Pike Place Market Needs Fixing But Will Resist Attempts to Fix It

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The market is overwhelmed by crowds during peak season (Photo: Garrett Fitzgerald, CC license).

Recently my Post Alley colleague Jean Godden stroked one of the town’s third rails: whether to ban cars from Pike Place in the Market. She argued that the Market doesn’t need fixing, certainly not this traffic fix. I disagree about the need for fixing, and agree about avoiding this particular third rail.

I got to know the Market and its problems from two occasions of working there. After I left Seattle Weekly in 1997, I shared a writers’ office in the Corner Market. Three years ago, I served as executive director of Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum (a nonprofit membership library) in the Economy Market (above DeLaurenti). I got involved in helping the Market Public Preservation and Development Authority figure out possible fixes, notably how to attract more Seattleites to “their” market.

When Folio moved to the Market in 2018 and we ran the regulatory gauntlet, I got my first glimpse of how the Market wanted to move forward. Folio got in because we were a library aimed at locals, not tourists, were open at night for events (drawing people after hours), and enhanced the Market’s reputation for bookstores. I also encountered the Market’s obstacles to retail success: elaborate rules about signage, no ability to expand, parking issues, short on storage, clunky marketing, too few major draws for locals.

Working there, I happily discovered some of the secrets of the Market’s appeal. It is really a medieval village, governed by mysterious informal practices, “a mixture of anarchism and Bolshevism,” as the saying goes. It’s a genuine community, so you help other stores with discounts and deals for fellow Market folk, free breakfasts for the poor at The Atrium Kitchen, pitching in for special events. 

The Market is hard to gain admission to as a business — for one thing, you can’t have prior retail locations — but the rental rates are a bit below-market, and the place is safer than the rest of downtown because it has its own effective security force. 

You learn to avoid the main tourist shops with their higher prices, buying fish at Jack’s Fish Spot, for instance, or fleeing tourists by going to The Virginia Inn, and using First Avenue for a quicker north-south passage, one less jammed with slow-moving tourists.

I learned that the Market has an arcane governance that makes it almost impervious to change. But it really does need to change some of its structural problems. It was not built to handle the crowds it now has, at least in summer. There are too many tourists, particularly when the cruise ships are in town, and too many businesses that only survive on those summer inundations.

It’s not really a “farmer’s market” now, since the idealistic managers of the place created competition by encouraging the many wonderful and much more negotiable neighborhood markets. Tourists tend to buy flowers for hotel rooms or an apple to munch, while farmers make much more money from gourmet buyers at the neighborhood markets. 

The main problem is getting Seattleites to come to the Market. They do come as newcomers or when relatives are in town, but too few make it a regular habit. Signage is confusing, tourists overwhelm the place, parking is mysterious and pricey, and there are few places to sit down without paying. 

I can see that restricting cars along the main spine, Pike Place, might add some outdoor cafes and splashes of color. But I think that touching off a civil war among the many empowered tribes (merchants, craftspeople, preservationists, seniors, flower vendors) was the last thing the delicate, self-regulating equilibrium of the Market needed or could survive. Better than poking that beehive is the path of gradual evolution, benign neglect, and short tests — as happened during the pandemic when some restaurants moved outdoors to stay alive. 

My fear is that the Market has been swallowed up by the tourist economy, now dominating all along the western edge of our downtown. This monoculture will get worse when the Waterfront Park opens, tying the Market to the Aquarium. Or when the First Avenue trolley links up Pioneer Square and Seattle Center — a  tourists’ river. Given all the attention to how we can revive downtown, however, this is no time to tap on the brakes of the visitor market.

So, what does that leave in the “fixes” basket? One is to think outside the full-up historic Market and put more attractions in the nearby Market neighborhood, such as Western Avenue and east of First Avenue. Another is to keep inserting draws, like Folio, that attract frequent-using Seattleites, residents, and downtown workers. Examples: theaters (by saving the Showbox), galleries, music, incubation labs, and maker spaces.. 

Having listed those possible fixes, I realize that the real genius of the Market is that it fends off such schemes and takes its time and evolves organically and surprisingly. All this is enough to make a Burkean — go slow, don’t impose ideological schemes — out of this fidgety urbanist. So I say: keep the cars and maddening vans on Pike Place, and vow to visit the Market more often.

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David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Moving attractions north along Western is a good idea. An even more intriguing one would be to include the market in the often-discussed but now sidelined “Pike-Pine Corridor”, now rife with crime and largely vacated by retail. All roads lead to The Market. It’s not called Pike Place for nothing.

  2. Thank you, David! A thoughtful recognition that the Market is its own delicate ecosystem. It WILL find its way (organically, if a little chaotically) as long as outside entities don’t superimpose an abstract schematic on its fragile infrastructure.

  3. The Market is indeed a delicate ecosystem, one that should be approached with care.The idea of turning the Market into a plaza filled with coffee sipping, crowd-watching patrons is a little over the top. So is the Seattle Neighborhood Greenways notion that its survey —of whom? — should prevail is equally questionable. Business at the Market in post covid days remains precarious. Approach any change with prudent skepticism.
    The Market had to be rescued not once but twice; let’s not make a third rescue necessary.

    • Cities around the world remake themselves all the time. Eastern Europe rebuilt old worn out Soviet markets into modern pedestrian friendly shopping hubs, (and tourist Meccas) in 10 years, with much less money than Seattle has.

      “The Market is a delicate ecosystem, one that should be approached with care”. The Hoh rainforest is a delicate ecosystem, a public market is not. I can’t believe we’re even talking about small crazy things like closing the Market to cars. Just do it! And if it doesn’t work, open it back up to cars in a year or two. It’s not the like those cruise ships are going to quit dropping $50,000 plus in tourist cash in downtown Seattle every day. Any self respecting European city would take one look at all that tourist money and double the size of the Market. Locals would likely avoid it and stay in their more manageable neighborhood farmers markets. Seattle is too big for a single central market. It’s not 1993 any longer.

  4. Talking to Market experts after my story came out, I learned these things. Main Market expansion will be to the west, stepping down the cliff to the new Waterfront Park. It still makes sense to take the western half of the east side of First Ave., from Union northward, and put it under special-zone protection, thus saving the Showbox. (Likely eventual savior of Showbox will be Seattle Theatre Group. Indeed the Market zone all along should have extended eastward across First Ave. The Market landlords are intent on countering the over-tourism by recruiting shops that feature artisanal, locally made goods in one-of-a-kind retail. One problem with the Market: no places for school buses and tour buses to park and unload. Only a handful of Market shops went out of business during the pandemic, thanks to PPP and rent-forgiving by the PDA. Indeed, one of the Market problems is the number of shops that draw little traffic and are minimally managed — but don’t want to leave. Closing Pike Place to traffic will probably happen gradually and imperceptibly, adding some sidewalk eateries, closing to traffic on more weekends and “pedestrian Tuesdays.”

    • Any expansion of the Market needs to focus on tour buses and vans front and center. I don’t think you can counter “over-tourism” nor would I ever believe the market managers would really believe in doing so, no matter what’s publicly said. Just the number of cruise ship day trippers is a huge amount of cash. Like everything else in Seattle, the Pike Place Market suffers from this weird mix of nostalgia and NIMBY-ism, but there’s really no way to go back.

      Thanks for writing this!

  5. If a special protection zone on the east half-block of First Avenue is created will the “Live Girls” theater be protected along with The Show Box?

  6. Thank you for this article and discussion of my favorite neighborhood.
    Could any lessons be learned from historic Old World cities and how they have met and profited from the tourist challenge?

    • Mostly, they have started charging for access to the old town, and scheduling these times. Some have banned cruise ships. Neither would seem to apply to the Market, though building a proposed third cruise ship terminal for monster ships might be stopped. The Market folks hope to deflect congestion when the grand stairs to the waterfront open soon. And they have been working on getting more restaurant and retail draws away from the main arcades and up on First Ave. The landlords also seek one-of-a-kind rentals that do not draw more tourists and stay alive during the cold months.

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