague, laid a concrete seal over the Underground's floors when they closed it in 1907. The floors are wildly uneven, but most of the ceilings are high enough to accommodate a raised floor.

The available retail space in the area would double immediately with the opening of the Underground, allowing a range of businesses to flourish. A recent report on NPR talked about how the old tunnels built by the KGB around the Kremlin have become Moscow's (literally) underground club circuit, attracting bands who make Russian music that disdains most pop bands' mindless imitation of Western styles. Now that sounds more like the Seattle I fell in love with 20 years ago than most of what's gone on around here lately. In fact, using the Underground for club space probably wouldn't even drag down property values. High-priced, above-ground condo and office space would keep its value, as the tunnels would probably be a little too punk rock for the upper crust.

Nearly everyone interviewed for this story felt that a restored Underground could be the missing piece to the anxious puzzle of Pioneer Square's future. Their responses ranged from encouraging (Cathryn Vandenbrink, Carrie Moon), to excited (Sunny Speidel), to ecstatic (Tina Bueche).

Five years ago, when the backers of the Seattle Commons project proposed to transform South Lake Union and beef up the city's urban appeal, they used the same flawed logic touted by urban-renewal crusaders in the '50s: Create urban vitality with a bulldozer. The Commons proponents were fond of quoting planning guru Jane Jacobs, whose book (The Death and Life of Great American Cities) they never understood. Jacobs' central message was that a city is the product of a multiplicity of factors, and to clear the slate or allow any single factor to dominate will choke off life just as effectively as milfoil will clog and kill a lake. Jacobs prescribes that a city can only be consciously improved through small gestures, encouragements rather than prohibitions. Utilizing the Underground -- fixing up something that already exists -- is a great way to realize Jacobs' philosophies.

Imagine First and Yesler 10 years from now. We could have another Belltown, another Pacific Place, with chain stores and upscale condos. Or, with the help of the Underground, we could have something much better....

In 2010, there are lots of new residents in Pioneer Square. Some of them are rich; most of them are not. There is a full-fledged grocery store in the neighborhood, rather than just glorified convenience stores, as well as a newsstand and diner that are open all night. There are, in short, the full range of shops and services that make a neighborhood livable, and a safe street where citizens of many socioeconomic levels can spend as much time as they like. It's the kind of rare place that could inspire people to make that ultimate American sacrifice that our leaders ask of us while offering no incentive -- to give up our cars. The tourists still come, but not just in the summer anymore, because the subterranean city is a year-round, dry attraction, and the tourist shops have moved down into it, leaving the surface retail space to fortify the life being lived here by the residents of the neighborhood. The bars at street level are oddly subdued, even far into a summer night. When you walk past them, you hear a faint thump of bass, the soft murmur of hundreds of people, coming from the clubs below. It's a 24-hour city, where there is always something happening someplace. As Tom Waits said, there's a world going on, underground.

Anyone interested in helping make this idea become a reality should contact Grant Cogswell at zioncheck@libertybay.com.

 

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