here are people walking around downtown at night these days. People with jobs and families: tourists, kids who bussed in from Burien, and young adults with baby backpacks. This seemingly unamazing fact has, in the wake of a 30-year decline of central cities across America, struck not a few observers as some kind of miracle, as a perusal of ecstatic business-page features in the local papers makes clear.
Perhaps it's merely reflective of the persistent economic good times our nation is enjoying; perhaps it represents a new appreciation for downtowns. It didn't happen in isolation: Center cities from Boston to Phoenix to Denver have been the sites of massive redevelopment and new energy in the '90s. And it didn't happen by itself: It's the culmination of years of effort by the city government, the Port of Seattle, developers, and business owners, requiring millions in incentives and giveaways, with funding from city coffers, a controversial HUD loan, and a lot of private investment.
Something big and complex has happened in the middle of Seattle, for good and for ill, and there's no denying that. What was once a typical American late-20th-century downtown -- healthier than many, but still sickly, with few residents, a lot of business people, some tourists, little culture, and okay shopping -- has been infused with large amounts of all of these. Tourists, once limited largely to the Pike Place Market and the waterfront piers, now swarm through Pioneer Square and Pike and Pine Streets. Pioneer Square -- formerly a bar and gallery ghetto, whose lively storefront businesses were often the only occupants of buildings vacant from the second floor up -- is undergoing massive construction, primarily new office buildings in the blocks north of the Kingdome. South of Pioneer Square, new stadiums are crowding out their light industrial and warehouse neighbors. Benaroya Hall and A Contemporary Theatre join the Seattle Art Museum as cultural anchors. A massive condo/hotel/apartment development around the Harbor Steps, between First and Western, brought downtown the kind of young, rich population that dominates Belltown and the north Market neighborhood. City government plans to build a new campus to replace its aesthetically and urbanistically -- not to mention seismically -- out-of-date buildings.
The most dramatic change, and the most complete, however, happened on the underused corridor of Pine and Pike Streets, between Fourth Avenue and I-5. In this section of downtown, it took less than five years to turn back the effects of 30 years of what used to be called white flight, but which is more accurately understood in economic terms. The former home of most of the Seattle area's upscale shopping spent a generation hemorrhaging customers and stores to Northgate, Bellevue Square, and Southcenter malls, leaving it a patchwork of vacant buildings and parking lots by the '90s. Now, at the end of the decade, it's recovered or replaced much of what it lost, primarily by becoming a mall itself.
Don't be fooled by the urban street grid or the storefronts opening out onto the sidewalk: These are postmodern Potemkin villages. Unlike General Potemkin's stage sets, however, what they're hiding isn't poverty (though you could argue that they paint a false picture of the range of Seattle's economic spectrum). They're hiding a mall. More interestingly, they're hiding a mall that's all around them, hiding it in plain sight. It's not just Pacific Place, but a whole area of downtown, a huge mall that eventually will stretch from the Convention Center all the way down Pike and Pine Streets to the Pike Place Market.
It's hard for all but longtime Seattleites to recall exactly what the mall replaced; the neighborhood was a wasteland in the years just before the city re-envisioned it as a blank slate. To a recent transplant, a bunch of parking lots were covered with slick new buildings; a couple of low rent buildings were razed; a few vacant properties were given new façades and pumped full of stores.
If you could go back to the '50s, however, back to a time when Nordstrom was still primarily a shoe store, you'd have found a thriving, upscale retail district. Frederick and Nelson, a vast department store selling everything from clothes to couches, anchored the district from its full-block, terra cotta-tiled edifice (now Nordstrom), while Best's served respectable ladies, I. Magnin (Old Navy) served their mothers, and Klopfenstein's served their husbands. The area was also thick with the kind of grand downtown movie palaces that were killed by a combination of fragmenting audiences, suburban multiplexes, cable, and video: the Music Hall (now a parking lot), the Blue Mouse (knocked down on the block now occupied by the "Speedstick" building and the low-rise where the Gap is), the Coliseum (Banana Republic), the Paramount (now a concert and musical theater hall), and many more.
Liquor licenses were hard to come by, but Rossellini's 410 and 610, a pair of restaurants for movers and shakers, had them. Emmett Watson, the excellent, curmudgeonly Seattle Times columnist, writes with deep feeling about legendary bars and greasy spoons with names like Cabby's Club, the Italian Club, Bob's Chili Parlor, and the Magic Inn. By the '70s, most of this was gone, closed or knocked down before the word "gentrification" had even been coined. Frederick and Nelson held on until the dawn of the '90s, having long since lost its upscale customers to points north, south, and east, and Nordstrom stood "like Horatio at the bridge," in the words of one longtime resident, as a last bulwark against downtown retail bankruptcy.
Daytime commerce was one thing; the nighttime was worse. Downtown Seattle had never been known for its nightlife, but in the early '90s it was truly dead. By the time I came to Seattle at the beginning of 1993, downtown largely emptied itself around six o'clock. Bus shelters overflowed with smartly dressed white-collar workers leaving for their homes elsewhere, as fishmongers and produce sellers cleared their stalls at the Pike Place Market; windswept street corners were occupied by the kind of people those workers suspect of being continually up to no good. There was no squad of bicycle cops, maybe seven movie screens showing first-run movies (at the Newmark, City Centre, and Cinerama), no Banana Republic, no Old Navy, no GameWorks, no NikeTown or Planet Hollywood. The Seattle Symphony still performed at Seattle Center, and ACT was still on Roy Street in Lower Queen Anne. The Paramount and Moore were run-down venues utilized for mid-size rock tours. The only place to get a decent drink with a young crowd was the Nite Lite, which had been recently discovered by workers at nearby Sub Pop. In short, there was little reason for most people to venture downtown in the evening.
Many actions led to the creation of a thriving retail core in a place that was formerly dominated by vacant buildings, low-rent businesses, and parking lots, but the most crucial decision was a much-debated, though seemingly trivial one: the opening of the pedestrian-only block of Pine Street between Fourth and Fifth to auto traffic. The then-mayor of Seattle, Norm Rice, was obsessed with the full-block vacant building formerly occupied by Frederick and Nelson, and with the fear that Nordstrom, outgrowing its current buildings on Westlake Park, would move its headquarters out of town.
A plan for Nordstrom to move to the Frederick and Nelson building, kitty-corner from its current store and offices, had been hatched by super-developer Jeff Rhodes as part of a grand scheme covering several blocks of downtown: Nordstrom takes Frederick and Nelson; its former home becomes a small urban mall. Another mall is built from scratch across Sixth from Nordstrom, atop a shared parking garage. Before agreeing to move, Nordstrom demanded a number of concessions, one of which was that Pine Street, blocked off to traffic along Westlake Park, be reopened to cars. (The other, a $22 million low-interest loan the city brokered through HUD, ended up damaging Rice's career: He was a candidate for HUD secretary in the Clinton administration when the HUD grant began to receive a lot of negative media and legal attention, dooming his candidacy.)
For advocates of Westlake Park -- an already very compromised urban space that read more as a plaza in front of a shopping mall than a park, and was one of very few parks in Downtown Seattle -- the idea of reopening Pine was unconscionable. As the debate over the reopening became superheated, Allied Arts, the civic watchdog group, inserted itself. A forum held by the group drew key people from the mayor's office and the city council; Bruce Nordstrom; the Downtown Seattle Association's Kate Joncas; activist and future council member Peter Steinbrueck; and others. The forum aimed to get proponents and opponents of the Pine Street reopening into one room to see if common ground could be found among them.
They did find a common agenda, centered around the realization that Pine Street could become a "really great street" (as Clint Pehrson, then president of Allied Arts, put it) for pedestrians, cars, and merchants alike, and tie together many parts of the city, including Belltown, Downtown, and Capitol Hill. Out of the meeting came a group called the Pine Street Advisory Task Force, which agreed on opening Pine Street to just two lanes of traffic, and helped set guidelines for pedestrian-friendly development along the street.
From then, each development spawned, encouraged, or symbiotically formed alongside others, linked by the Interstate-accessible, not very auto-clogged, pedestrian-friendly streets of Pike and Pine. Nordstrom agreed to take over Frederick and Nelson. The Convention Center, which had watched this matter closely, decided on a massive expansion. A city-subsidized parking garage across Fifth from Nordstrom became the justification for a large upscale mall, Pacific Place, with 12 movie screens. A building housing 16 more screens, NikeTown, GameWorks, and Planet Hollywood was quickly thrown up.
The Port of Seattle built a lush, multi-use facility at Pier 66, containing high-tech meeting rooms for corporate and political visitors, a marina, cruise-ship docking, a museum, a fish market, and several restaurants. Across the street, new housing and a branch of the World Trade Center cemented this theme park for visiting dignitaries of government and business. Between the Convention Center expansion and Pier 66 (renamed Bell Street Pier), a whole new imported clientele could be offered up to the blocks of high-end retail linking the two developments. Now Nordstrom -- and others -- didn't have to worry about stealing all their business from their suburban stores: A vast new tourist market, with excellent demographics, was forming around them.
The way the downtown mall works is a nifty bricks-and-mortar illustration of the network effect, a concept more regularly applied to communication networks. As summarized recently by Slate columnist James Surowiecki, "any network... becomes more valuable the more people use it. If one person has a phone, it's decoration. If two do, suddenly the phones are useful. And if 10 million do, the phone's impact becomes really important."
Downtown, the network is the mall-like structure of Pike and Pine Streets. The more shops that come in, the bigger and more consistent the network -- the roads, sidewalks, parking garages, and storefronts -- becomes. The more shops that come in, the more people are attracted to shop at them. And the more people who come in, the more sense it makes for further shops to locate there. Earlier attempts to rebuild emptying downtowns -- Crown Center in Kansas City and the Renaissance Center in Detroit come to mind -- tried to impose grotesque, out-of-scale, un-urban developments on troubled downtown areas. By building with an eye toward autos rather than pedestrians, by connecting all the new construction to create insulated environments that don't connect with the surrounding area, and by imposing superblock layouts that don't relate to the urban grid, developments like these ensured that they would fail to achieve their stated goal: to revitalize the city around them.
Seattle, to its credit, has largely eschewed this kind of development, other than in the sequence of '80s buildings (Two Union Square and the Convention Center, in particular) that edge the Interstate. The recent redevelopment of Pike and Pine Streets has been much more piecemeal, despite the overarching vision that created it: Buildings don't isolate themselves from their neighbors, or (with a couple of exceptions) connect with skybridges or tunnels. They reinforce life at street level, which allows them to work symbiotically with not only their equally new neighbors, but with the rest of downtown.
The accord reached among those setting the "common agenda" for Pine Street has had payoffs in mitigating the awfulness of the new construction, through design requirements. In fact, if you look at the construction in terms of urban planning, rather than architecture, it's hardly awful at all, verging rather on excellence. All the tropes of the new urbanist movement are present in the finished product: storefronts opening directly onto the sidewalk, instead of turning away from the street; a lot of transparency (which is urban-planner talk for "windows") at the ground floor; generous canopies to protect pedestrians from rain; and good lighting.
In solidarity with the current idea in urban planning that buildings should have complex façades and uneven rooftops (which is responsible for some of the ugliness of many new apartment buildings in Capitol Hill, Belltown, and the U-District), the façade of the Pacific Place mall has been designed to look like multiple buildings, in a variety of restrained, mid-tonal-range colors and with different sorts of doors and windows. The styles don't vary widely; neither do they (with the exception of the grand Tiffany's vault-style entrance) relate to the stores within. Should a tenant drop out, one need only replace the signs attached to the structure with those of another store. Of course, if you've been to an indoor mall, you'll realize this is a twist on the variety of false-façade stores put up in a mimesis of a traditional streetfront. The simulation of an urban streetscape has been reinserted into a real one. Walk down the street and imagine a roof over your head (soon, when the Convention Center completes its street-spanning expansion, you won't have to imagine it, it'll be there). You'll soon see how the variety of styles, none relating to the structures behind them, exactly mimics the variety of classical and modern styles with which the Limited, the Gap, the Body Shop, Express, Lerner's, et al. trick out their interior façades in hundreds of malls around the country.
The new architecture on Pine and Pike is, unsurprisingly, bland to the point of near-invisibility. The pre-existing buildings -- the terra-cotta-tile new home of Nordstrom, the stone veneer of the building now holding Old Navy -- include few architectural marvels, and the new buildings, generally precast concrete attached to steel and reinforced concrete frames, compete with each other only in unobtrusiveness. The large tiles of precast concrete make them look as if, should the prevailing style of inoffensive architecture shift -- say, people want neo-Victorian instead of neo-Georgian -- they could be quickly detached and replaced by tiles in the more fashionable style, without disrupting the building one bit. Pacific Place, for example, looks off-the-shelf. It could be a project for Chicago's Michigan Avenue, or San Francisco's Union Square. These buildings had to go up fast -- who knows how long the good times will last -- and despite their expensive contents, they're cheap, efficiently built stage sets. They look like architecture we think of as permanent (Those cornices! Those thick, granite-look blocks!), but they're ephemeral, built only for now.
We live in an age of disposable goods and equally disposable architecture -- just look at the fate of the edifices of the '60s building boom. Why assume a building needs to last? Its function could easily become as dated as its construction, so that a building begins to collapse just as its occupants begin to tire of it (see the Kingdome, Municipal Hall, and the ironically named Public Safety Building, which wouldn't survive any decent earthquake). How convenient!
The reopening of Pine Street, and the city's further kowtowing to developers, instigated what has become a grand essay about the future of urbanism and the privatization of common space, as represented by the replacement of town squares by malls as the primary gathering places for citizens. Seattle's too new to have had much of a common space to start out with, and what we've gotten through compromised processes -- like the one that created Westlake Park -- is not great. And even small pockets like Westlake begin to seem like wasted space given over to idlers: There was talk a few years back about concentrating new storefront businesses on Westlake Park to give it more of a commercial presence and sense of usefulness.
A growing movement among city governments and developers, often reacting to the annoyances created by urban drunks and panhandlers, seeks to replace public inactivity, whether on sidewalks or in parks, with convenient and efficient public motion. Commerce displaces idling; sidewalk-sitting is banned; private skyways and tunnels supplant public sidewalks; pedestrian-only streets are opened to traffic; mall atriums displace town squares. Preferably, most of this public motion leads people to places where financial transactions occur. These transactions enrich private businesses, and the city, via taxes on the transactions. Parks, once known as places to rest, are reconfigured as paths or plazas or forums, leading to or surrounded by shops. The most viable spaces for idling and meeting others are the privately owned indoor spaces that are the common spaces of the contemporary era: malls. The city itself becomes an open object to be passed through freely, a web of arterials linking the central stores to the wider expanse of bedroom communities surrounding them.
Westlake Park itself, which critics said would be destroyed by Pine Street's reopening, was part of an earlier experiment in creating mall-like space in central cities (as is Occidental Mall in Pioneer Square, which may itself be reopened to traffic). Westlake is related to the pedestrian malls which cropped up across the country in preceding decades, with various levels of success. But a pedestrian-only street cannot mimic a mall with complete success. A mall is a privately owned space¯thus, it can be controlled with a much firmer hand, by private security personnel. Bums and punks, goof-offs and drunks can be forcibly removed. It can be emptied completely at night. Panhandling is no longer defensible as a free speech issue: I could kick you out of my house for anything you say -- and so, with a few limitations, can a mall owner.
This control is exercised in our names and for our benefit as well, whether we think it is or not. For all the protests about the various laws used by our police to harass the homeless, the consumer gladly accepts, and in fact seeks out, a sense of security, safety, and predictability when venturing out of his home to spend some money.
This secure sense has begun to pervade the downtown mall already, mainly due to the presence of a continuous front of lively shops and the masses of people on the street around them, as well as bright nighttime street and store lighting, and an almost total absence of benches and bus shelters -- key congregating points for so-called undesirables. The Downtown Business Improvement Association made a further step toward creating that sense with the announcement that a new cadre of private security guards -- which the BIA insists on comparing to concierges, instead of private police -- will patrol the retail core starting this fall, passing along helpful information to tourists and encouraging passing-out drunks to move along to a mission or detox bed. While actual malls tend to have less obtrusive security, the BIA thinks visitors to downtown will need a more obvious presence to create a sense of safety.
A classical shopping mall works on a simple strategy. The mall developer cuts sweetheart deals in order to induce large retailers, primarily department stores, to locate there, paying low rents on a per-square-foot basis. A Nordstrom, a Bon, a JC Penney, and a Sears are arranged at strategic points in the mall building. In a mall built in a straight line -- take Northgate, one of the nation's first covered malls, as an example -- a department store anchors each end, and one or two are placed in the middle. The spaces between are filled in by smaller retailers, who exist in a mutually parasitic relationship with the larger "anchor stores." The small retailers pay a premium for their space, subsidizing the cheaper rents offered to the anchors, in order to benefit by their proximity to the larger retailers' customer bases.
On Pine and Pike Streets, a similar structure evolved out of a series of collaborations between developers, tenants, and city government. The key concession is the infamous parking garage under Pacific Place mall, which the city government paid $73 million for ($23 million above the actual cost for the project). The garage was another key in luring Nordstrom into the Frederick and Nelson building, which is linked to the garage by a skybridge. The city government's subsidy allowed developer Jeff Rhodes to build Pacific Place over the garage. Nordstrom and Pacific Place then served as anchor stores for the street, luring -- even before the completion of their construction -- Old Navy, Eileen Fisher, Starbucks, Cineplex Odeon, NikeTown, et al. Up the street, the Convention Center serves as another anchor, bringing the Paramount Hotel and providing more tourist customers for the Meridian development featuring Planet Hollywood and GameWorks.
Buildings designed for activities other than the purchase of goods and services are discouraged, as backers of siting the new downtown library in the old Nordstrom building on Westlake Park quickly found out. The new downtown businesses are geared to a wide variety of visitors and hardly at all toward residents; useful establishments (like a barbershop and a liquor store) were demolished for the Convention Center expansion. You can buy clothes, jewelry, toys, and so on, but you can't buy groceries or get prescriptions filled until you get to the Pike Place Market. One of a kind (in this area) businesses like GameWorks and NikeTown draw the kids from Tukwila even as they draw the tourists, which is part of why the crowd in the downtown mall is so surprisingly diverse, more so than a supposedly diverse neighborhood like nearby Capitol Hill.
A future economic downturn could jeopardize the whole, though. Most of the downtown mall is geared to high-income-bracket shoppers, tourists, and conventioneers. The developers, store owners, and politicians who collaborated in the mall's creation look smart enough now, but as the old Wall Street adage has it, "Don't confuse brains with a bull market."
Norm Rice considered keeping Nordstrom's headquarters downtown to be the signal achievement of his second term. Given the rude health of the area, it's impossible to argue that he failed in his primary mission -- rescuing downtown retail from its perceived doldrums. But it's easy to question whether the city had to give up as much as it did in subsidies, tax breaks, street vacations, and zoning variances in order to achieve a success that market forces, given the economic health of the city and the country, could possibly have matched on its own.
The history of the city's many give-aways is still in active contention, due to the election of two activists to the city council in the last election. Nick Licata and Peter Steinbrueck have attempted to reopen issues thought closed, whether relating to the possible neighborhood-killing effects of the Convention Center's many skybridges, or the massive, view-blocking hotel planned for the waterfront between Victor Steinbrueck Park and Elliott Bay. Though they've been rebuffed again and again in their attempts to re-examine the deals and maybe, say, not let the Convention Center lid two more streets, their continued energies serve to remind us why we elected some real diversity into a council which at mid-decade was occupied exclusively by pro-business liberals (and, for some reason, women).
The days of milk and honey could be over for corporate welfare mothers, unless they're willing to go through a public vote to get their goodies, as happened with the library and the opera house. But since all the major give-aways have been, well, given already -- to the Mariners (by the state), Seattle Symphony (the city), Nordstrom (city and HUD), the Convention Center (state), and Bell Street Pier (Port of Seattle) -- the city gets to have its cake, eat it, and complain about how fattening it all is at the same time.