A Walk with John: Part 2
Our tour through downtown Seattle on foot with veteran zoning lawyer John Hempelmann, a one-man encyclopedia of Seattle development history, continues through Pioneer Square. (Although John is so with it, he's really a one-man Wikipedia.)
John says Pioneer Square's Smith Tower is one of the last buildings on the West Coast with elevator operators. When completed in 1914, it was the tallest building in the West, a title it swiped from Seattle's rival to the south, Tacoma. (And Tacoma is still steamin' mad about it.) The public can access an observation deck on the 35th floor, and the three floors above hold the only residence in the building, a penthouse occupied by Petra Franklin and her family. (Oh, and the Cairncross & Hempelmann law firm is next door in the historic Collins Building.)
Pioneer Square's street layout doesn't conform to the rest of the city due to a spat between founding fathers David Swinson Maynard and Arthur Denny. David wanted the streets to run in cardinal directions, while Arthur thought they should follow the shoreline. Yesler Way marks the dividing line between territories, according to John, with downtown's streets bending to Arthur's will. But David ultimately won, with his north-south grid extending throughout the rest of the city. (People had more interesting arguments back in the day.)
While the iconic Pergola just west of Smith Tower looks like it's been there for a century, John says the original structure was annihilated by a truck in 2001. The driver tried to make a tight right turn onto First Avenue and ended up catching the roof of the truck on the brittle structure. (Don't you hate it when that happens?) The trucker's insurance footed the $3.8M restoration bill. Since then, the pergola has suffered a few more scrapes and bruises. Trucks seem to have it in for the structure, hitting it twice this year alone.
John tells us that the original University of Washington once stood in the CBD. Arthur Denny and fellow pioneer Charles Terry, along with Seattle's first federal judge, Edward Lander, donated a 10-acre tract to help found the institution even before Seattle had an elementary school. After the university moved to its current locale, it kept the property, now home to Rainier Tower and the Fifth Avenue Theater. (We're trying to produce a play there about one man's struggle to find the perfect CMBS loan.) Rents collected from this expensive patch of downtown remain an important funding source for the school.
The Great Northern Tunnel, an early 20th-century version of Big Bertha's tunnel, runs under the tract. Built in 1907, it was once the highest and widest tunnel in the United States. John says he remembers when the Financial Center building went up in the 1970s, carefully constructed on stilts around the tunnel. With a 28-story building replacing a seven-story building, the architects had to design it to disperse its weight.
Arthur Denny (again!) also lent his name to Denny Hill, a formerly steep hill sluiced and shoveled away in two phases of regrading to increase property values in the early 20th century. (Kids looking for a place to go sledding in the winter were furious.) The dirt ended up being dumped in the Sound, which would be just a tad illegal today. The flattened land became known as the Denny Regrade. That's not the sexiest name for an area, so it adopted the name Belltown from a smaller corner of the neighborhood.
Belltown once was home to the city's prettiest view from a parking lot. When 3101 Western opened, the adjacent parking structure wasn't permitted. John says the developer, Martin Selig, had a major tenant ready to move in. Rather than wait, he turned the entire first floor into indoor parking. Cars looked out onto Elliot Bay through floor-to-ceiling windows. But this odd situation didn't last long. Once adjacent parking was ready, the cars got the heave-ho.