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Pioneer Square Historical District Areaways

Pioneer Square Historical District Areaways Project

Revised March 10, 2004


Pioneer Square is literally built on top of old Seattle which, in turn, was built on glacial till. Both are extremely vulnerable to earthquakes. Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) can't do anything about the soils, but we can make the sidewalks and streets as stable as possible by repairing earthquake-damaged "areaways" located beneath the current street level. There are some 115 areaways in the Pioneer Square District.

Areaway under reconstruction
Areaway Under Reconstruction

Areaways are the usable areas, generally in the street right-of-way, below the sidewalk and between the building foundation and the street wall; that street wall holds back the earth below the road surface and provides support for the sidewalk between the street and the building walls. Because the walls of the areaways literally hold up the streets and sidewalks, it is crucial to maintain their stability.

In 2000, SDOT undertook a thorough study of the condition of the Pioneer Square areaways and, as a result, did some emergency repairs only weeks before the February 2001 Nisqually Earthquake. That emergency repair work may well have saved the abutting buildings and, even more important, saved lives.

Mayor Greg Nickels and SDOT Director Grace Crunican talk to press and prepare to descend into an areaway
Mayor Greg Nickels and SDOT Director Grace Crunican talk to press and prepare to descend into an areaway.

The earthquake damaged five areaways. The City secured federal funding to help pay for repairs to some of the earthquake-damaged areaways. These areaways had the highest and most immediate priority as the damage made them the most vulnerable. Since the summer of 2002, six of the damaged areaways were partially filled with a removable lightweight concrete; two of the areaways were restored according to historic preservation criteria as they display significant architectural qualities.

Areaway crossbeam under sidewalk shows deterioration SDOT is repairing.
Crossbeam under sidewalk shows an example of deterioration SDOT is repairing, in the areaways.

The City will finish partially filling five more areaways in April of 2004.

Also a monitoring plan is being established for 45 areaways known to have settlement and cracks in street walls in Pioneer Square. This monitoring plan will establish a current baseline reading of damage and distress in order to monitor further deterioration over time from natural events such as earthquakes or from construction activities in surrounding areas that may cause potential damage to the areaways. Upon installation, the monitors will then be read biannually.

The Pioneer Square Monitoring Program is part of the City's Hazard Mitigation Program mandated by the Seattle City Council Resolution 29911 on April 12, 1999.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an areaway?

Most areaways in the Pioneer Square Historical District were created when City engineers raised Pioneer Square's streets a full story following the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. Since many buildings were already under construction, architects provided for two "ground floors" the lower at the level beneath the new sidewalks. Merchants on the lower level tried to survive with skylights in the sidewalks and stairways, but most soon failed and access to their businesses was paved over. An areaway is the area, beneath the existing sidewalk between the building foundation and the street wall; it supports the existing structural sidewalk.

How many areaways are there?

There are 115 in the Pioneer Square Historical District.

Why is it necessary to repair them?

The street walls and structural sidewalks are in critical condition and could fail, having already sustained considerable damage during the Nisqually Earthquake.

What does the repair entail?

Where an areaway has no significant historic feature that must be immediately preserved, the space can be temporarily filled with a lightweight concrete mixture. The mixture is pumped into the areaway and is separated from the original old building wall by a wooden wall; then later, should funding for a more costly historical restoration be available, the fill can be removed without damaging any historical aspects of the abutting building.

How many have been repaired?

By mid-2003 we will have filled 18 and restored 2 to historical preservation standards.

How many areaways need repair work?

After 2003, we will have 7 remaining. We hope to fill 3 and must restore/reconstruct 4.

How long does the repair take?

The fill projects take approximately a month or two depending on the size and other factors. The reconstruction projects run from three to eight or nine months, again depending on size and degree of disrepair of historical features.

What do they cost?

The costs to fill an areaway ranges from $45,000 to $150,000, depending on size, historical features, and health and safety issues, such as lead and asbestos abatement. The cost to replace a structural sidewalk and street wall that is historical ranges from $3 to $5 million per block.

Where does the funding come from?

Funding for non-earthquake related damage and/or deterioration comes from City Council Hazards Mitigation funding set up in 1999. Because of damage sustained by the Nisqually earthquake funding for two reconstruction/restorations was provided under earthquake relief from FHWA; one, located at 2nd Ave S and S. Jackson has just been completed, the other is underway on the south side of the "sinking ship" garage at Yesler Way and 2nd Avenue Extension.

If you have any questions regarding SDOT's areaway repair program, please contact:

Carroll Smith, Project Manager, 206-684-5194,
Peg Nielsen, Communications Office, 206-684-8114,

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