The Return of Third Avenue

The shades of character that neighborhoods, streets, blocks, or even particular corners take on has always intrigued me. There are a few places downtown that have traditionally been “dodgy” (as Hugh Grant says it in Love Actually), where I have been aware that I’m slightly more aware of the people around me — like the hair on my neck is trying to act as antennae for potential trouble from the panhandlers, the crazy yelling people, or the groups of angry young men or even young women that make moving about in the city so invigorating. But one block over, or a block or two away down the same avenue, things are completely different. I’m always watching to see how and why these pockets of dubious character form, take hold, maintain themselves, and maybe finally get replaced by a different character.

Give me First Avenue any day. Real local shops, human scale, a well-peopled way.

When I was growing up, if we mentioned Seattle’s First Avenue we snickered, because it’s where ladies of ill repute plied the oldest trade (supposedly — I never saw any of that trade’s practitioners and I had to cross First at Marion to get onto the ferry as a teenager to visit my friend Cam on Bainbridge Island). The street’s name was synonymous with harlotry and sleezy businesses. There are still one or two businesses that hark back to that time but in the main First Avenue is now  upscale, clean, and reputable. Because I pay attention to the built environment and the social environments that it either nurtures or discourages, First Avenue is my path of choice if I have to walk on a North-South axis. There are lots of coffee shops and cafes and restaurants and retail stores, a great stationer, and enough older brick and stone buildings to retain a human scale.

Second Avenue through the main part of downtown (say Marion through Stewart) is boring — made up now of the empty concrete “plazas” and courts at the bases of skyscrapers, interchangeable burrito joints hidden in their deep shadows. (There are some exceptions to the monotony, which I’ll treat of in other posts someday). At five oclock these areas become deserted. Even the disenfranchised prefer places with more human energy. It’s not run down. It’s just lifeless. As long as I’ve been walking around downtown Second has been a safe street you could walk down without being bothered — except for the intersection at Pike. 

Second and Pike seemed to me like a drug-deal corner for ages, and in truth the two blocks of Pike Street from Third to First (where Pike meets its market) remain the corrider for people you don’t want to bump into very rudely. A few years ago, the police would ensconce themselves daily at the parking lot on the southeast corner of Second and Pike, and even ran a needle exchange program there for a while to help reduce the spread of AIDS. The grocery or tobacco shop just east of this parking lot was secured behind a drop-down metal gate at night. I was always nervous around there. Still, seventy yards further east and you were on the other side of Third, and that was a “nice” area. Tables with crisp white linens were set out on the sidewalk in front of cafes. A block from the needle exchange.

The Maximus Minimus truck now sells pork sandwiches where the pusherman used to sell drugs. Photo taken earlier this year.

The Newmark Cinema went in at Second and Union (one block south of Pike) during the late ’80s or early ’90s as the anchoring tenant of a large new building there, but the theater failed because — in my opinion — it was too close to Second and Pike. People didn’t like to walk around there. As I mentioned, Second Avenue through most of downtown doesn’t have enough sidewalk life to feel inviting, but then when you get closer to Pike, the kind of sidewalk life you encounter is the kind you want to pass through quickly, not queue up for a movie and pull out your wallet in.

In recent years, however, the block of Pike between Third and Second has come up, and I think it is part of a revitalization of Third Avenue. Because of the presence of the world famous Farmer’s Market at the west end of Pike (a chaotic place friendly to the dodgy element), I think the blocks immediately eastward on Pike will always be a little greasy. But between Second and Third the police cars come less frequently and the needle exchange vans are gone. The old grocery/tobacco place was replaced two years ago by a second installment of Mae Phim Thai, a lunchtime institution that is still line-out-the-door every day down on Columbia below First. Soon after Mae Phim opened its new restaurant there, a gourmet popcorn joint went in right next to it.

Because of the many nice shops and restaurants nestled among the towers of finance on those streets, if you walk along Fourth or Fifth Avenue you will share the sidewalk mostly with business people and retail shoppers during the day and with a few theatergoers, happy-hour revelers and shoppers in the evenings. If you walk along Second, two short blocks toward the bay, you will encounter business people during the day and no one at all in the evening, because there aren’t any nice restaurants and there aren’t any shops. But between these two avenues, Third is this unusual blend. It has the Post Office, which until recently has been the third ugliest building in town and which sits directly across from Benaroya Hall, our symphony’s home. There is a fine restaurant called Wild Ginger at the same intersection (University), and there is a McDonald’s on Third and Pine. Because of this mix and because Third is the main bus corridor, both daytime and evening traffic consists of the upper class element threading their way among other people with considerably less to lose, and late at night Third Avenue is virtually an avenue of urban decay, gangs of youths yelling and strutting across the street in front of buses and clustering into an impenetrable wall in front of McDonald’s.

Bruno's single-handedly held down the west side of Third Avenue for years. Now the sign for the IGA supermarket is visible to the north. Photo taken earlier this year.

Third has some exceptional old buildings like the Arctic Hotel, the Dexter Horton Building, the Telephone Building and the Northern Life Tower. Some other time I’ll talk about some of these, along with the ugliest two buildings in the downtown core, which are also on Third. But Third has two particular blocks, the blocks between University and Union and the one between Union and Pike, that have been problematic up until now. The old Woolworths building, now a Ross budget clothing store, takes up half the block between Union and Pike but only has windows at the corner. The rest is a bare wall without awnings, so it bakes in the summer sun and offers no relief from the drizzle during the rest of the year. That side of the block also contains a Bartell’s Drugs, which is handy but attracts trouble. While I was talking with Ben Gant at his newsstand the other day three men came running out of the Bartell’s. The one in front was brought down to the sidewalk by the two chasing him, who turned out to be store detectives. In the low buildings on the other side of the street there were mainly empty or not-often-occupied spaces, with the exception of Bruno’s Pizzeria, which has been there a long time. South a block, between University and Union, the Post Office and the symphony hall face off over the heads of hundreds of bus patrons. The Third and Union bus stops create throngs on both sides of the street. The Post Office, with its cheerless facade and offensive parking garage, had the audacity to replace the old neo-Classical Post Office and the Pantages Theater, the Pantages having had the audacity to replace the neo-Gothic First Presbyterian church [UPDATE 5/2010: Paul Dorpat has posted a thorough treatment of this section of Third on his blog, here]. Along this side there are again no awnings and until recently only a few windows to break the dread monotony of this thoughtless architecture. The Benaroya, while inside a paragon of high culture,  is outside a block-long refuge from the rain and sun for people wanting to light up a cigarette while waiting for the bus. One of our greatest architechtural treasures is a building I can’t stand walking in front of.

The bright facing and new windows are long overdue, but it's still a depressing stretch of sidewalk. Photo taken earlier this year.

All this combined with the McDonalds a block north, in my opinion, has kept this section of Third in the doldrums. But a few developments have begun to make things look brighter for the neighborhood. I’ve already blogged about the resurrection of Ben Gant’s newsstand, which is the only spot of life along the wall of the Woolworths building. The aforementioned Thai and gourmet popcorn places appeared on Pike around the corner, and the addition of a Starbucks directly on this corner gave them a reliable friend nextdoor. Last year, in the wasteland between Wild Ginger and the Starbucks, a new upscale Kress IGA grocery went in next to Bruno’s, which for a number of years had to hold down the entire block by itself. The opening of a supermarket on this long-forsaken block surprised me, but a moment’s reflection reminded me that the regentrification of Belltown a few blocks north provides a sufficient customer base for a large store.  Lastly, as if finally realizing that it was sharing the block with greatness across the street, the Post Office got a face-lift last winter and spring. Now it has some fake windows (I assume they’re fake — I don’t think they cut holes in the building for this) that do wonders for the upper floors. [UPDATE 5/2010: The windows are not fake. On dark winter days after I wrote this post I could see in through the tinting, and the fact that I never previously noticed the windows — plain as day — demonstrates that the facade was so glum that I couldn’t look at it.]

Of course I’m in favor of the new shops going in, and I especially like the Post Office’s makeover. It all helps create a sense of place. However, I still prefer the sense of place two blocks west on First. A lot of people are crazy there, but they aren’t all standing in a line to form a gauntlet of cigarette smoke. 


5 Responses to “The Return of Third Avenue”

  1. 1 Kip November 21, 2009 at 08:58

    It has been so long since I have walked around downtown, I am not sure I would recognize it, except fpor those places you mentioned that have not changed much. When Frst Ave The path of choice? Really? When I worked for first Peoples Bank, then US Bank (after the former was purchased by the latter), I had to make a daily, very early morning run to that post office. I was not much of a fan either, as I had to wait in the ally for my load. Not my favorite stop!!!! Matt, I belive when next the family comes to Seattle, I’ll have to hire you as our tour guide!

    • 2 jstwndrng November 21, 2009 at 22:11

      The downtown core has settled down a little. There have been three new absurdly tall buildings lately: the new Four Seasons at First and Union, the new Chase tower (nee WaMu) at Second and Union, and another monster of glass at Second and Pine. Other than that, most of the change is happening over in South Lake Union where Paul Allen is builing his dream city. I agree the Post Office on Third is a drag, and the alley behind it is a pit, proximity to Fourth notwithstanding. Sorry you had to experience that every day.

      Yes, First Avenue over the others, hands down. I’ve updated the post to add a photo (the first one above now) because I just saw that I forgot to include the shot down First Avenue last night when I published this. Take a look now (click for larger) and you should see what I mean. There are two coffee shops and two or three art galleries within the first 60 feet here (not that I can buy original art, but it’s good for the soul to see it in windows), and the photo was taken from in front of a great little paper shop that sells cards and and stationery printed on vintage presses (where you move blocks of metal type around). On the other side of the street, two nice old hotels from Seattle’s rowdy days catch the morning sun in the ways that only brick and stone can. There are a few tall buildings, yeah, but at street level, this is an environment friendly to humans on foot.

      I’d love to be a tour guide. That’s probably an avocation of mine I haven’t yet discovered.

  2. 3 Louis November 25, 2009 at 03:11

    I saw alot of shows at the Showbox in the 80´s, and there was never a dull moment on First Avenue. It´s nice to see how it´s developed. In Vancouver, BC they have this area at Main Street and Hastings that´s even worse than First ever was. The area has so much wonderful historical architecture, including a beautiful branch of the Vancouver Public Library (the Carnegie building), but the city has done virtually nothing to revitalize the area. Perhaps that will change now that the winter olympics are coming in 2010..

    Matt, I think you would be a great tour guide. You could give tours that go beyond the great fire, the skid road and the three Bolt brothers who discovered Seattle..oh wait, that was “Here Come the Brides”…Seriously, though, I think you´d make a great tour guide. What kind of Seattle tours are available now? What kind would fill the void?

    • 4 jstwndrng November 25, 2009 at 21:25

      The Showbox is still there, garish neon and all. Hey, our first library here in Seattle was a Carnegie library (long gone). I hope Vancouver protects that old architecture, and I think revitalizing is the key word. A lof of buildings are knocked down even when they’re on the registry of historic places. That’s happened several times in Seattle. A vital neighborhood and a community that cares about the character of the neighborhood is the only security for those oldies. Our own Pioneer Square is falling apart again. Elliott Bay books is moving to Capitol Hill because P. Square has devolved once again into a dump. Some of those great old buildings will probably fall into disuse and get mowed.

      For tours, you can have the Duck Tours, those amphibious World War II landing barges that tour downtown streets and Lake Union, their open coaches blasting classic rock hits; or you can take the Underground tour that leaves by foot from Doc Maynard’s pub and wanders in and out of the original storefront level below the present-day Pioneer Square. Quality tour, that. I don’t know if there are other tours. I don’t know if other tours would have a market. I know where I would walk with a handful of friends, but I don’t know if there’d be a living in the aspects of history that I’m interested in. I like how you think, though. “What’s available and what would fill the void?” That’s how Seattle’s pioneers built their empires.

  1. 1 Seattle Now & Then: Lewis Whittelsey’s Survey « DorpatSherrardLomont Trackback on May 18, 2010 at 18:50

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