Seattle Neighborhoods: Downtown Seattle -- Thumbnail History

  • By Walt Crowley and Patrick McRoberts
  • Posted 4/17/1999
  • Essay 1041
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Downtown Seattle is not just another neighborhood. After centuries of settlement by Indians, the first Europeans to call Seattle home established farms and a steam-powered sawmill in the area of Pioneer Square. As downtown grew, it spread north, becoming the financial and retail center of Washington's largest city and of the region. Today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, downtown Seattle has escaped the urban decay of many cities and remains a vibrant center, with many retail, financial, and cultural activities and with new urban residential areas developing in and around it.

The first European settlers in Seattle were the party of a dozen Midwesterners led by Arthur Denny (1822-1899). After a rain-soaked stay at Alki point across Elliott Bay, in 1852 the party relocated in the area of the future downtown. They settled on a small patch of level land and on a nearby island in the middle of what is now Pioneer Square, at the south end of downtown. The decision of Henry Yesler (1810-1892) later that year to build the Sound's first steam-powered sawmill in the new village of Seattle secured its economic future.

The Great Fire and a Downtown Reborn

Brisk maritime trade in lumber and salmon sustained the village through the 1860s and 1870s. During the 1880s, following the arrival of railroads, Seattle's population increased twelvefold to more than 40,000. A handsome downtown rose in present-day Pioneer Square, then on June 6, 1889, burned to the ground.

The city was quickly rebuilt with stone and brick instead of wood. Seattle prospered until the national economic downturn of the Panic of 1893. Four years later, in 1897, the Klondike gold rush revived its growth.

The Open City Debate

Debates raged over whether Seattle should be an "open city," welcoming gold rush miners and allowing or tolerating services such as saloons and brothels. Some argued the city should be closed because of the presumed corruption brought by these activities. During the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth, open city advocates won. Downtown Seattle featured a variety of "services" for miners and thrived economically. Later, a negative reaction to this free-wheeling atmosphere fed into the Prohibition movement. In 1914, Seattle voters approved a statewide prohibition law by 61 percent. The city, along with the state, went dry from 1916 to 1933.

The pattern of downtown Seattle's early growth was largely determined by the topographical corset formed by Elliott Bay on the west and the steep slopes of First Hill and Capitol Hill on the east. The resulting "wasp waist" tended to push progressive expansion outward on the north and south, forming a model "Gibson Girl" shape.

Remaking the Landscape

As the city's commercial enterprises expanded northward out of Pioneer Square along 1st and 2nd avenues, city engineers went to work leveling steep grades and hills. Their most formidable challenge was to lower the towering Denny Hill, north of Pine Street. It was nearly three decades before the last of the hill was dumped into Elliott Bay, creating an area called the Denny Regrade.

Also, the relocation of the original University of Washington from Denny's Knoll, centered at 4th Avenue and University Street, to its present-day campus northeast of downtown in 1895, allowed for the planned development of a new central business district. R. H. Thomson regraded 4th Avenue in 1904 and the Metropolitan Building Company began developing the UW's "Metropolitan Tract" in 1908 on the basis of a master plan prepared by New York architects Howells & Stokes. The Cobb building at 4th and University is the lone survivor of their vision. (The UW still owns the tract, which has been managed by Unico since 1954.)

An even more ambitious scheme to shift the civic center -- city hall and other public buildings -- north to the Denny Regrade collapsed when voters rejected the Bogue Plan, named after planning director Virgil Bogue (1846-1916), on March 5, 1912. The public buildings, including a newly built King County Courthouse remained in the area of Yesler Way, just north of Pioneer Square, where a new government center was built in the early twenty-first century and is now being revived and modernized (2006).

High Ambitions

In the early 1900s, the city's ambitions aimed high, symbolized by the completion in 1914 of the Smith Tower. At 36 stories and 462 feet, it was, at the time, the tallest building west of Ohio. By this time, however, the retail and business core had begun to shift north chiefly along 2nd Avenue and in a cluster around the new Metropolitan Tract.

Active construction in downtown continued until the 1929 stock market crash dried up development capital. Meanwhile, Pioneer Square slid into decline and gave the nation the term "Skid Road" (sometimes misstated as "Skid Row") to describe a blighted community.

War Years

World War II and the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans shattered the relative prosperity of the town's Chinatown/International District, east of Pioneer Square. The war was kinder to ship and plane builders and their workers, but the postwar slump hit the town hard.

By the late 1950s, Boeing's success had helped to lift Seattle's economy and spirits, and in 1962 the town undertook the audacious task of hosting a World's Fair. This event left the Seattle Center, just north of downtown, as a permanent legacy.


A number of construction projects in the 1950s and 1960s had questionable impacts on downtown. In 1953, the Alaskan Way Viaduct effectively separated downtown from its waterfront. The new Interstate 5 freeway, constructed in 1963, severed the downtown from its Capitol Hill and First Hill neighborhoods.

Such misguided planning and the threat of "urban renewal" led citizens such as visionary architect Victor Steinbrueck (1911-1985) to champion historic preservation. They saved Pioneer Square and the Pike Place Market from redevelopment early in the 1970s, and although they did not win every battle, their victories secured preservation of scores of individual downtown structures.

Booms and Controversy

During the 1980s, downtown construction soared. It literally reached its height with the construction of the Columbia Seafirst Center at 701 Fifth Avenue. The 76-story building remains the tallest in the city. The construction boom spurred a reaction when, in 1989, voters passed the Citizens' Alternative Plan (CAP) Initiative, which limited the height of downtown buildings to 30 stories. This was repealed by the City in 2006.

During the 1990s, controversy continued to bubble around downtown development. The closing of Frederick & Nelson's, a major department store, spurred concerns about urban decay in the area around its historic location at Pine Street and 5th Avenue. Pine Street between 4th and 5th avenues had been closed to vehicular traffic as part of Westlake Mall, a triangular pedestrian area in front of Westlake Center. Nordstrom, another leading department store, agreed to remodel and move into the Frederick & Nelson building, but only if Pine Street were reopened to traffic.

Despite charges that the city was favoring moneyed downtown interests, voters agreed to reopen the street. A resulting development spree led to such upscale firms as Nike Town and Planet Hollywood locating in the area along 6th Avenue. Despite the apparent success of this redevelopment effort, criticism resurfaced concerning City financing of a garage as part of the Nordstrom package.

Culture and a "Cool" Place to Live

In addition to commercial development, several major cultural institutions have built downtown, including the Seattle Art Museum at 1st Avenue and University Street, and the Seattle Symphony's Benaroya Hall at 3rd Avenue and University Street. Also, several downtown theaters have been revitalized during the 1990s.

During the decade, residential development accelerated, creating thousands of new condo and apartment units in downtown and the Denny Regrade. This resulted partly from the city policy, under Mayor Norm Rice, of focusing residential space near jobs and amenities. Rice's "urban village" concept for the South Lake Union area was tested in the mid-1990s when voters twice rejected plans for a "Seattle Commons" development featuring a vast park, new housing, and high-tech research and manufacturing campuses.

The policy of urban "densification" continued under Mayor Paul Schell and has intensified under his successor, Greg Nickels, since 2002. Mayor Nickels lifted the downtown CAP, supported an expanded Monorail system, advocated replacement of the Alaska Way Viaduct with a tunnel to reconnect downtown with the waterfront, and promoted construction of a streetcar line on Westlake Ave. The latter is intended to stimulate development of the so-called "Denny Triangle" and South Lake Union, where Paul Allen's Vulcan group has invested tens of millions of dollars in residential and commercial development similar to that envisioned in the "Seattle Commons" plan (which Allen supported).

Critics have complained that the number of affordable or low-income residential units has declined because the new buildings are, as a rule, too expensive for working and middle class residents. This, combined with concerns about the City's treatment of street people, has perpetuated controversy over a booming downtown at the end of the twentieth century.


Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide Seattle (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998); Lee Moriwaki, "Downtown's Changing Face," The Seattle Times, February 23, 1997. Note: The information on the Smith Tower in this essay was corrected on September 2, 2004, and the entry was updated on August 4, 2006.

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