Seattle Waterfront History Interviews: Rico Quirindongo, Pike Place Market PDA

  • By Dominic Black and Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 6/12/2023
  • Essay 22735
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Seattle architect Rico Quirindongo served as chair of the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority (PDA) Council during planning and construction of the MarketFront addition on Western Avenue. He is now [2023] Acting Director of Seattle's Office of Planning and Community Development. In this 2022 interview with HistoryLink's Jennifer Ott and Dominic Black, Quirindongo discusses Pike Place Market's diverse community, construction of the MarketFront addition, and the Market's connection to Seattle's central waterfront. 

Joining the Board of Pike Place Market

Rico Quirindongo: I would admit that one of the reasons beyond interest in the waterfront and the Market itself, one of the reasons I was interested in the position was to level up. So I have had a board addiction problem and I have spent the last 20 years doing this civic service, like serving on not-for-profit boards and learning about governance. I think that prior to joining the Pike Place Market, most of that board service was with organizations where those that were serving was a fairly homogenous community. So I was on the board for American Institute of Architects Seattle Chapter for six or seven years. I mean, we're all architects. We all think about things in general but in very similar ways.

Joining the Pike Place Market, the council, I knew that ... Look, joining a community where you had people that lived in the Market on the board, you had people that owned businesses that were on the board. You had folks that represented the constituency, which was the constituency being named in the charter and a body that was supposed to be represented for the people by the people, people that lived and worked in the Market, along with folks that were appointed by the mayor's office. And then a third bucket of folks that were just appointed by people within the council itself. It's a pretty diverse community with a very broad range of affluence related to what people had expertise in around the table, whether it was lived experience or legal experience or construction experience or development experience.

And so I was eager to jump into that space to educate myself on and learn from an environment which had very broad different types of stakeholders that we were trying to engage. And I mean, thinking about that, taking that one step further, we had what’s referred to as the five families, which are all social service-based organizations that are part of the market family, like the food bank, like the daycare.

So you had that level of social services, but then you also had some mom-and-pop stores on the one end and then really big financial drivers of the market like the Inn at The Market, like The Pink Door, and how do you balance those varied interests?

I think ironically, because of the charter of the Market itself – and what I would say was a four-legged stool between the Market Historic Commission, the PDA, the foundation, and the constituency – there was both an informal and a formal checks and balances between keeping the Market authentic; listening to the needs of residents and business owners; looking after the interests of the city as a partner; and then just ensuring that the history of the Market was always front and center in our decision-making process, whether it was how buildings were maintained and restored, what the size of the lettering was on a signage related to a business, or how we stewarded the $72 million – which was our investment in the MarketFront project being the last site within our historic campus where you could see a development project at that scale.

So I think unlike what happens outside of the Market where there is less of an alignment related to political agendas, financial resources, et cetera, within the boundaries of the Market where we both had that four-legged stool from a governance standpoint, plus the charter and mission of the Market there. While not homogeneous at all; what we did have was a functioning and continuous community engagement platform where every single week – whether it was a full council meeting or a committee meeting or a coming together of invested stakeholders in a historic commission meeting or a foundation gathering or fundraising event – we had as a constant touchpoint meeting with the community and being held accountable by community. And the simple reality with that, which was very ... we had that same reality for the small Black-owned firm that was the firm that I was with for 17 years.

My business partner, who also was my mentor as a young architect, always liked to say, "Hey Rico, we have to do right by community. We can't ever fall short in the expectations and the delivery of projects because these are the same people I'm going to run into when I'm going to get my groceries at the store. And if I didn't do right by them, I'm going to hear it from them."

And that was the same thing at the Market. We were there every week and people are going to hold us accountable, which I think ... one of the jobs being a counselor, and I think it's actually true in my job now as a director on the mayor's cabinet, both doing community engagement and working with staff, it's really important. It's really important to understand the role, the leadership role, but also what the role is of a community member and to not be afraid to be clear about what those roles are. And the reason I say that, I think that a lot of what you see in different government models right now is a taking of decision-making and saying, "Hey, while the community needs to decide blank and here's a certain amount of dollars, here's the problem statement, you guys go figure it out and get back to us."

And I think a problem with that approach is that the "community," in air quotes, (A) is not homogenous in their thinking and (B) often doesn't have the resources to manage that kind of conversation, including not necessarily having the resources from a knowledge standpoint. Like expertise in legal matters, expertise in development considerations, expertise in construction, knowledge about what levers to push and pull related to different permitting issues, the list goes on and on and on. As leaders, I think it's extremely important that what we do, and we did this at the Market, understand what the work is that we need to get done, what the value is of input from the community and not asking community members to do work that really isn't their work to do – work, that we as public stewards or public officials, that we are trained to do and required to do.

Equity and the Marketfront

RQ: I think, so the project is an interesting one because the PDA, we actually answered a request for proposals from the City of Seattle, [which] was looking to solve an environmental impact statement problem related to the Waterfront project. They had, and you may have heard this already, but the city, in doing their EIS, were aware that they were losing 625 parking spaces along the waterfront in doing this redevelopment project. And so one of the things they were looking for was a partner that would help them replace a large compliment of that missing parking.

Now, I'm not going to get the exact number correct, but within the waterfront ... I'm sorry, within the MarketFront project that we completed, we provided around 340 parking spaces in the new project, which are all, there's an agreement that ... And so this is what the $34 million that the city put into this project was directly related to those parking spaces, but they are encumbered i.e. the Market can only charge a certain dollar amount for hourly rates for those parking spaces and can only have a certain number of them be monthly versus hourly as part of a commitment to public access and public good.

So that's one thing. Related to the program or the rest of the building, and that's all below grade, nobody sees it unless you're going into that little cut on Western to drive down into the below-grade garage. What gets experienced by the general public otherwise though, is what I believe is around 10,000 square feet of makerspace, which is, it's the ... I'm not going to say the word right, the chocolate ... I don't know what the hell the word is.

Jennifer Ott: Is it Chocolatier?

RQ: Chocolatier, thank you.

JO: Yeah, I think so. Yeah.

RQ: The chocolatier, it's the beer-making process which is laid out in front of you. It's a series of spaces where people are making a product and selling their wares, which was an explicit program component that we wanted to incorporate into the overall vision of the next phase of the market, right?

And that there were multiple points of entry for people to be able to be a vendor in one of those spaces. In addition to that, which is another point of entry, we created the plaza level, which originally was going to be entirely open air. We created that level in part for the creation of public space and for gathering and for view, which again, can ... How do you come to the Market? How do you, without a dollar to spend or $10 to buy a sandwich, how can you come and spend time at the market and get a benefit that is a benefit to all, that 180 degree view, which didn't exist there before and used to be only afforded, in air quotes, by "folks that were driving on the Viaduct" while it still existed? We created an opportunity for that vista view and place of gathering, which doesn't come at a dollar value.

In addition to that, the addition of an outdoor coverage space at that plaza level provided the opportunity to create a vending space, which was an extension of the main level of the market, which is now another space for the farm community for artists that are showing their wares and selling at a vendor station. So not the same level of commitment as owning a business one layer down, but another opportunity for the existing community and an expansion opportunity for vending and sales, understanding that we only had a limited number of tables and spots within the main Market space. So I think going to equity, the issue was if you look at the program for that building, there's many places and ways to opt in at many different scales, and that was a really important part of the vision, and making a physical space that was available to everyone, whether you were getting a beer, having an elegant dinner, or just walking through for the afternoon.

The only other thing I would add is that the creation of the Market Commons, which is front on Western, which is essentially a community resource space, you can go there to get information, you can go there to get direction related to social services in the Market, you can go there to learn of other services and other places in the city that may be either helpful or important for you; that was an outward-facing function that we didn't have before, but it was a specific program component that was created as a part of the MarketFront project.

MarketFront: an Evolving Public Space

Dominic Black: Yeah, that's interesting. One thing about MarketFront, as you articulated there, is that I do get a strong sense of how there's a plan on paper and then it's built and then once actual organic beings are moving around, it evolves into something else that maybe something that you didn't initially intend. I guess that's part of the built environment, is that it has to be able to respond to the presence of human beings.

RQ: It's true. I mean, I think that in this case, I feel like when I visit MarketFront today, it feels like it functions in large part very much like we always had hoped and intended. I would say, if anything, that outdoor covered space at the plaza level, I could see that as the Market continues to evolve, I could ... And we've had so many different challenges, right? It was not long after MarketFront opened that we hit Covid. I could see as we move into downtown activation and recovery and revitalization, that that space is one of the important spaces in the city that gets used more and that becomes more of a gathering space and more of a multi-use space, particularly if you think about the aquarium project underway now and the overlook walk once it's completed. To your point, I do think that the building function will continue to grow and evolve as more people discover it and as the administration at the Market grows and changes.

If you have talked to Mary Bacarella, who's the current director, then you know that she's heading an effort right now that looks at a new master-planning process for the Market, which essentially looks at what the campus holds today, how did we get here, but then what does the future look like? What's the next 20 years of the Market? And then how does that represent itself in programming across our multiple buildings on the campus and where we make our investments next. We had the investment in all the 13 existing buildings before doing the MarketFront project, then we had the major effort of the MarketFront project itself. And now, there's an opportunity to look at the whole campus holistically and figure out what's next or what's in our future, similar to what we're doing with the whole city with the comprehensive plan.

Connecting the Market with the Neighborhoods

DB: Well, I was going to say, how do you integrate what happens with the MarketFront and what happens on the waterfront with the overlook walk and the development of the aquarium? How do you ensure that that stays linked to the neighborhoods in Seattle? Because it was interesting to me when I was there during summer that a lot of people talked about the waterfront as being tourist-oriented and the Market as being tourist-oriented, being for people who come to visit, right? So whether that's accurate or not, that was a perception. I was quite surprised to hear that people were still talking about it in those terms, right?

RQ: Yeah, I mean, this is the problem with collective memory. I think that there are some people that will always say that the Pike Place Market is just for tourists. Now, if you ask the people that live and work in the Market that question, they will, in large part, not agree with the statement. There is a reality that we always had to fight on the council, which was how did we ensure that during the busy times, during the summer months, that there were things that we could do to prioritize locals and still having a place at the table when the Market is overrun with tourists – but how could we ensure that people that both lived in the Market and lived downtown, that the Pike Place Market was one of the places that they came to shop?

And I think that we've experimented with a night market, we've talked about, "What are the components that used to be at the Market that aren't anymore, like a hardware store or a general store component?" There are things that I know will be reintroduced to the Market in its future that will ensure its continued viability for a community that lives and works in the downtown. And I would also note that during Covid, and I mean no offense to anybody who was trying to survive or run a business in the downtown core, but the only place that there was a real there there was Pike Place Market. And it is because of the commitment of the PDA and the foundation, how we managed the lease structure of the organization and our commitment to the business owners and residential community there, which is different. It is a different place than anywhere else in the city.

The Market as Blueprint for Equitable Community

RQ: Well, so the Market has this peculiarity which is baked into the lease structure, and I believe it's baked into the charter as well where everyone has a base rent, a base lease that they pay a base percentage, and then the rest of their lease – their monthly nut – is based on a percentage of sales. And so if you, I mean, this is where the Market was brilliant in creating a social program within a capitalist structure. So if you are a big business that has lots of receipts and big dollars, you pay a lot more for your lease at the Market than if you are a mom-and-pop shop that gets much less foot traffic and much less in sales.

It means that within that construct, everybody gets to stay and everybody benefits because to be clear, lots of people come to check out all the small mom-and-pop places for the variety and interests and unusual items and spaces, and that benefits the big guys that then see a bunch of that foot traffic coming and having dinner at their places or staying at the end or whatever the case may be. So there's mutual benefit, but everybody essentially pays at a scale that they can afford.

I think if you think about how our tax structure works, we could get to a place where we did that both as a city and at the state level, but that is a much more complicated legislative nut than the management of the mission and charter of the Market.

Having said that, it's something that I've been really interested in exploring in different ways. If I think about our comprehensive plan, if I think about the fact that we did a major up-zone for the city many years ago and we're now looking at how the city grows from 750,000 people today to a million people 20 years from now, how do we afford and manage that growth where the footprint of the city is not getting any bigger? There's no place else for us to go, therefore, we will get more dense. And how do we create missing middle housing opportunities for folks that work in the city to live in the city? There's a huge equity framework there that I've been very inspired by what is done at Pike Place Market, which of course, also includes senior housing, it includes affordable housing and it's in the downtown core. How do we create that same balance and structure across the rest of the city, particularly downtown?

DB: And how do you do that? What are you looking at in that regard?

RQ: So I think it will happen at a bunch of scales, right? So we know that at the state that the governor is looking at ways to double down on affordable housing investments. We know that public-private partnership plays an incredibly important role as the MarketFront was in and of itself a public-private partnership project. The Equitable Development Initiative that I mentioned before, I think we are in our sixth year, and that program, which puts out around $20 million a year in investments in BIPOC community-led development projects, was an explicit anti-displacement strategy from the last comprehensive plan from six years ago.

When we look at how up-zoning has displaced medium- and low-income families, what we know is that the city has to play a role in mediating and offsetting that displacement. So whereas the EDI program has a focus on commercial units essentially, ground-floor uses, we're talking about is there a way to create, for example, a funding program that funds the 20 percent gap for first-time homeowners, for BIPOC families that own parcels that would like to be able to develop an accessory dwelling unit or a detached accessory dwelling unit, but don't have the resources to do that on their own. If we can create programs like that, we can ensure that when a developer puts a letter of interest in front of a homeowner to say, "Hey, let me buy your property and develop here," that those families have another option, an option to stay. And so what we're hoping to do is find ways to not only allow people to stay but also bring people back.

We're looking at, how do we incentivize and build more townhomes? How do we build more stacked flats? How do we do more infill housing that still fits within the neighborhood structure of our beautiful feeder neighborhoods in the downtown, but that provide a greater density and the ability for a family that has $100,000 a year in income to actually become a homeowner? Right now, if you want to own a home in the core, within the confines of the city, you have to essentially make 241 percent of area median income, which is not reasonable if you are a workforce employee. So we're looking at the piece of it that has to do with just building more housing. We're looking at the piece which is economic incentives through the Office of Economic Development. We're looking at the piece which is providing more affordable subsidized housing through the Office of Housing.

We're looking at what the public-private partnership opportunities with corporate and business and landowners in the core, how do we think about ways that we can get more people living downtown? Again, going back to the times of Covid, neighborhoods outside of the downtown core did well because people lived there and there were businesses there to serve the people that lived there. We know that anecdotally, because we don't have great numbers, but we have some evidence, we're probably never going to get back. I mean, we are in a new reality where we're probably not going to get back to more than 50 percent of the office towers having the number of butts in seat in office spaces as were there before Covid. And so if we're looking at Jane Jacobs's eyes on the street, vibrant neighborhoods, vibrant streetscapes and storefronts, the largest most important component of that is people. And if we're going to get more people downtown, it's going to be because more people live here.

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