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Seattle’s Biggest Tourist Attraction Freezes out City Bike Share Program

Aug 10, 2014 12:00 pm

Skift Take

This is one slight to a city bikeshare program that we don’t mind seeing.

— Jason Clampet

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Colure Caulfield  / Flickr

Seattle's Pike Place Market, which only allows local, independent shops. Colure Caulfield / Flickr


Tourists are supposed to be an important clientele for Seattle’s new bike-share network, but Pike Place Market says its historic-preservation rules forbid a station there.

Pronto bikes will bear the logo of chief sponsor Alaska Airlines, and some stations will display other naming-rights logos. This makes the enterprise similar to a chain or franchise, contrary to the Market’s homegrown splendor.

“It is actually not something we can make work here. They rely on corporate sponsorship as a part of the service they provide, and that’s not something that’s allowed in the historic district,” said Ben Franz-Knight, executive director of the Pike Place Market Preservation & Development Authority (PDA).

And though bike-sharing might sound as Seattle-like as smoked salmon, Franz-Knight said an exception in this case would set a precedent, opening the 107-year-old Market to all sorts of pressure.

According to HistoryLink.org, the Market was proposed for demolition when in 1964 architect Fred Bassetti organized a group of supporters, calling the old Market “an honest place in a phony time.” Seven years later, voters approved an historic- preservation initiative.

It remains distinctive for hosting just one chain retailer, the original Starbucks cafe that opened in 1971.

Even if the heritage issue were solved, the crowded lanes and sidewalks present operational challenges, or as Franz-Knight says, “every inch is sacred space.”

Holly Houser, executive director at Pronto, said her team hoped to put a stop at the entrance, alongside Read All About It News and the information booth. That’s a busy loading zone, needed for truck deliveries, Franz-Knight said.

The initial territory for Pronto includes the University of Washington, Seattle Children’s, Eastlake, South Lake Union, Capitol Hill, First Hill, Belltown, downtown, Pioneer Square and the Chinatown International District, served by 500 bicycles.

In September, Seattle will join about 30 cities in North America with similar bike-share networks, really a type of rental.

Prices are $8 per day, $16 for three days, or $85 for annual membership, plus a $2 helmet fee. Customers use a credit card or a chip-equipped key fob to rent a bike at one station, take a short ride, then lock it at another stop.

Without a station at Pike Place Market, any visitors who rent a bike and ride to the Market, perhaps using a new Pike Street bike lane, would need to make a U-turn, and backtrack two blocks, to Third Avenue and Pike Street — where a Pronto stop is planned next to the Ross store.

Meanwhile, the city is striving to reposition the dangerous Second Avenue bike lane in time for Pronto. The $1.2 million to $1.5 million makeover will separate bicyclists from traffic, through restriping, plastic tubes, and new traffic signals. And one of the two car lanes on eastbound Pike Street will be converted to a bike lane, from the Market to Second Avenue.

There’s been no formal ruling from the PDA or the Market’s historic commission, said Heather McAuliffe, a city historic-preservation staffer. In chats with Pronto representatives, Franz-Knight encouraged them to look elsewhere first, and suggested a few nearby places, all sides say.

Houser said if the cycle network becomes as popular as she expects, she’ll try again for a Market station, as Pronto expands.

“Basically, we have to choose our battles, in the first phase,” she said.

Franz-Knight, himself a bike commuter, said 70 to 80 of the Market’s workers arrive on bicycles, and last year the Market added bike racks. Another 33 bicycling spaces will be provided in Marketfront, a development that will include senior housing, car parking, retail and a public plaza to open in 2016.

Pike Street itself would seem like an attractive location for the bike rentals, with its sidewalks of about 24 feet on both sides, not to mention the broad new bike lane.

Hal Reynolds, manager of the Hard Rock Cafe on that block, said he would be delighted to have a Pronto station near its entrance. “Have you tried to drive down here?” he said.

He pointed out where it could go — by removing one street tree in a dirt planting strip. “We’re very interested to talking to the right people,” he said. Across the street is a City Target store.

The bike-share team studied that block and didn’t find a suitable place, said Fred Young, a planning associate for Alta Planning + Design, Pronto’s operating contractor. Among other features, a 20-bike station needs 360 square feet and access to solar energy.

“Unfortunately, the sidewalk along Pike in front of the cafe has numerous utility covers that make it impossible to site a station there,” Young said.

In theory, Pronto could someday propose a Market station without selling any naming rights. That would mean forgoing its $12,000 yearly fee to put a sponsor’s nameon three sides of the information kiosk. The words Pronto! and Alaska Airlines would, of course, appear on the parked bicycles. “We could totally do that. If we could get to that point, we could get over the hurdle,” Houser said.

Alaska Airlines is the nonprofit’s biggest sponsor, at $2.5 million. Seattle Children’s donated $500,000, and $1 million came from the U.S. government and $750,000 from the state Department of Transportation. Operating costs would be covered three-fourths by user fees and one-fourth by sponsors, Houser said.

The PDA’s Franz-Knight said he’s open to any ideas the city, the historic commission and Pronto find agreeable. Research shows bikeways tend to bring more shoppers and money to the neighboring merchants, he said.

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