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.