Has Seattle Lost Its Vibrant Downtown? Tips for Revival

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Seattle’s downtown is in need of revitalization (Photo: John Acher).

Seattle’s leaders have long prided themselves on how well the city has kept its downtown hopping. It focused transit on the hub. It rallied to save department stores. It goosed the numbers by building a convention center (actually three) and luring monster cruise ships. It built theaters, concert halls, sports stadiums, and an Art Museum right downtown. It lagged on building a major downtown park, but it’s now pouring millions into a Waterfront Park, anchored by an expanding Aquarium. The hollowing out of downtowns across America by crime, homeless encampments, and footloose corporate headquarters was the big, bad threat that a generation of Seattle leaders, piloted by Jim Ellis, Unico and Wright Runstad developers, struggled to avoid. 

Then came the pandemic and its unforeseen but oddly liberating consequence of remote working. Seattle may have won the battles for a vibrant downtown. Now the big questions are: Are we losing the war? Will it take big steps and political unity to stem the outflow? Or do we just cross our fingers and wait for the next Amazon?

Nationally, remote workers peaked in the valley of the pandemic, 2020, at two-thirds of workers not in offices. Now that figure, which has been eerily stable since January 2021, is about one-third — and closer to 40 percent in Seattle. 

The Seattle Times’s Gene Balk recently reported on a survey of American cities curiously based on “smartphone visits to downtown points of interest” and found that Seattle — like other major cities (notably Portland and San Francisco) — lags many others in sluggishly returning to 2019 levels, with Seattle ranking 40th of 62 cities. A new story by the Times’s Paul Roberts finds that “the return to the office isn’t going as planned” and that “in downtown Seattle, offices are just 42 percent as full as they were before COVID-19.” Many workers, having tasted the new freedom and the savings from not having to commute, are now hooked on the conveniences of remote work, at least in part. 

Heave-ho, Hub City?

A thorough survey was published by The Washington Post.  It found that dense urban cores, notably San Francisco, Manhattan, DC, were particularly vulnerable to outmigration. Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Denver, and Boston especially waved farewells to prime-age (25-54) workers, particularly those in tech, communications, professional services, and finance/insurance. Smaller cities such as Salt Lake City, Fresno, Omaha, and Columbus gained workers. The big declines in prime-age workers from 2020 to 2021 were in LA (85,000), Manhattan (78,000), and San Francisco (44,000), with Seattle losing an estimated 15,000.

Aside from the pandemic and its enforced remote-work rules, what else has caused this de-urbanization? Crime, homelessness, high rents, stymied urban politics, NIMBY opposition to building housing, lagging transit, family values from remote work, worker-liberation — all apply to Seattle. I would add two other Seattle-specific factors. Department stores like Nordstrom competed with themselves by building lots of suburban outlets and then pleaded with the city to revive the downtown stores with lots more fickle tourism. Those tourists are clearly filling the gap, at least this summer, so Seattle’s downtown “feels” like it’s rebounding. Still, tourism is a shaky foundation for rebuilding downtown, particularly in a city with long rainy winters.

A second Seattle factor is the hyperinflation of real estate costs in Seattle and nearby suburbs. High housing costs have driven commuters farther away. Now, avoiding commuting by working (even if partly) at home is a strong local “driver.”

So we have partly brought this on ourselves (and could therefore fix things). Remote working is likely a permanent wild card in our planning. But can we gain agreement for some strong medicine? Given the Left’s stigmas of elitism and capitalism in Seattle’s downtown, at least in the eyes of the city council, is there still the desire (and the votes) to spend political capital on remaking a vibrant downtown? City council members were previously elected at large, which meant attention to downtown interests, but now that we elect them by district, only three of the council’s nine members need to court downtown interests and voters.

There are some strong antidotes, and they would need to be visible and dramatic, much as the sports stadiums were. Here are a few ideas:

Cheap tickets, particularly for locals, to sports and culture. Parts of London reduce ticket prices by 10 percent if you show your residence card, and this move would be in keeping with improving access to the arts.

Major enhancements. City Hall Park, just west of City Hall. should become a fine public park, not an apartment tower. A dramatic recasting of the Government Center, such as moving the jail out of town. Using the ground floors of the old Macy’s as a flexible space for arts/performance/food demonstrations. Then do the same at that other key transportation node, King Street Station.

Adapt empty office space (particularly lower floors) to provide more housing, and more public-serving spaces. Wrap some of the buildings with trees on balconies, as Amazon is doing in Alexandria, Virginia. In restoring Third Avenue, think not of the Avenue (too far gone) but of some key intersections (arches, overpasses, carved-out parklets). Get the UW or Seattle U to open a classroom building downtown in one of the half-empty office towers, with performance and lecture facilities. Move UW Press back downtown. 

Create a downtown arts district, with theater incentives, parklets, joint marketing, and a program for very-low-cost tickets just before curtain time. Full theaters will enhance the audience experience. And there will be lots of empty seats for years to come. Subsidize some key missing links, such as a downtown general-interest bookstore (there are none), tree plantings for forlorn streets, buskers, zany parades, dog parks (great for people-watching), playgrounds, schools, outdoor venues for movies and music, bringing back a once-vital gallery scene. Ask folks living downtown what they want and how they can help make it happen. We have created a downtown primarily for shoppers, office workers, tourists, and sports fans. The priority ought to be people living there. If you make downtown a good place to live, with repeat local customers vested in their neighborhood, much good will follow.

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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.

29 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t have a lot of hope for downtown Seattle. The biggest problem in the NW is substance abuse, far and away. There isn’t great real data on just how many teens and adults have addiction issues, but Seattle is likely over 10%, maybe higher. There’s just too much beer, too much weed, too many young folks graduating to harder drugs as their addiction deepens.

    Shit rolls downhill and in Seattle, downhill is downtown. There are thousands of people in the later stages of addiction hanging out down there 24 hours a day. Seattle has opened up a few “tourist corridors” like Pike Place Market, (Like the other Washington, D.C.) but the addict problem isn’t being addressed, just moved around some.

    Almost all of the entertainment downtown either costs a huge amount of money or involves getting drunk or high… or both. It’s not a place for kids, but unbridled hedonism.

    • Cannabis has NOTHING to do with the drug addiction downtown and EVERYTHING to do with opiate abuse. People do not “graduate” to “harder stuff.” Your kind of ignorance is hard to bear when I’m downtown and in Pioneer Square nearly every day, seeing what is actually going on. Believe me, I don’t like junkies on the light rail either, but I have been smoking “too much weed” for over 35 years, I have a house, a wife, a cat, and two rewarding careers. Direct your animus at what deserves it.

  2. This has always seemed weird to me. Yeah, Seattle was just a provincial little burg when I showed up in the ’70s, but …

    There was a downtown, you’d go there to shop at a department store or something, but living there was for bums. Well, really people of modest means. Arguably a significant part of our problem now, is that they need somewhere to live, too, and they’ve been displaced from the SROs that used to serve them.

    The old ways are best. We tried “vibrant”, and it isn’t Seattle. Let’s go back to practical thinking about downtown.

    • I stepped off a Greyhound bus and moved into the San Telmo hotel on Stewart back in ’84. Different world back then. You could rent a room downtown or even in U-district for less than $200 a month.

  3. David Brewster forgot to mention the need for regular cleaning and sanitizing of downtown sidewalks by the city. The scent of urine is ubiquitous in downtown whereas not present in the Amazon/SLU/Regrade area. It is obnoxious for local residents and out of town visitors alike and makes downtown less appealing. One other related item is dealing with the rampant and obviously visible drug dealing and sidewalk drug use in the heart of downtown (Pike and 3rd seems to be the center). Getting more corrections and social services people on the streets and getting the dealers off and users treated needs to be a city priority if downtown is to return to its previous lively and interesting self. Right now it is just pretty sad and a bit dangerous at times.

  4. The secret is to maximize what works. People are drawn to bookstores, markets, dogs and buskers, even food trucks. Maybe a Pike Place Market branch downtown, a dog park, a space set aside for food trucks, art performers etc. But always with adequate staffing — that’s the secret to successful places like Bryant Park: nice restrooms, always staffed; that and lots of funding.

    • Bryant Park is special.
      When we visited NYC in the 1970’s and early 80’s, it was “drug central.” You did not want to go there. Not any tents, homeless, just drugs and vagrants. Say what you will about “broken windows” policing and “frisking suspicious vagrants,” but for NYC and BP it worked.
      We know the drug traffic and vagrants are elsewhere, but BP and the New York Library, with chess, ping pong, public newspapers, children’s carousel and good coffee are our go to spots in the City.
      Seattle can do it but it has to be the priority.

  5. Attended rest rooms that are clean would go a long way in improving the downtown core. In Europe you pay a small fee but i have been told that is against the law in Seattle. Pioneer Square in the way back machine used to have a big public restroom at First & Yesler, we need more of these not just the Urban Rest Stop.

  6. I think this overlooks what may be the greatest transformation of Seattle’s “downtown” in the past 20 years, and perhaps a source of its future well-being: it’s become a place where people live, as well as work 9-5. The core, First Hill, South Lake Union, Belltown, the growth in housing close to the waterfront — there are still lots of cranes, so there’s more to come. It doesn’t change the obvious problems of more remote work, drugs, homelessness, crime and, in some places, filth, but it shouldn’t be overlooked

    • Yuppie housing is the “greatest”downtown transformation? Maybe it’s the worst. Once upon a time there was plenty of rundown “flophouse” style housing all over downtown. There’s always been drunks and druggies and the general down and outers living downtown. But now that all the cheap SRO hotels have been torn down and high end yuppie housing has went up… it’s tent city. And no matter what anybody tells you, once market rate “affordable” housing like SROs are torn down, that housing is lost forever.

  7. I’ve read all the posts above and agree with most of it. However, I never read about the gang violence and the drugs that run rampant throughout. We’ve lost our Police Departments with great officers (thanks to defund) and the new hires are trained to be kind and considerate to criminals. Total joke!

    Bottom line:
    If we don’t restore Law & Order in our city, it will be the same ol’ song and dance over and over again. It’s called “Justice Reform”. Without it, forget it.
    When law enforcement risks their lives to catch criminals, the prosecution needs to Prosecute! When the Judge receives the guilty case, maximize the sentence.
    All to often we hear of 2nd chances for the criminals ( some cases 50 chances ).
    Stop it, just stop it if you want Seattle to turn around.

    Voters have to stop complaining when crime happens and there’s never a prosecution. It’s time to check our value system. We could have a Mayor, City Counsel, Prosecuter, Judges, who take their positions seriously. When this happens, it’s time to celebrate.

  8. Among the good ideas sent me privately:
    Drop-in day centers for the homeless
    Since we have too many shops downtown, relax the requirement that new buildings have to include streetfront retail.
    More police, more visibility for them downtown
    Fill up the renovated Pacific Place
    Give up on Third Ave, and let it just be a busway
    Use the Waterfront Park as a way to get families back in downtown, and don’t be snobby about the Big Wheel.

  9. Enforcing some laws and busting up the open air drug markets at 3rd and Pike/Pine, 3rd and Bell, 2nd and Bell, snd Preffontaine fountain(3rd and Yesler) would be a start. If there’s no dealers working then the customers won’t loiter, openly use drugs, and shoplift as much maybe. I’m sure it’d lead to fewer shootings and overdoses.

  10. Let’s try the London, Paris, Oslo (where I’ve been recently) formula: car-free thoroughfares that are walkable, bike-able and venues for restaurants and markets. It’d also help (don’t know if i’s possible) by lowering costs for theater and concert tickets—also sports events—by cutting out third-party brokers which jack up ticket prices enormously. In London, plays cost just the listed ticket price. Yes, more policing and prosecutions, too, so streets are not just safer, but SAFE.

  11. Moving the jail out of the urban core only hurts the folks who are trying to visit the people in the jail….it is a solution similar to placing prisons in remote formerly logging towns with no mass transit to get there so inmates have no visitation. Otherwise, some good ideas.

  12. I really like the idea of repurposing empty office space. It would be well worth the investment to make some of it available to a wide variety of life styles and incomes, including workforce housing. Residents would support neighborhood businesses every day of the week, and the downtown core would be much more interesting than it is today.
    Seattle needs a new way to discuss and create more housing anyway. The lack of creativity is driving support for Reaganistic ideas like loosening land use codes and City control, and putting our city in the hands of private developers to build as they will.

  13. For various practical reasons, it could be cheaper to tear an office building down and build a new residential tower, than convert an existing building. There’s lots about this online. Natural light from exterior windows, heavy duty utilities so everyone can have a 220V stove and complete bathrooms, stuff like that.

  14. I would love to see more police officers on bikes and horses. Especially horses. I enjoyed seeing them rambling near the Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square. I don’t know if there’s evidence to back this up, but the sight of them seemed to offer both benevolence and crime deterrence. A small step, perhaps–but it sure would be a welcome return. I haven’t seen one in a very long time.

  15. The core of Seattle generates over 50% of the Seattle budget. The health of the downtown is vital to the health of Seattle. As the downtown loses its luster with it will come a decline in services. The Council rejecting capitalism, rejects competition. There are over 60 cities in the metro. There are many school districts. We are building a light rail system whose purpose was to bring people downtown to work. It is also a way to avoid living in Seattle. The Seattle budget will require major cuts over the next few years. Maybe there will be a realization that if Seattle does not want to cut services, they must develop a strategy for the downtown.

  16. Hello David. Your article resonates — even in specific ways — with my recent efforts to instigate (and hopefully develop) a downtown Cultural Center for Seattle. Several of my culturally well-connected friends have suggested that I speak with you. I would love to talk with you! Please contact me if you can. (I am an architect and Fellow of the AIA. Have run my biz here in Seattle, doing “interpretive architecture” since 1995.)

    Here is a link to my recent talk at the “Virtual MainStage” of the Seattle Design Festival, “A Case for a Downtown Seattle Cultural Center“:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbkfwEGOFo4
    My part starts at about 1:24:27 and goes until about 1:59:52.

    Thank you and best wishes, Mindy

    • I looked at the YouTube presentation. Obvious places to start: Downtown Seattle Association, City Councilmember Andrew Lewis. One objection will come from Seattle Center, a gathering place, and Town Hall Seattle, multi-arts place. In Chicago, very generous to the arts, there is very large and enlightened city support for the Cultural Center. Unlikely here, especially with all the other claims on arts funding. Major problem with Macy’s location: downtown wants to revive with retail; another problem, how desperate many arts organizations are, suggesting continuing claims for more subsidy.

  17. One other missing link: a supermarket. The closure of the Kress Market on meth alley and smaller outlying markets have made living DT even more forbidding.
    Perhaps in ex-Macy’s first floor? Supermarkets pay lower rent than department stores, but where are you going to find a department store to move in.
    Too bad Trader Joe’s is so squeamish (racist?) about the neighborhoods it occupies.

  18. We lived downtown for 12 years before heading to the ‘burbs in 2019. I’d like to clear up and add to this story:

    FIRST: The downward spiral of Downtown Seattle was not sudden, it was a process that played out over a decade or more, and was capped off with these three changes: a) Seattle Metro buses – which for many, many years had been free to ride in the downtown core – began charging full fares just as they did elsewhere in the city. The immediate results were delays, frustrations, and fewer shoppers headed downtown, b) Washington Mutual Bank was sold off to Chase, and suddenly 1200 sophisticated individuals who had worked in WAMU’s two downtown buildings were gone M-F, and c) In 2012, Washington voters – after a costly advertising blitz from Seattle-based retailer Costco – voted to eliminate Washington State as the state’s exclusive retailer of alcoholic beverages. What had been limited to two or three downtown stores was thrown wide open. Walgreens, Target, Bartells, Rite-Aids, even grocers and convenience stores jumped on the bandwagon. But none of them knew what they were getting into. For the first six months, while walking downtown you’d pass poorly dressed, likely homeless young people openly peddling bottles of liquor for sale. Some of them very expensive, all of them obtained by shoplifting, though some were stolen off loading docks and out of storage.

    SECOND: Yes, the substantial influx of homeless downtown, and the substance abuse litter they leave behind are big problems. But think it through: With creative planning, the homeless population can be re-directed and re-routed to other areas in the city and county we can set up to host them. It won’t be cheap, but it can be done. What cannot be re-directed and re-routed are the fruits of the downtown explosion of skyscrapers and construction. It’s more than just Amazon (which admitted are, by themselves, a real problem in an area of north downtown known as ‘South Lake Union’). Take the intersection of 2nd and Stewart, couple blocks from where we were, as just one example: One of the four corners is a 100+ year-old 12-story Catholic church and apartment building. Until 2010, the tallest structure on the other three corners was a 4-story parking garage. Today, those three corners include a 22-floor apartment building and two multi-purpose structures of 40+ stories. Trust me, those three buildings cannot be re-directed or re-routed.

    There. Now everybody knows a lot more.

  19. The King County Homeless Authority wants to place a 500 bed shelter along with 50 Tiny Homes and 50 RV parking spots, South of Dearborn, 1 block away from Uwajimaya. They never informed the neighborhood about it’s plans, and we’re mad about it.
    They already destroyed Little Saigon with the DESC Homeless Resource Center on 12th Ave & Weller. Several businesses left because the neighborhood became a Magnet for crime and drug trades, because of the Service Center attracts the Homeless there.
    I see the Death of Seattle’s Chinatown with this Super Sized Homeless Center, because you’re repeating the same thing again. Also expect several car break-ins for people attending nearby Lumen & T-Mobile Field events.

    Too bad the Seattle Asians weren’t given a chance to develop this area. We would have built a retail center with apartments on top for a “New Chinatown” to supplement development in Old Chinatown.

  20. Amsterdam cleaned up their mess but they did it first by forming a committed partnership between law enforcement, medical/mental and social services and then holding their “clients” strictly accountable for their behaviors. A critical element was decentralizing the housing of at-risk populations so they were no longer a magnet for drug dealing.
    Seattle has too great a concentration of missions, public housing and social support services in its downtown core. It appears we are now on our way to turning Chinatown into an extension of 3rd Ave.

  21. There is no solution EXCEPT stricter law enforcement and voter intolerance of mismanaged, activist, city government. We tried compassion – let’s go back to the equation work hard and progress.

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