Seattle’s Downtown Needs a Strong New Narrative. Here Are Five Places to Start

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Image by Olya Adamovich from Pixabay

There will doubtless be lots of hedged promises to do something about Seattle’s ailing downtown by the candidates in this year’s municipal election. But, as Jon Talton observed in a Seattle Times essay over the weekend, there are hard choices to be made. Uh-oh.

I’ve got some suggestions floating around for this long climb-back (below), but first, four reasons for pessimism. 

First is the by-district election system we now have, which means 7 of 9 city councilmembers snub downtown and itsĀ evil capitalists and smug condo-dwellers. Nor do the two at-large councilmembersĀ (Lorena Gonzalez and Teresa Mosqueda) show any signs of modifying their social-justice agenda by, for instance, having more cops or moving out the sidewalk tents. Same for Andrew Lewis, the homelessness-focused councilmember whose district includes downtown.

Second, Seattle will have trouble convincing others that downtown is a good place to invest in, given its new national image for street protests, smashed windows, and booting out politicians and major companies. It needs a whole new narrative to displace the negative national story.

Third is the arrival of a serious rival, namely Bellevue and the Eastside. I sometimes think that the new face of Seattle’s downtown will be Bellevue, where the shops are open, the streets are clean, and folks are on the streets. People don’t really come out and say this in NiceTown, but Greater Bellevue Area Chamber of Commerce (along with University Village) is happily eating Seattle downtown’s lunch for retail and office buildings and residential towers.

Fourth, who exactly is going to make those hard choices that Talton mentions and make them stick? A mayor who wants to do so is unlikely to get elected or get the votes on the council. The Downtown Seattle Association is spread over several districts of the greater downtown and has to appease many powerful, conflicting, well-armed constituencies. There is no real downtown plan to reference, and the city has long resisted having an empowered city planner. (“Seattle doesn’t do plans. It does projects,” goes the famous motto of Jack McCullough, the super-lawyer who does the big commercial real estate deals.)  So our plan is not to plan but just to wait for the vaccines to bring back the boom times. Very risky.

These obstacles aside, what are some of the good ideas starting to peep up from the foxholes? Here’s a sampling:

  1. A downtown of smaller, distinctive neighborhoods. One of the better ideas is to subdivide the big bad downtown into a series of graspable, imageable urban neighborhoods, the way London, Boston, and New York do. Further, have these sub regions be 15-minute neighborhoods, with nearby schools, jobs, culture, cafes, grocery stores, day-care, playgrounds, and inhabitants of varying ages, wealth, race, and occupations. Like Capitol Hill or Queen Anne, and those other urban neighborhoods that Seattleites love. Then let these urban neighborhoods have more say over creating distinctiveness.
  2. Downtown PDA(s). A public development authority, PDA, would sell bonds and then reinvest in downtown or sub-downtowns, purchasing buildings and renting space at discounted rates, and then finding tenants (arts groups, non profits, daycares, retail, affordable spaces). Now is the time to approach weary property owners with offers of lower rates but 10-year leases and the ability to find good tenants. The Pike Place Market does this for its PDA, favoring startups, non-franchise retail, and social services. Do it again!
  3. A Downtown Arts District. Seattle is a bit too small to have divided its arts district between downtown and Seattle Center, particularly now. For the Downtown, now is the time to fill in the spaces with newborn and mid-sized arts groups, galleries, art classes, some carless streets such as First Avenue for weekends, lined with art stalls and book stalls and buskers.
  4. Outdoors-ify Seattle Center. Lincoln Center is developing 10 outdoor spaces for performance, children’s arts, rehearsals, and more. For these outdoor spaces to work, they need good backup support, which Seattle Center has. Together with the new Waterfront Park, an indoors-outdoors Seattle Center would help firm up Seattle’s new narrative: an outdoors city, a healthy city.
  5. Healthy Architecture. This is one of the significant trends in corporate architecture, as witness the wilderness paths sheathing the proposed Amazon Helix in D.C. For example, with the Convention Center still unfinished, make it the healthiest convention center in the nation by reworking the ventilation system, opening windows, wrapping it with trees and gardens. Elsewhere: more rooftop gardens, green streets, parklets (well maintained!). Seattle is a city surrounded by water and mountains and greenery. With outdoors being the new Covid-Cure, and Seattle’s moderate climate, make that the signature new narrative of the Emerald City.
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David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

6 COMMENTS

  1. The “ReBuild it and they will come” theory….Without focus on the problem to begin with. It is simple – if we want a business friendly downtown, we need to eliminate the crime , filth , and street zombies that permeate ……We are never going to enforce drug laws again and housing all the homeless is not financially feasible, so we need Toleration Zones and UnToleration Zones (i.e. Homeless camps instead of golf courses) . We need to separate those who have made decisions to defer from life so that others can live the life they planned. We should all ReRead “Atlas Shrugged” ………

  2. Seattle’s rich combination of green futurism and professional expertise could fuel some of these ‘narratives’ with PDAs. Also, with policies already in place, downtown neighborhoods should be getting more long term residents even as the office and hospitality sector slumps. Instead of just visiting the museums and aquarium, it’s time to bring schools (and new parents) downtown. Big employers could offer small (or large) incentives for attending downtown neighborhood meetings and school events.

  3. It’s a nice dream and would seem to be a doable vision, but who has the will to make it happen? That, as you point out at the start, is the sticking point — or non-starting point.

  4. This is all wishful thinking. No one is going to go downtown when drug addicts and crime runs rampant, ironically right outside the prosecutor’s office. Make all of the neighborhoods you want, “improve” architecture, none of that matters if human feces, needles, drug addicts, and criminals with 50+ citations are out and about. Good luck with your failing ideologies. Tell me how great this works out.

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