Seattle’s Ailing Downtown, and Some Suggestions

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Seattle will have a new mayor next year, along with a new city attorney and at least one new councilmember. So far, homelessness and public safety have been the focus of this year’s election campaigns, but there hasn’t been as much said about one of the most critical issues we face: What’s the future of our pandemic-emptied downtown Seattle?

Seattle’s downtown is not the same vital, burgeoning urban hub that it was pre-pandemic. In just the past year and a half, downtown has become a sadly different place. At the pessimistic extreme we have seen depressing scenes in TV documentaries produced by Sinclair-owned KOMO-TV: “Seattle Is Dying,” and “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle.”

Although those documentaries overstated conditions, they did make clear that downtown Seattle is in urgent need of constructive attention. The heart of the city has been savaged by powerful forces: the scourge of the pandemic, proliferating homelessness, and damaging fallout from last year’s demonstrations.  The Downtown Seattle Association reports that 500 small businesses in the broader downtown have closed permanently.

In September, the Seattle Times published an opinion piece by Dave Boardman, titled “This is Not the Beloved Seattle I Knew.” The former Times executive editor left in 2013 to become dean of Klein College of Media and Communications at Temple University in Philadelphia. On his first visit here since the pandemic, Boardman reported being stunned to discover the once-thriving downtown filled with trash and graffiti, parks swallowed by tent encampments, City Hall engaged in ugly political theater and downtown a meaner, coarser place. During his first hour, Boardman reports that he was hit with more f-bombs (three) and racist accusations than he fielded in 32 years on the hot seat at the newspaper.

With downtown’s disarray documented and indisputable, you would think that the current election would be full of ideas for the restoration of the city center. While neighborhood business districts also deserve help, there’s little doubt of the economic importance of a vital downtown. The city’s core is home to 85,000 residents and 14,000 businesses. It accounts for more than half of Seattle annual tax receipts, important for funding broader social services. 

Downtown’s revival and recovery hinge on the active engagement the new mayor and the city council. City leaders used to recognize that every great city has a thriving downtown and enormous effort has been exerted to this end. One thinks of the effort to save downtown department stores, shifting culture to the downtown (ACT, SAM and the Symphony), and the new central waterfront park, promenade, and expanded Aquarium. If Seattle is to stay in the top ranks, civic leaders and politicians must act to rescue downtown and ensure the city’s overall economic health.  

Over the last few weeks, I’ve quizzed friends, neighbors, and former civic leaders about the plight of downtown and asked for suggestions about what can be done. I twice called Seattle Councilman Andrew Lewis, who represents District Seven, the city’s downtown and Pioneer Square, to ask for his thoughts on the subject. No response yet, but Lewis did lead the charge to rid Third Avenue of blocks of homeless encampments.

Other Seattleites I spoke with included one former elected official, who said the first step must be to make downtown safe. Stories about individuals being threatened or attacked on city streets, likely by mentally-challenged individuals, keeps many away. Until the streets seem less hostile, downtown cannot begin to repair. Shopkeepers report being plagued by brazen shoplifters.

One woman, a downtown condo resident, said she recently dug out an old can of pepper spray, didn’t know if it was still effective, but planned to carry it when she ventures out. Safety is her major concern. In her view, essentials for restoring a sense of safety are a police presence and greatly increased activation of mental and behavioral health services. She said, “We need traffic returning to our streets. I want to see lots of people, busy crowds coming downtown.” She longs for a renewed sense of togetherness, common humanity.

Another friend, a student of urban planning, advised that downtown needs more businesses that work well for the city’s captive participants such as those living in downtown apartments and condos, residents of retirement communities, and office workers, many of them younger, who will return when their offices reopen.    

Once safety is assured, the questions then become: What will draw people to downtown? What does downtown have that a person can’t get somewhere else — in their local neighborhood business districts, on-line, or at private malls like University Village?

It’s the excitement of a big city: first-rate entertainment (orchestras, plays, clubs, live music performances), a variety of restaurants, cafes, bars, and nightlife, and a rich range of other cultural attractions such as art galleries and museums. Hotels with first-class services, meeting rooms, and conference facilities also are important.

There are the only-in-Seattle draws like the Pike Place Public Market where visitors are able to meet the farmer, the producer, and the craftsman. Plus the expanding Seattle Aquarium that affords in-person encounters with sea otters, harbor seals, and the giant Pacific octopus. The new Waterfront Park with its harbor walk and bike lanes should entice people downtown, supplying multiple attractions (harbor tours, concerts on the pier, only-in-Seattle shops, ferry and water taxi adventures).  The Seattle Central Library, with attractions like the Seattle Room with its priceless historic collections and records, should offer extended evening hours,  special programs, and meet-the-author events.

Downtowns have traditionally been a mecca for retail shopping — clothing, shoes and accessories. Having a concentration of such stores and shops with a broad range of choices — latest fashions, youth-centered apparel, sportswear, evening wear — should draw visitors downtown. 

Sports crowds are newly returned to the stadium area and should be encouraged to linger in a newly-restored downtown, patronizing cafes, restaurants and shops or (for out-of-towners) booking over-night accommodations. There’s a new sport in town as well, professional hockey.

One of the barriers is the high cost of downtown parking. Despite the opening of new rail stations, parking shortages persist. The city could encourage reduced rates like those at the Pike Place Market garage for early birds and for carpools, plus more merchant validation. Bellevue does it; so can Seattle.

The city can and should give small retail businesses a helping hand — grants and subsidies. The many vacant storefronts that multiplied during the pandemic offer an opportunity for innovation. Might the city’s Office of Arts and Culture develop a plan to place art galleries with subsidized rents along city streets? A jazz studio, a dramatic workshop, play rehearsals in progress? What about a new/used bookstore, a Seattle version of Powell’s in Portland? A downtown branch of Elliott Bay Books? Or an urban version of Third Place Books?

Our urban restoration requires some out-of-the-box thinking for Seattle’s downtown of the future. In the past, Seattle has suffered seeming knock-out blows: the Boeing busts, the Enron crisis when power costs skyrocketed, the Great Recession with its Wa-Mu disaster. Always in the past the city survived and (to steal a slogan) built back better. This time?                                                  

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Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and later for the Seattle Times. In 2003, she quit to run for Seattle City Council where she served 12 years. She now writes for Westside Seattle and has been a co-host on The Bridge, aired on community radio station KMGP. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.

10 COMMENTS

  1. The City’s 1st need for downtown revitalization is for the office workers to return.
    We cannot survive as a tourist spot. We need a business friendly administration to accomplish that.Be compassionate BUT be smart about supporting the businesses that pay for everything. VOTE

  2. Our shopping and entertainment choices have changed drastically these past few years. Oh how I would love to go back to Frederick and Nelson’s for lunch and a box of Frangos. Fond memories.
    A challenge for the elected officials. We’ll see.

  3. Whither downtown?

    All that office floorspace isn’t needed by residents of this region — they work from their homes and that apparently will continue indefinitely. As far as retail shopping goes the convenience, prices, and selection available on-line are better than what downtown Seattle offers. Real estate is a lagging indicator, but the emerging trends indicate those who can are leaving the high-rent small units downtown in favor of “house with a yard” residences outside the urban core. Sport stadiums, the aquarium, SAM — these are venues for fleeting diversions and they provide no “gravitas” to downtown.

    The candidates for public office are ignoring these sea changes because there are no easy answers. Moreover, as the new normal has been shaping up it is becoming clear that longstanding local government policies are failures — including encouraging and facilitating densifying downtown, and making vast swaths of regional residents dependent on daily and prolonged mass transit use — are failures with significant externalized social costs.

    Several narrative themes Ms. Godden uses are emblematic of the “party line” the current crop of officeholders are forced to mouth: that workers will “return to the office,” that business and leisure travel will rebound to 2019-levels and grow, and that people would feel safe living in an environment built up over the past forty years to serve the primary purpose of facilitating large employers’ demands for daily commutes to downtown office towers.

    Would we prefer realistic, straight-talking political candidates who can assess profound changes and plan accordingly? Residents of the city for the most part would, but the exceedingly wealthy interests who back those candidates want them to feign ignorance of how times have changed and continue policies that are leading us in bad directions.

  4. Two pandemic-caused changes in behavior hit downtowns, especially Seattle’s, very hard, and they may be partly permanent. The first, work-from-home (and its extended version work-from-anywhere) is differentially available to the sort of higher-end tech workers, creative class types, and legal/financial workers that stuffed downtown Seattle before the virus. Many if those workers are pretty happy not to be commuting, and many of their employers appear open to accommodating that preference well into the future. The second big change, shop-from-home, was already responsible for the “retail apocalypse” BEFORE the pestilence horseman showed up. It has become the norm now for many people to do all their basic retail purchasing online. Downtown as a retail hub will be hard-pressed to claw back all the retail it once had. This can be seen as an opportunity, but a complicated one.

  5. Jean survey is a down-to-earth and timely one, and it emphasizes things that political leaders can give effect to almost immediately, by giving top priority the most basic service of all: the physical security of downtown’s streets. But a psychic sense of security is even more crucial in the long run. The University District has never really recovered as a retail hub from middle-class shoppers’ fear of a few dozen “hippies” hanging out on the campus lawn at 47th and 15th NE 50-odd years ago. The hippies were harmless (trust me on this; I was one of them); but their ghost-beings still haunt “Hippy Hill.” Occidental Park and Pioneer Square aren’t going to come back to civilized life easily, as long as their reality is one of real (if rare) encounters with the mad, damaged, and thievish.

  6. In addition to work-from-home and shop-from-home, people are now also, more than ever, watching movies at home and even accessing medical services at home, or at least near home, rather than on Pill Hill. Downtown has a huge concentration of tall office towers and is the center of our transportation networks, but if the workers and shoppers don’t all come back, it might make sense to consider how to turn more of those towers into residences, and build up downtown as a distinctive residential neighborhood that still has some offices, rather than the other way around. Of course, converting an office tower to a residential tower isn’t trivial. All that undesirable deep space, far from the windows, and no balconies…

  7. While I may disagree a bit with the assertion that KOMO’s “Soul of Seattle” was overblown (paging Mike James here! His Facebook posts about the tents and needles returning to Third Avenue show just how accurate the portrayal was), there are several things in this piece that deserve more attention:

    “The city’s core is home to 85,000 residents and 14,000 businesses. It accounts for more than half of Seattle annual tax receipts, important for funding broader social services.” MORE THAN HALF OF SEATTLE ANNUAL TAX RECEIPTS!! Lorena Gonzalez doesn’t seem to have grasped this fact, and yet she wants to keep throwing hundreds of millions of dollars of our tax receipts to our failed homelessness efforts.

    The other observation is really appalling: “I twice called Seattle Councilman Andrew Lewis, who represents District Seven, the city’s downtown and Pioneer Square, to ask for his thoughts on the subject. No response yet.” WOW. Andrew Lewis is so dang important that he can’t be bothered to respond to a former 3-term City Councilmember and venerable journalist? WTF, Andrew?? Much as most of us common people have had similar non-responses from our City Councilmembers. Ignoring someone like Jean Godden demonstrates just how insular and awful the current Council is (except Lisa Herbold. Bless her. I may disagree with 80-90% of her policy proposals, but the woman IS responsive and respectful).

    Gawd help us if the moderates do not win the election.

  8. The engaging cultural/entertainment things to do downtown that Godden lists are extremely expensive, especially considering paying parking also (which isn’t going to go down since private corporations own those lots and they have no reason to drop their prices). A good portion of the 85,000 people who live downtown are residents of low-income buildings, and they certainly can’t afford to partake of those amenities. I hear people of all financial and cultural levels talking about what they’re watching on Netflix, not what play they’ve seen. Godden seems to be yearning for a return of 1980; she should be realistic and experienced enough to know that’s not going to happen. This piece was basically a whine — well-written, but a whine.

    • It may have been quite a while since you’ve been downtown. You clearly have not noticed the scores of residential towers that have been constructed downtown in the past 20 years. These are decidedly and so obviously opulent not low income residential units.

      The recent census showed a dramatic increase in population for downtown and South Lake Union, a much more significant increase than the increased populations in the rest of the City.

  9. Good observation, Sally. But, although I long for pre-pandemic times and plead guilty to nostalgia, I don’t believe entertainment and cultural attractions are beyond reach. The city could underwrite bargain opportunities, helping the arts at the same time as making them more affordable for low income residents. When I was in school (multiple years ago) I was able to attend the Rep thanks to reduced student pricing and friends of mine earned a night at the theater volunteering as ushers. Perhaps we need to adopt a system like London’s where people can buy cut-rate play/event tickets for that day.
    As to parking, when the streets feel safe, one hopes that many people will rely on transit rather than driving to events.
    Someone (not just the wealthy) are packing sports events and rock concerts. If one lives downtown so much the easier.
    I’m not giving up on having a vital downtown. Not yet anyway.

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