Capitol Hill resident activates community space off Hill with Seattle Square

Though conventional wisdom holds that Capitol Hill has been reaping the benefits of Elliott Bay Book Company’s move to Capitol Hill, it left some worried that the move would be more than Pioneer Square, Elliott Bay’s former home of more than 30 years, could take. A resident of Capitol Hill is playing an important role in making sure the neighborhood survives the changes and thrives. The result is a one of a kind public market that we just might want to emulate back up here on Capitol Hill.

“I came back to Seattle and saw people talking about Pioneer Square in the same way they used to talk about Time Square,” said Capitol Hill resident Don Blakeney. He said he heard the neighborhood described as “dead” and “dangerous” but saw potential in the space and the necessity to revive area businesses.

Blakeney was an urban planner in New York before returning to his hometown of Seattle and saw firsthand how underutilized spaces could be transformed with a focus on regional economic development. He said he was inspired by pop-up stores in New York’s midtown neighborhood and by Brooklyn’s flee markets.

So, along with project partner Jen Kelly and publisher of the blog The New Pioneer Square, Blakeney set out to activate dead space in Occidental Square Park through a trial, eleven-weekend only Saturday market funded by community sponsors and the Alliance for Pioneer Square called the Seattle Square.

Even Blakeney, who started the project as a way to keep busy when he arrived in the city unemployed, was surprised to see where in Seattle the project landed.

“Moving back, I thought I was going to focus my energy on Capitol Hill, but there were so many exciting things popping up,” he said. “I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

Since July 17th, Occidental Square has been filled with quirky vendors selling everything from knitted beards to gourmet toffee and some of the Seattle staple food carts each Saturday afternoon.

Before Seattle Square, Occidental was put in the Project for Public Space‘s (PPS) hall of shame because of its lack of utilization. The group’s website states:

 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.

But the bleak rating of the space is being pushed aside by vendors and shoppers. Since the beginning of the summer, the market has grown from 30 to around 40 vendors plus food carts and live performances. Blakeney says most purchases have been driven by tourist traffic and people who wander in by following the sound of live music in the square. He is hoping to see more Seattleites turn out in the market’s last month.

Solutions for the square’s poor use offered by PPS included adding color and creating smaller spaces within the larger space and, at least one day a week, that advice is being headed in the market that (according to Blakeney) only offers useable things like clothing and furniture in a city saturated with farmers markets. Though, Seattle Square does have a farmers market license in order to be allowed to provide some of the food.

After the market ends for the summer, the plans of Seattle Square organizers become more tentative. There is a possibility that they will take a couple month break and then hold a holiday market. They might also renew the market beginning in the spring or summer of 2011.

Blakeney has also been working with Keith Harris (who has been involved with the People’s Parking Lot), discussing possibilities for activating space on Pine.

Though the market’s future is up in the air after September 25th, Blakeney is happy to see the neighborhood receiving more positive attention and some notable visitors.

“I’m not going to claim Barack Obama came down [to Pioneer Square] because of the market,” Blakeney joked. “But I was happy to see him there.”

Seattle Square is every Saturday from 11 AM to 5 PM through September 25th. Learn more at http://www.theseattlesquare.com/ or http://twitter.com/seattlesquare

3 thoughts on “Capitol Hill resident activates community space off Hill with Seattle Square

  1. I love the idea of utilizing an historic setting for a “traditional” holiday market. These markets run the entire holiday season in Germany and are huge tourist draws. There are Christmas markets in other cities back East mostly and I think Seattle could make a go of it. Our weather isn’t always conducive, but it would be a nice use of the space.

  2. The Project for Public Spaces review was done over 10 years ago – since then the community has implemented a number of changes and the park has been completely redesigned. The efforts of the City, Seattle Parks and Recreation, the neighborhood and volunteers who step up and activate the area have made Occidental Square an entirely different public space than it once was. It would be interesting to see a comparison if PPS were to come back today.

  3. NYC does a great holiday market at Union Sq. throughout the holiday season! I think this is a really good idea for a high foot traffic area like Capitol Hill.