Market Wars: Inside the Campaign to Save Pike Place Market (Part 1)

  • By Joyce Skaggs Brewster
  • Posted 2/27/2023
  • Essay 22664
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On November 2, 1971, Seattle voters approved Initiative One, creating a seven-acre historical district in the heart of the city and saving the 64-year-old Pike Place Market from demolition. In 1981, the 10-year anniversary of the vote, The Weekly's Joyce Skaggs Brewster took a behind-the-scenes look at the 13-year battle to save the market, focusing on the movers and shakers – Victor Steinbrueck and many others – who made it happen. "The David-and-Goliath version of the struggle that has entered the city's mythology is only partly true," Brewster writes. "Profit and power were certainly issues in the market battles, but equally at issue were two conflicting visions, not only of the market itself but of civic good." Published in The Weekly in September 1981, Brewster's story is reprinted here with the author's permission. 

A Win for Voters

November 2 will mark the tenth anniversary of one of the more remarkable elections in Seattle's history. On the ballot in 1971 was the Pike Place Market Historical District Initiative, passage of which would establish a seven-acre historical district around the market and a 12-member historical commission to oversee the "preservation, restoration, and improvement" of the market area. Defeat of the initiative would have removed the last barrier to the city's long cherished urban renewal plan, which made a much smaller market the center of a high-rise residential, commercial, and hotel complex.

Opposing Initiative One were the City of Seattle, the downtown business establishment, and the editorial voices of the major media. Promoting the initiative were two citizens' groups with a working relationship of uncertain cordiality. Both sides claimed that they would save the market and that the success of their opponents would certainly doom it. Charges of deceit and obfuscation flew back and forth. Yet the electorate apparently didn't feel confused in the end. When the dust cleared, 53,264 people had voted "no" with Seattle's movers and shakers, and 76,369 had voted "yes" with Victor Steinbrueck.

Ten years later, as the market nears the end of its "preservation, restoration, and improvement," most people agree that the voters have got what they asked for back in 1971, and that it is a good thing. You can still buy lettuce and berries direct from the farmers and pasta from Pete DeLaurenti; you can still eat the Athenian Cafe's special steak while watching the ferry boats and then wander through the lower labyrinths of the main market; you can still visit the Seattle Garden Center for hard-to-find spring bulbs.

Celebrating the victory of the initiative campaign is therefore important, but it is also important to understand it. The David-and-Goliath version of the struggle that has entered the city's mythology is only partly true. Profit and power were certainly issues in the market battles, but equally at issue were two conflicting visions, not only of the market itself but of civic good.

Plans for the Central City

The story begins in 1958 with the formation of the Central Association of Seattle. This group of downtown businessmen, concerned about the lack of forward-looking drive in both the central business district and the city government, was soon working closely with the City Planning Commission to formulate a comprehensive plan for the central city.

An area that the downtown planners found especially worrisome was the Pike Place Market and its surroundings. Founded in 1907 to allow farmers and customers to meet without middlemen, the market had seen its heyday in the 1920s and '30s, when as many as 500 farmers a day rented stalls to sell their produce. Almost half of these farmers had been Japanese, and their internment during World War II dealt the market a serious blow. The explosion of suburbs after the war, the advent of supermarkets and frozen foods, and the gradual transformation of farmland into housing tracts or industrial sites – all this further eroded the market's ability to draw both producers and consumers.

As the market's economic health declined, its physical structures decayed and its surrounding residential community, mainly single men, grew older and poorer. From the perspective of Seattle's downtown merchants and property owners, some only a block or two away, the whole area took on the unmistakable aspect of urban "blight," threatening to creep out and engulf the central business district itself. Even if the blight spread, it was already depriving Seattle of a "higher and better" use of some prime real estate and holding down the city's tax returns.

What to do? The answer, unveiled jointly by the city and the Central Association in 1963, was the Downtown Plan for 1985. What this plan envisioned for the Pike Place Market area, and the shocked response to it by critics, set the terms for a debate that was not to be resolved until 1971.

Briefly, the plan called for razing everything between 1st and Western avenues from Union to Lenora, thus making room, in the words of Central Association president Ben Ehrlichman, for "3,000 parking spaces on the terraced hillside below 1st Avenue with direct access from the inner ring road; to the north, ideal view sites for high-rise apartments plus a magnificent site for a new hotel; a large open plaza area creating a critically needed downtown park within which the Pike Place Market can be rebuilt; and, south of the plaza and market, sites for several high-rise office buildings." Ehrlichman, writing in the Argus, went on to point out the advantages of this scheme for the ailing market itself, which could "truly become a Market Place and a visitor and tourist attraction quite equal to the Los Angeles Farmer's Market.”

The key to this dream was the federal urban renewal program, which could give the city both the funds and the legal authority to assemble the checkerboard of small private properties in the area into one package, resaleable at low prices to private developers. Accordingly, a citizens' advisory committee called Seattle Urban Renewal Enterprises joined the Central Association for the next phase of planning, and in August 1964 these groups produced a report and drawings for the Pike Plaza Redevelopment Project. Like the earlier version, this one proposed to demolish everything within its 125-acre boundaries and to build a new market atop the "terraced" parking garage. A major hotel, a 200-room motel, a 1,500-person apartment complex, a park, and office buildings would comprise the market's new neighborhood. Made modern, safe, and clean, the market would thrive. Seattle would replace blight with some sparkling new amenities, would lure back from the suburbs a community of middle-class residents, and would multiply the value of its tax rolls in this area by a factor of 10. (A few developers would also make a great deal of money.)

The logic of this vision seemed compelling – unless, like a small band of "market freaks" who had been keeping an ear to the ground for several years, you cared a great deal about what was already there. For Victor Steinbrueck, a University of Washington architecture professor who was quickly to become the Don Quixote-Joan of Arc of the market crusade, the Central Association's plan was "a major catastrophe" and its version of the market amounted to replacing a "grandmother with a chorus girl." (Steinbrueck was always quotable, no mean advantage in the struggle that was to ensue.)

Organized Resistance

Steinbrueck and architects Ibsen Nelsen and Fred Bassetti had long been discussing the need for some sort of organized resistance to the rumored designs of the Central Association. During the summer of 1964, officers of Allied Arts of Seattle (Nelsen was then president of this association of Seattle arts groups) hosted a champagne breakfast at Lowell's Cafeteria, with the idea of bringing together supporters of the market and publicizing the need for action. About 60 people came and heard speeches of tribute to the market, and the event received wide coverage in the press. Out of this and subsequent meetings came a steering committee to lay plans and monitor developments; by September, when the city was applying for federal feasibility studies of the Pike Plaza Redevelopment Project, the Allied Arts steering committee had become a separate organization, the Friends of the Market, with Steinbrueck and attorney Robert Ashley as co-chairmen. 

Minutes of these early meetings reveal that the participants had no very precise ideas about what they could or should do for the market but were very clear as to what they thought about it. Fred Bassetti's statement for the champagne breakfast, read in his absence by architect Laurie Olin and several times reprinted, became one of the rallying cries of the long campaign. The market, Bassetti wrote, "reveals the face of truth. Its roughness reminds me of Seattle's beginnings, its lusty past, the vitality that gave it national notice long ago. It is an honest place in a phony time. It needs the hammer and paint brush, not the black ball of destruction.”

Painter Mark Tobey sent a letter from Basel which became the introduction to his book The World of a Market (just reissued this anniversary year by the University of Washington Press): "this fabulous array of colors and forms," wrote Tobey, "alive with all kinds of people from everywhere," made the market "a refuge, an oasis, a most human growth, the heart and soul of Seattle." Lou Guzzo, then arts editor of The Times, chided the city for its "blind, foolish rush to eliminate one of its irreplaceable treasures."

Out of all this emerged the Friends' idea of the market, the best primer for which is Steinbrueck's Market Sketchbook of 1968. "We discovered the word 'ecology'," recalls Steinbrueck wryly, and the densely detailed sketches and text of his book, recording the market's spaces and wares and people from every conceivable angle, do indeed portray a living organism whose nature is inseparable from its environment. The message is clear: these humble, haphazard, peculiar buildings, these scruffy, colorful characters are the market, and embody a whole constellation of values – historic, educational, aesthetic, social – that make the place unique. Vitality and fragility are the counterpointed themes of the book: the market is alive and well, if a bit run-down, but its particular nourishing web of conditions, once torn apart, can never be recreated.

The Friends' mission was to open other people's eyes to the market they saw before it was too late. Their goal was preservation, perhaps accomplished by some sort of public agency (an idea first suggested publicly by City Councilman Wing Luke), but the most urgent task was always holding off "the black ball of destruction." In November 1964 they opened a booth in the market to dispense information and sell Tobey's newly published World of a Market and Steinbrueck's earlier Seattle Cityscape. Other fundraising events – auctions, tours, parties – followed, always made part of the larger educational campaign. For the press and the public, Victor Steinbrueck and the Friends became synonymous. Rumpled and owlish in appearance, somewhat dour and acerbic of temperament, with a fine relish for the absurd and a disinclination ever to give opponents the benefit of the doubt, Steinbrueck was a familiar figure around the market and in the hearing rooms where its future was debated, and he always provided good copy.

By January 1965 the Friends' efforts seemed to be having some effect. Co-chairman Robert Ashley emerged from a meeting with Paul Seibert of the Central Association announcing "a great area of agreement" between the two groups. "Retention of the general heart of the market," said Seibert, "is possible and desirable." This was an important concession in principle but translating this "area of agreement" into specifics turned out to be much harder than either man anticipated.

Developers Jockey for Position

Meanwhile, the redevelopment plan was inching its way down the long, slow road to approval and funding. In September 1965 the city asked HUD (which administered urban renewal) for a survey-and-planning grant, but HUD could not come up with the requested $370,000 until December 1966. Mayor Dorm Braman had by then appointed a Pike Place Advisory Committee headed by Donald Voorhees, previous chairman of Seattle Urban Renewal Enterprises. When this committee issued an interim report in June of 1967, Voorhees echoed the earlier assurance that "we would like to preserve the market pretty much as it is" – if the physical condition of the buildings made this possible. Various studies were commissioned: a structural survey, a sociological study, an economic-feasibility study. And in August the Voorhees committee announced the selection of its design and planning team, to be led by highly respected local architects Paul Hayden Kirk and John Morse.

Without public fanfare, another design team from the Naramore Bain Brady and Johanson firm was already at work for a group of private investors. Mayor Braman, leery of turning the market area into the sort of wasteland that urban-renewal demolition was producing in other cities, had early sought "assurance from private enterprise that the property will be fully utilized and that the money we are talking about is within sight." About 20 local investors responded by incorporating in April 1966 as the Central Park Plaza Corporation. Attorney William H. Ferguson, who had been chairman of the Central Association's Pike Place committee, headed the new corporation; other officers were Gus Doces of the furniture store, William Bain Sr. (NBBJ), Robert Bank (Henry Broderick Real Estate), and John Sellen (Sellen Construction). The group immediately hired NBBJ as its architect, began investigating financing and started buying up property (at distressed prices) in the project area.

Assuaging Mayor Braman's fears was clearly not the corporation's only motive: the investors stood to profit hugely if Central Park Plaza should be chosen as the main developer of the project. This in itself is not necessarily sinister, but it does raise certain questions about the close working relationship Ferguson acknowledges between the investors and the public officials charged with shepherding the project along. "They were relying on us to make the thing go," says Ferguson simply, at the same time denying – as the city always did – that the corporation had any "inside track" on the development contract. Despite holding land in the area by 1971 (the corporation owned or had development rights to almost 15 percent of the project's 22 acres) and having been in "close contact" with the city from the beginning, Ferguson maintains that in any ultimate competition "we would have had to have the best deal" to offer the city in order to win. To the Friends, however, it seemed self-evident that Central Park Plaza would be the preferred developer if the project went through, and no other would-be developers ever surfaced.

The investors ran a quiet operation. The next flurry of public attention to the project came in late winter of 1968, when the Morse-Kirk design team presented five different preliminary plans to a festive dinner meeting of the Seattle Planning and Redevelopment Council. The designers' own preferred "Proposal 21," a model of which went on display in the market, was a "super-block" treatment of the area. It featured a "rehabilitated and expanded" market with a new copper roof, a 29-story hotel between Pine and Stewart near 1st, four apartment towers averaging 28 stories each, a 30-story apartment building for low-income and elderly residents, an ice rink, parking for 4,000 cars, and 300,000 square feet of office space. The only existing building to be preserved was the main L-shaped market building; everything else would be razed.

This plan provoked the first painful split in the previously united market-savers. Retention of the main market building and provision of housing for the low-income and elderly were clearly a response to concerns of the Friends, and Robert Ashley, who was then chairman of the Friends while Victor Steinbrueck spent a year in England, immediately praised the plan. A few days later, architect Kirk and Tom Gay, the city's manager of the project, made an official presentation (one of their earliest in the weeks of soliciting public reactions to the plan) to the Friends, and Gay's memo about the meeting reported "no adverse reaction" but rather an apparent "acceptance and enthusiasm."

The presentation to Allied Arts a couple of weeks later was a different story. By this time Steinbrueck had taken a look at the plans and had fired back a long letter from London, which was read at the meeting. His verdict: "As proposed, the market can only be a shell of the things that we want to save." Fred Bassetti had also weighed in with a letter to Morse (Bassetti's former partner) and Kirk that was circulated to other interested parties; construction of all the new towers, he wrote, "leaves the Market isolated and adrift in an alien environment." Comments from the floor were in the same vein: "It's not the kind of place," said one man plaintively, "where little people come and shop for lettuce." Morse and Kirk of course had many friends and admirers in the group, which only made things more difficult for everybody. Attorney Jerry Thonn, who was then president of Allied Arts and dates his involvement with the market battle from that time, remembers the meeting as "stormy." The P-I account records a "general feeling of dismay," and Tom Gay's report on the presentation is mainly a two-and-a-half-page list of all the critical questions raised.

A "Decadent, Somnolent Firetrap"

In the end, the official Friends of the Market position paper on the plan granted that "a sincere and professional effort has been made by all concerned" but warned that the proposal "could have a brutal and overpowering effect upon the intricate social and merchandising conditions in the Market." The statement called for retention of more farmers' stalls and old buildings, more low-income housing, assurance that rents would remain low enough to keep present merchants, and establishment of a "watch-dog" committee to prevent development unsympathetic to the "established character" of the market.

Those (including Robert Ashley) who believed that Proposal 21 made a reasonable effort to satisfy the Friends were unhappy with continued opposition. These "nitpickers" were standing in the way of progress, Mayor Braman told the Rotary Club in April. Characterizing the project area as a "decadent, somnolent firetrap," the outspoken Mayor asserted that "we don't have to leave these people [the current residents] in the middle of this choice area." Clearly, much of official Seattle still found the Friends' vision of the market unpersuasive, not to say incomprehensible.

The design team, however, and the city's project managers continued meeting with the Friends, market operators, and other groups as they modified and refined their plan for eventual submission to the City Council. Letters were exchanged between Paul Kirk and Victor Steinbrueck, still in London. (Kirk regards Steinbrueck's year-long absence during the design process as "unfortunate – Vic could have made valuable contributions.”)

By September, when the City Council finally authorized submission of Scheme 23 (as it was now called) to HUD for its review, the plan contained further concessions to the Friend’s objections. The copper roof was gone from the main market building, which would be restored "as close to a historic duplication possible"; the Economy and Corner Market buildings would also be retained, and the LaSalle and Leland Hotels would be remodeled and kept as low-income residences; the four original 28-story apartment buildings were now six towers ranging from 11 to 27 stories; and the 30-story public-housing tower had become a complex of buildings from five to eight stories high.

This was better – but not good enough. Too many old buildings would still be lost, too many boxy towers loomed. The market's "intricate" social and merchandising condition were still at risk. Again, acknowledging the good intentions of the architects "within the limits of their directives," the Friends in mid-October launched a campaign for 50,000 signatures on a petition headed "Let's Keep the Market." Of the five "beliefs" to which signers of the petition committed themselves, the last was most to the point: "Conservation and sympathetic rehabilitation of most of the present buildings and existing businesses is essential." In November the Friends celebrated the appearance of another weapon in the fight, Steinbrueck's newly published Market Sketchbook.

Steinbrueck's Virtuoso Performance

The Friends' petition was meant to be presented at the City Council hearings that would take place once HUD had pronounced the plan acceptable and sent it back to Seattle for final approval. Typically, this took longer than expected and the hearings didn't begin until March 19, 1969.

The Friends were ready. Spirits roused by a rally at the Moore Theatre a few days earlier, a throng of market-savers marched on City Hall the day the hearings opened, bearing signs, daffodils, and 53,000 names on their petitions. Then began Steinbrueck's virtuoso performance at the long complex hearings (which eventually totaled 33 1/2 hours of testimony in 12 sessions between March 19 and April 25). Orchestrating evidence of all sorts, cross-examining the city's experts, hectoring, badgering ("victoring," in fact, might be a meaningful addition to Seattle's political lexicon), Steinbrueck made the hearings into real courtroom drama.

Histrionics were the order of the day in the streets as well. One broadside issued by the Friends toward the end of the hearings leads off, "Citizens of Seattle and King County: In the name of common decency, and the tradition and heritage of our region, the Friends of the Market summon you to our cause." After a few preliminaries we learn that "the central business MERCHANTS OF GREED are using URBAN RENEWAL to MURDER THE MARKET: by strangulation and rape thru demolition and disruption ... by taking the heart of the market to give life to their swank hotel and luxury apartment plaza development" – and so on. This is not the ordinary rhythm and diction of Seattle; in fact, it comes straight from the inflammatory handouts of the Irish Rebellion, which Steinbrueck and his actress wife Marjorie Nelson had been researching to prepare for her role in The Hostage. (Try reading it in a brogue.)

Such tactics, both in and out of the hearing room, infuriated some people on the other side. Yet it is questionable whether the outcome – the City Council finally voted unanimously to approve Scheme 23 – would have been much different had Steinbrueck been more politic. His intimate knowledge of the market and of preservation (gained from the Pioneer Square wars) had scored a good number of points; "even people who hated my guts," he recalls with satisfaction, would consult him on the fine points of urban-renewal law during the hearings' frequent moments of confusion. Moreover, in the months after the hearings, private exchanges between City Council members and project officials continued to reflect concerns raised by the Friends, such as problems of relocation and the phasing of the project to avoid massive disruption of business. When the City Council finally made its official request in August for funds to begin the project, it was with recommendations for three additional buildings (along First Avenue) to be rehabilitated, for a lower hotel tower, and for a Design Review Board to monitor development.

The Friends were down but not out, and during the fall the Nixon Administration gave them a gift of time by freezing funds for urban renewal. Meanwhile there were two new faces on the city's new Department of Community Development (DCD), which would administer urban renewal projects; and Wes Uhlman had been elected mayor.

The Friends' next maneuver was a quiet one, but it established the beachhead from which the war would eventually be won. Steinbrueck and Laurie Olin drew up, documented, and submitted it to the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation a 17-acre Pike Place Market Historic District, and in February 1970 the Council approved the placement of the District on the National Register of Historic Places. Apparently, a few corners were cut in the effort to take the city by surprise, but Steinbrueck regards official protests of his "secrecy" as a bit disingenuous: "What did they expect us to do, advertise?"

At any rate, over two-thirds of the project was now effectively out of bounds for Scheme 23, as no public money could be spent there unless plans were first approved by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The ball was in the city's court.

In April Mayor Uhlman, Jim Braman, and Tom Gay met privately with representatives of Central Park Plaza Corporation and apparently decided to attack the Historic Site designation head-on. Accordingly, the city asked Charles Odegaard, who as State Parks Director was also head of the State Advisory Council, to call a special meeting of the Council in Seattle to reconsider its action.

In August the Council came, saw, and was conquered. City officials conducted a tour of the project area, pointing out blight and decrepitude, and explaining why rehabilitation was not feasible, and then the Central Association (including, of course, some of the Central Park Plaza investors) hosted a luncheon at the Rainier Club. The Council's formal meeting, attended by the press and Victor Steinbrueck, followed in the Club's library. Like the market, the Rainier Club has a special ambience. Two weeks later the Council came up with its decision: the historic district was reduced to the 1.7-acre "core market" of the Pike Plaza plan.

The Friends responded in December by filing suit, together with Allied Arts, the Washington Environmental Council, and three market merchants, to have the original district restored, charging that Odegaard had changed it "arbitrarily and any mere administrative fiat." (The suit went through various motions and continuances but never came to trial before the passage of the Initiative made it immaterial.)

Meanwhile the biggest news in Seattle was that the bottom had dropped out of the economy. From an urban-renewal point of view, the recession had two effects. First, it gave the Friends additional grounds for attacking the project's credibility, based as it was on economic projections from a much rosier era. But it also gave Seattle high priority for federal assistance, and late in 1970 rumors were that the HUD grant for Pike Plaza was going to come unstuck at last.

Last Round of Negotiations

The Friends decided to try a last round of negotiations. Before and after Christmas Steinbrueck and Jerry Thonn (now vice president of the Friends) met several times with Ferguson and a few other Central Park Plaza investors. "We certainly would have settled for less," says Thonn, than the Initiative finally won, but the meetings never got to the point of discussing possible compromises. For Ferguson, a soft-spoken, grandfatherly man whom Thonn describes as "hard as nails," the issue was one of simple economics. "A residential community in an area like that had to be large enough for security and high enough to get maximum economic return to satisfy mortgage holders. It just wasn't feasible to scale it down." But it's clear that Ferguson believed the project would be an attractive one: he was planning to sell his Mercer Island home and move into one of the new penthouse apartments. It was the old problem of irreconcilable visions. "Victor," he says drily "thought the 'flavor' of the market was bums."

Another problem in these negotiations was the refusal of Central Park Plaza to divulge exactly what their NBBJ plans looked like. Although Ferguson remembers that "everything was public," no plans or models show in the newspapers of the period, and Steinbrueck says he had to rely on sketches of plans shown him confidentially by a double agent. The NBBJ concept, he recalls, was very different from Morse-Kirk's Scheme 23 – the hotel, for one thing, was not a tower but a long horizontal bridge – but the same elements were there, and the market "as we know it would have been eliminated as effectively by the one as by the other."

Early in 1971, as the Friends were rallying volunteers to picket City Hall, Jim Braman initiated yet another series of negotiations. He and other DCD staff had several breakfasts with Steinbrueck, Thonn, and Laurie Olin, trying to find an approach that would satisfy the Friends without completely transforming Scheme 23. Braman still shakes his head over these meetings, which seemed to be making progress and which cost him considerable time and effort in preparing amendments and resolutions – when Steinbrueck suddenly and "mysteriously" backed off. What intervened was the long-awaited announcement, on May 15, of the federal grant award for the Pike Plaza Project. (Although the Friends had expected the funding announcement to come from the local HUD office, one of the targets of their picketing, word in fact came from Washington, D.C. – probably because Ferguson and the Central Association had been working the John Ehrlichman connection.) 

It was now too late for negotiations; more drastic steps were in order. The Friends' board had been meeting weekly for some time to discuss available options, and the idea of an historic-district initiative had gradually evolved. There was no real precedent for the form of such an initiative, and after a few early stabs at drawing up drafts the Friends consulted another of their double agents, this one in city government, for help. By May 10 a long, detailed draft was ready, and the day after the federal funding was announced the Friends launched a drive for 20,000 signatures to put the initiative on the ballot. "It was a hectic and exciting time," recalls Jerry Thonn. By June 14, Friends at street corners and rallies had gathered over 20,000 signatures (15,560 were legally necessary) and filed their petition to submit the initiative to the voters at the next election.

The initiative would create a seven-acre Historical District from Virginia to a line between Pike and Union and from the middle of 1st to the middle of Western. It also established a Market Historical Commission, specified the sources of its membership (almost all groups sympathetic to the Friends), and gave as its purpose "the preservation, restoration, and improvement of such buildings and continuance of uses ... as ... shall be deemed to have architectural, cultural, economic, and historical value." The emphasis throughout on saving market "uses" as well as buildings was central to the Friends' long campaign – and, incidentally, makes the market unique among historical-preservation projects in this country.

Next: In Part 2 of "Market Wars," the city girds for a vote.

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