That's changed, thanks to the June opening of a $74 million addition, the landmark's first expansion in 40 years and the last piece of the revitalization plan that saved it from demolition in the 1970s.
With 30,000 square feet of new open space, there's finally some elbow room at the market, providing new ways to enjoy it rather than struggling through like a salmon swimming upstream.
Highlights include an outdoor pavilion with broad Douglas fir counters and room for 47 new farm stands and crafts stalls, plus a new Producers Hall of restaurants and shops. New construction was designed to be attractive without betraying the market's functional origins, featuring wide windows, tall timber beams and just enough quirks to feel like old-school Seattle.
The expansive public plaza was designed to take in - at least in the clear, warm summer months - a jaw-dropping panorama of Mount Rainier, the Olympic Mountains and ferries traveling to and fro on Puget Sound. The Seattle Great Wheel, a 175-foot Ferris wheel that opened on the waterfront in 2012, provides the vista's punctuation mark.
The expansion is the latest of many twists for the place known as the soul of the city, a market established in 1907 to provide affordable local fruits and vegetables to the public. Even in the 1920s a tourism pamphlet advertised the site as "famous the world over for its magnitude and year-round unparalleled produce display."
The market's influence diminished after World War II, partly because of the internment of Japanese farmers who had manned as many as half of its stalls, partly on the rise of supermarkets and on farmland giving way to suburban sprawl. But in the 1960s, when a proposed urban-renewal plan would have razed the market, the public rose up.
Champions such as architect Fred Bassetti, who called the market "an honest place in a phony time," brought forward a citizens ballot initiative creating a historic district and a commission to save and restore the rundown property.
It was "incredibly complicated," said Ben Franz-Knight, executive director of the market's Preservation and Development Authority (PDA), who has been working on the project for seven years.
The expansion site, most recently a parking lot, once held the market's old municipal building, which was built in 1921 and demolished after a 1974 fire.
Redeveloping the land, long considered impossibly expensive, only panned out now because the city needed its 300 new parking places, one part of a broader plan to redevelop the Seattle waterfront after the seismically suspect Alaskan Way Viaduct is torn down and a failing sea wall is rebuilt. In a few more years, after the viaduct comes down, new pathways will directly connect Pike Place Market with the waterfront and aquarium.
"Everyone knows this project is once in a lifetime," Franz-Knight said.
For visitors who wonder if city residents still get the best of the market, consider one last thought: The place has a way of converting one type of shopper to the other. Nancy Leson, a longtime Seattle restaurant critic and now the food commentator for KNKX radio, says that "for me, as for so many folks who moved here from elsewhere, everything I saw as a tourist or short-term visitor made me want to live here."
New attractions: Look for goods such as goat-milk soap and hand-thrown pottery at the new canopied craft stalls on the plaza. In addition to Little Fish, opening in the fall, two eateries are already open in Producers Hall: Honest Biscuits, selling Southern-style biscuit sandwiches made with Northwest-milled flour, and Old Stove Brewing Company, a spacious brewhouse and pub. Indi, a bean-to-bar chocolate factory, opened at the end of July.
The addition also includes new public art, eye-catching mosaic murals of local fish, flowers, fruits and vegetables by artist Clare Dohna, and an illuminated "tapestry" - 1,670 colored aluminum strips by artist John Fleming - covering what was a bleak concrete wall on Western Avenue.
Getting reacquainted: If you haven't visited Seattle in a few years, you've missed out on newer market favorites including Ellenos Greek Yogurt, Country Dough (specializing in stuffed Sichuan flatbreads) and Rachel's Ginger Beer, featuring house-made sodas and cocktails on tap.
Talk like a local: It's Pike Place Market, not "Pike's Place."
Past and present: In 1987, photographer John Stamets captured classic Pike Place scenes in "Portrait of a Market," with the book's text written by Steve Dunnington.
His large-format photos are on rotating display in the Market Commons area. Many of the places Stamets photographed are still in business, sometimes run by the descendants of the people he pictured. And many of the things the vendors told Dunnington still ring true, such as, "The market is the best place to learn about people."
Source: The Washington Post.