Monthly Staff Feature: Sara Pizzo, Public Realm Manger

Sara tackles projects that improves the streets, parks, and public spaces. She diligently works to enhance the streetscape, coordinate construction, and manage parking, along with anything else that is needed. Her efforts make the neighborhood a safer and cleaner place for everyone to enjoy and for businesses to thrive.  She enjoys connecting with the community and building relationships. Recently, Sara shared her perspectives on public realm management during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The importance of public space was made even clearer when daily life was disrupted in 2020. How has the public realm been used creatively in Pioneer Square as a response to the pandemic?

Public space has always been an important part of the urban fabric, and it became even more essential during the pandemic. Restrictions on indoor spaces forced cities, businesses, and individuals to re-imagine how our public realm could serve lots of different purposes. Our streets and sidewalks are for more than just getting from point A to point B, they are places to eat, shop, and come together. Here in Seattle, like many cities, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) created a more streamlined process and lowered some of the barriers for temporary outdoor cafe, merchandise display, vending, and street closure permits. We were able to assist interested Pioneer Square businesses navigate that program, and we saw a number of outdoor cafes pop up in our streets and sidewalks.  

Some of the most visible impacts of COVID-19 have been on the public realm. What has been your experience being in the neighborhood during this time?

Every time I am in Pioneer Square, I experience a whole swath of emotions. I am reminded of all the wonderful aspects of the neighborhood. The views from the waterfront, the grandiose historic buildings, and the close knit community, all which make the neighborhood such an incredible place to be. Yet, I miss my coworkers and the frequency at which I used to see familiar faces. I also am reminded of all challenges that the neighborhood faces, many of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic–especially the need for adequate housing and wrap-around services for our unhoused neighbors, who are disproportionately people of color. The need for public safety that centers the lives and needs of our black and brown community members so that everyone can enjoy public spaces safely and without fear. 

The neighborhood has also been through a lot of change in the last year. Some of my favorite businesses have closed permanently, many are still there doing the things they do best, and there are even some new businesses that have opened. The waterfront has really started to take shape and so many private developments have made great progress on new projects like the ɁálɁa Together Project, CitizenM Hotel, Railspur, and Canton Lofts. Overall, being in the neighborhood during this time is quite a dynamic experience. Nonetheless, it is always good to reconnect.

Working from home and coordinating public realm work, how does one manage that?

I wouldn’t be able to do the public realm work that I do without the amazing community members and organizational partners behind me. When the pandemic first hit and I was strictly working from home, residents reached out to me about the conditions of the public realm and I was able to troubleshoot over email. I want to give a HUGE shout out to the Metropolitan Improvement District ambassadors who have been working tirelessly day in and day out throughout this pandemic, as the essential workers that they are, to keep Pioneer Square as clean and safe as humanly possible. 

Early on in the pandemic, I was working behind the scenes to stand up our temporary storefront mural program, creating paid opportunities for local artists and connecting them with businesses and properties that were interested in having a mural painted on their boarded up windows. Even though doing my work from home is possible and there are aspects I’ll admit I enjoy about it, there are certainly times when working from home and doing public realm work is less than ideal. Over the last several months, I have been coming to Pioneer Square at least once a week to check up on the public realm and submit issues to the City using the Find It/Fix It mobile app. I always mask up, bring my hand sanitizer, and physically distance to keep myself and others around me safe and healthy.  

You’ve lead some exciting projects throughout the last year, the outdoor mural project being one example. Talk us through some of them, the challenges/highlights and activating the public realm during a pandemic.

I’ve really enjoyed working on projects to improve the public realm in Pioneer Square this year. The temporary storefront mural program was a huge success that brought so much light and hope to the neighborhood, especially early on in the pandemic when lots of storefronts started boarding up. At times, it was challenging to keep up with the demand for murals but coordinating as many as possible each and every day was also super energizing for me. A highlight of that project for me was making new connections with Pioneer Square artists. There are so many wonderfully creative talented humans in Pioneer Square! I deeply appreciate every artist I was able to work with on that project and subsequent projects. It was also great to witness the positive impact the murals had on the neighborhood during this really difficult time.

LUSIO Lights Pioneer Square was another fun project that brought light and life to our public realm during the darker, colder months of last year. Working with LUSIO was a great experience, and again, it was incredible to see the works each artist installed for the nine participating storefronts. I’m so grateful to all the properties and businesses that were willing to host the art pieces. This project really would not have been possible without the willingness and cooperation of our participating neighborhood stakeholders. I enjoyed checking out all the installations whenever I was in the neighborhood last December and January. It was a great feeling to witness other folks stopping in at storefront windows to see the light art installations as well. 

As the neighborhood emerges from a long and challenging year, are public spaces a central part of the path forward?

Pioneer Square’s public realm is part of what makes being in the neighborhood an unique experience. Our streets and sidewalks are lined with historic buildings and there are a number of self-guided tours one can embark on to learn more about the neighborhood’s unique past. The district is located on the brand new waterfront and even more street improvements are planned in the next few years to better connect the new waterfront to the neighborhood’s east-west streets. Many of our public parks and amenities are gateways inviting people into the district. Pioneer Square has so much to offer returning and new businesses and their employees, residents, local visitors, and tourists alike. As we emerge from the pandemic, people will be looking to explore places that are special and have a lot of offer and Pioneer Square is certainly one of those places.

Do you anticipate a newfound enthusiasm for public spaces in the future than before the pandemic?

It’s difficult to say what the future holds, of course, but the pandemic has highlighted the importance of public space as part of the neighborhood fabric. Public spaces that are welcoming to all, clean, safe, and inviting will be an important piece of recovery and the future vitality of the neighborhood. Pioneer Square is very fortunate to have so many pedestrian-oriented streets, public spaces, and continued investment. I am optimistic that our public realm will continue to be loved and cherished long into the future.