Pioneer Building, a landmark to the Pioneer Square neighborhood • Photo by Madrona Bureau

It’s not news to anyone living or working in South Downtown Seattle that our communities are unique and at risk. That’s why in 2007, Washington State launched an organization that focuses on the wellbeing of the Chinatown International District (CID) and Pioneer Square. That state organization, Historic South Downtown (HSD), has since worked to preserve, restore, and promote the health, safety, and cultural identity of Seattle’s Pioneer Square and CID neighborhoods.

“It is an enormous charge — to preserve, restore and promote Pioneer Square and CID,” said Kathleen Barry Johnson, who has served as HSD’s Executive Director since November of 2017.

“HSD performs critical work in two of the most beloved parts of Seattle. From time immemorial, this has been a coming-together place, where culture is defined and futures are built. That’s still true today.”

HSD divides its work into investment and advocacy. Since 2018, HSD has invested $7.2 Million in funding for community-defined projects, such as the CID Block Party, Buskers in Pioneer Square, improved lighting in both communities, clean-up and repainting underneath I-5, marketing material to promote businesses, and public safety work and operations support to 28 neighborhood nonprofits.

The funding HSD invested includes $85,000 distributed in 2023 from Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture, and $7.1M distributed from 2018 to 2022 from King County Transit Oriented Development funding.

Currently, HSD is seeking additional sustainable and flexible funding through the Washington Legislature.

“We have a bill pending in the House of Representatives that we hope will give us new and flexible funding. Flexibility is key, and it must allow HSD’s Board of Directors and community members to guide the priorities,” said Johnson.

Johnson believes HSD’s grantmaking is unique because of its focus on neighborhood self-determination, one of the organization’s core values. This means that HSD seeks to prioritize the goals and inspirations of the people of South Downtown, with a focus on elevating community voices. The HSD Board, for example, is composed of members who represent specific sectors throughout each neighborhood.

Neighborhood self-determination also figures prominently in decisions that HSD makes around advocacy.

“When I first started, one of the eye-opening things was reviewing the dozens of prior planning processes that have gone on in both Chinatown International District and Pioneer Square,” said Johnson, explaining that these efforts date back more than 20 years, and illustrate why many South Downtown stakeholders feel they aren’t heard. “How many times have people in these neighborhoods been asked the same questions, and little gets done?”

In 2019, HSD released a Community Priorities study to document these prior plans and highlight the top 12 most repeated community priorities over the previous 20 years. These include improved public safety, encouraged economic development, better mobility and connectivity, and acknowledgement of historic racist practices and harms.

Scene from the Chinatown International District’s Hing Hay Park • Photo by Madrona Bureau

HSD has been active in the light rail project since 2018.

According to Johnson, Sound Transit’s decision to separate West Seattle Link Extension (WSLE) and Ballard Link Extension (BLE) into two separate projects creates a brand-new process for South Downtown to bring their voices to the table and have a hand in the ultimate configuration of the project that will serve the neighborhoods for the next 100 years.

With the new Environmental Impact Statement process starting soon, Johnson wants everyone to see this as a new opportunity to stay involved, expressing their vision and concerns.

“Sound Transit is managing a really difficult process. They have committed to addressing past harms in the neighborhood, but the solution currently on the table essentially skips the existing communities and centers building or rebuilding brand new communities,” said Johnson. “I understand how people see that as more disinvestment in areas that desperately need bold investment now. There will be opportunities for us to work with Sound Transit and the City to make sure that doesn’t turn out to be the case.”

Another initiative HSD is working on involves the CID’s recent designation as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. “Disinvestment is one of the current and past harms that has imperiled CID. It’s the same story in Chinatowns all over the U.S., and we have seen that they can and do fail. Our elected officials need to show they value this neighborhood and invest in the things this community prioritizes.”

But, Johnson warned, doing that is difficult since the community’s priorities aren’t necessarily going to be shared by those who have the money to invest. Finding resources, identifying key civic partnerships, and giving real decision-making power to those who already live and work here is essential to its survival, she said.

“A prime example of the difficulty elected officials face is the recent MLB All-Star game. It was a paper success, and success for larger partners. But for the small businesses in the CID and Pioneer Square, it was a disaster,” said Johnson.

“For some reason, the massive crowds were directed around the neighborhoods, not through them. With a little effort, visitors could have learned about the treasures that exist in South Downtown.”

Johnson is hopeful that the waterfront development will be a great opportunity going forward for both the CID and Pioneer Square.

“Pier 48 in particular. Both communities need more green space, and both communities have a tie to the history of Pier 48. We are hopeful that we can work with WSDOT, the Port, Seattle, and Tribal representatives to make that space work for everyone.”

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