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Pioneer Square shines after revitalization of Seattle’s oldest neighborhood

Tourists stroll through Seattle's Occidental Park on a recent summer day. (Josh Kerns/KIRO Radio)

The Seahawks play their first home game Thursday night when they host the Minnesota Vikings in a preseason clash at Century Link Field.

There’ll be thousands of fans around Pioneer Square before and after the game. And if they haven’t been down in there in a while, they’ll be pleasantly surprised by how vibrant, clean, and active Seattle’s oldest neighborhood has become.

From the archive: We’ve lost Pioneer Square

When Mike Klotz and his partner decided to open their upscale Pioneer Square sandwich shop Delicatus, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

It was 2009, the height — or depths — of the worst recession in decades.

And businesses were fleeing the neighborhood.

“There’s a lot of people that thought we were nuts,” Klotz said as we sat out on his patio along First Avenue in the heart of Pioneer Square. “We knew there was a strong daytime lunch business here and we were just watching the way the city was growing and they kind of skipped this neighborhood, and they could only do it for so long … we did have a plan, there was a little roll of the dice.”

The gamble paid off for Klotz and many other businesses and resident who’ve flocked to the neighborhood.

Business is booming

On a sunny morning this week, Pioneer Square was bustling. Tourists mingle with high tech workers, hipsters and the homeless. Businesses are also booming.

“We have over 50 new restaurants alone in the last two years,” said Lisa Dixon, chief operating officer for the Alliance for Pioneer Square.

The business-funded advocacy group has worked its tail off for more than a decade to bring new life, people, and businesses to the neighborhood.

And it’s working — day and night. The number of residents has nearly doubled since the opening of several new apartment and condo buildings near CenturyLink Field.

“We have about 14,000 employees here during the day. We’re not quite to those numbers during the evening and nighttime. But as people feel more comfortable in the area and are able to come down here and visit all the new restaurants and retail and shopping … there’s a lot to do and a lot to see and the doors are open at night now.”

It’s about to get even busier. Crews are putting the finishing touches on the gorgeous new building that local timber icon Weyerhaeuser will call home starting next month.

There were several reasons the company decided to move from Federal Way to the heart of Seattle, according to Jack Evans, VP of communications for Weyerhaeuser.

“Increasingly, companies are finding that employees want to work in urban environments and urban settings. Pioneer has a great history and it has gone through some incredible revitalization in the recent years and we think this is the kind of vibrant, diverse environment our employees will want to work in,” Evans said.

Evans says the company also needs to be in the center of Seattle’s tech industry to attract the best and brightest when it recruits against Amazon, Microsoft and the like for top talent.

Related: Resurgence is real for Seattle’s Pioneer Square 

Just outside Weyerhaeuser’s new headquarters is perhaps the most visible sign of Pioneer Square’s resurgence.

Safety in Seattle’s oldest neighborhood

Occidental Park used to be overrun by the homeless, alcoholics and addicts. It reeked of urine and people did their best to avoid it. But thanks to a unique partnership between businesses, residents, and the city, it’s been transformed.

It’s become a clean, safe and inviting destination.

“We have overnight security, concierges during the daytime, and then all of the continuous activation during the day whether it’s coming out to grab a bite to eat from the food trucks, or playing chess or any of the other things that are offered throughout the day. There’s just stuff to do and people are comfortable being there” Dixon said.

But none of it would have happened if the businesses and residents hadn’t taken it upon themselves and somewhat forced the city to step up and help.

Businesses tax themselves to fund everything from marketing to the private security and people that clean up the streets, even working directly with the many homeless and mentally ill in the area.

“They’ve [city officials] been much more responsive but they’re definitely someone that you have to hold accountable. They’re like a kid. They’ll do the right thing if you tell them what you need and what you want, but if you look the other way they might ignore you,” Klotz said.

But no one is ignoring Pioneer Square now. These days, the biggest challenge for Seattle’s oldest neighborhood is finding space for everyone who wants to be there.

As the crowds line up for one of the sandwiches at Delicatus, Mike says his restaurant-owning friends who told him he was crazy for opening in Pioneer Square are now singing a very different tune.

“Derrick [Mike’s partner] and I have been fortunate enough to go back and be like ‘I told you,’ he beams. “So now they’re the ones reaching out to us asking if there are any spots in the neighborhood open.”

One caveat — it’s still gritty. You do have two homeless shelters down there and plenty of down-and-out people. But it’s become far less problematic, and the crime rate is actually lower than in many other neighborhoods.

“It’s just a great neighborhood,” Klotz said.

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