Fixing Seattle’s Downtown: First, Do No Harm


Many are the chefs in the kitchen, cooking up a recipe for the revival of Seattle’s downtown — Downtown Seattle Association, Mayor Bruce Harrell, Markham McIntyre of the city’s Office of Economic Development, City Councilmember Andrew Lewis. With no one really in charge, and no real planning office at City Hall, we so far are just in a stew.

So here are some suggested guidelines for this pivotal exercise as Seattle seeks an economic rebound of its troubled downtown.

First: Do No Harm. On my list of no-nos is a hope to scuttle the connector streetcar on First Avenue. It would be hugely costly and cause long disruptions on the one attractive, historic retail street in downtown, First Avenue. It would be rather like the “Beirut” we created in digging the Third Avenue transit tunnel, the first fatal blow to retail on Third Ave. It is also a dumb idea to invest in a slow, lightly used, tourist-centered, too-short, disconnected surface rail. And also dump the slogan, “cultural connector,” since the connector would leave out Seattle Center as well as mid-town venues like ACT and the Paramount and the 5th Ave.

Next bad idea: banning cars and trucks from Pike Place, the delivery spine of the Market. City Hall, eager for some victories and wanting to strike a blow against cars, is pushing this idea. It would touch off a long civil war in the Market and disrupt the one thriving retail zone we have. Fuggedaboutit!

Third bad idea: cosmetic treatment of Third Avenue by widening sidewalks and planting some trees while keeping the bus blight. Band-Aids won’t cut it after years of crime, homeless tents, closed stores, and roaring buses.

Prioritize Popular Possibilities. At the head of this list is a new theme for downtown as a residential neighborhood. Many of the older buildings (Terminal Sales Building, Seattle Tower) can be converted to residential uses (fancy and affordable). Since in-city folks like to live near the Market, extend the Market’s security and services a few blocks eastward. To serve families, develop more “play” areas in the form of mini-parks, dog-runs, small shady respites.

Make the connection between the new Waterfront Park and Seattle Center by merging programming and security personnel. Develop the city-county government center by filling holes, moving the jail, making a multi-use transit center (like Denver’s Union Station) in place of the ugly county Administration Building. Find a better use (residential, arts, education) for the ugly Post Office building across Third Avenue from Benaroya Hall. Make the handsome, struggling Rainier Club more of a public asset.

Find Champions for Downtown Revitalization. There is no city council champion, no empowered deputy mayor, no planning czar. Also missing is a business leader (some candidates are Greg Smith (developer with Urban Visions), Matt Griffin (developer with Pine Street Associates, and Marshall Foster, new head of Seattle Center). The Downtown Seattle Association aspires to this role, but it’s not publicly accountable, driven by landlords, and is a maze of competing interests, big and small. Might it be time to appoint a city planning director?

A Few, Popular Themes. The public is puzzled and suspicious. In the vacuum easy cures will prevail such as tourism, Mayor Harrell’s mysterious “cultural spine,” and letting AI  recharge the tech sector (mostly on the Eastside). My agenda for these simplified, reinforcing themes: residential neighborhoods (as opposed to the “Office Park” downtown  developers created). Starter housing in refashioned older, smaller office buildings. Clean, attractive, safe public areas full of public art. Dividing downtown into distinct urban neighborhoods (such as a new gallery district). Rebooting Seattle arts along Portland lines (smaller venues, reduced overhead, increased experimentation). Better east-west connections to the new Waterfront Park.

David Brewster
David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.


  1. Office building conversion to residential? Someone needs to nail this question down a little better. I think the story is that it’s utterly impractical in most cases, but if it’s going to be the cause celebre that it seems to be of late (Seattle Times candidate interviews, etc.), let’s get a qualified source to identify buildings that would work downtown, if there are any.

    Of course if advocacy for this is irrelevant, that isn’t really necessary. I mean, we can’t go to the polls to decide what Vulcan et al. are going to do, so it would be about city policies that might push things in that direction, and identifying such would be a first step before spending a lot of time on a daydream.

    It’s a good thought, which is why most candidates checked that box. A city full of what business tenants are left after work and shopping go online, isn’t going to be a very fun place.

    • Donn Cave: The buildings that can be converted need windows on most sides, small floor plates. I mentioned two good candidates: Terminal Sales Building at First and Virginia, and the old Northern Life Tower at Third and University. Very tall modern office buildings are a challenge to convert.

      • I love the old Northern Life Tower beyond all reason. Thirty-three different shades of brick were used on its lovely exterior! Built in 1928, its Seattle’s first art moderne building. If this converts to residential tower, however, won’t us proletarians who can’t afford to buy a place in it lose access to this historic building? If it converts, I hope at least the ground floor can remain retail. Or, maybe it could some kind of public spaces, as with the Smith Tower.

        • The NYT article just reprinted in the Seattle Times clarified this a little for me – that is, why the cause celebre: it’s the next real estate developer deregulatory frontier. Residential zoning in NY requires amenities that can’t practically be retrofitted in a building built to office building standards. Therefore, it goes without saying, those amenities weren’t really needed after all. From one end to the other, the article turns a blind eye to any trade-off between development barriers and erosion of quality in our urban environment.

          If allowing substandard residential accommodations downtown, will satisfy the developer boosters, fine, but it won’t. Children of Reagan, we’ll always be suckers for the story that over-regulation is the cause of all our ills.

  2. These are excellent points. Yes to dumping the silly streetcar on First Avenue idea. WALKING historic First Avenue is what tourists and residents like to do. Yes, to KEEPING trucks and cars in the Place Market, where growers traditionally could truck in their own produce and flowers. What the hell? Where would they park? And moreover, the Market should remain accessible. Some people, elderly, disabled, can’t just walk up those steep hills. They need access by car. Seattle is getting too damn bicycle elitist.

  3. Next year is the transportation Levy. The first question is the property tax appetite if we triple the housing levy. The smoke signals seem to be to use this levy to finish the connector. The transportation levy should be the bridge levy. The number of people in buses, school buses and other vehicles will far outnumber the connector on the Ballard and Magnolia bridges alone. The City cannot keep punting bridges down the road until the next earthquake and pray for a benevolent Federal government. Maybe a new pragmatic City Council will rediscover the City Charter.

  4. Good thinking, David, especially when it comes to “do no harm” and the folly of tearing up First Avenue for an expensive and disruptive streetcar connector or changing the traffic pattern at Pike Place Market.
    The idea of having a planning czar is excellent: our own Robert Moses, who, if we’re lucky in finding someone with vision could spark public redevelopment. Yes to someone like Greg Smith or Matt Griffin, maybe enlist people like Peter Steinbrueck, others from Allied Arts.

  5. Good points, thanks, but can’t we do something other than a trolley line as a “connector”, and also to connect Pike Place Market to Pioneer Square? How about using an electric shuttle bus on a loop, south along 2nd Ave and north along 1st Ave between, say, Bell and Jackson. Wouldn’t downtown residents are well as tourists find that handy? No idea about costs, but gotta be cheaper than a dedicated trolley line. (Yeah, I know the trendy term is “tram” but I call ’em trolleys).

  6. I used to like to go downtown, still will go downtown beginning in the fall for the occasional concert at Nordstrom Hall upstairs in Benaroya. I take the bus, but ‘cheat’ by parking on Greenwood Ave. because it’s too hard for me to walk uphill to catch the bus on Greenwood. Once on Third Avenue, I’m grateful for the short walk to the hall and across the street to the bus stop to get the bus home. That said, there are TOO MANY buses on Third Ave.!

    Let’s find out what other cities have done to and/or if their downtowns have been revitalized. Converting smaller old buildings to housing? Atriums for light (I know the plural is ‘atria,’ but really?) Surely there might be an architectural solution. Agree with scrapping the idea of a yet more construction for yet another streetcar on First Avenue. Let’s do something better for both Third Ave. and First Avenue for we, the people who live here! I like the idea of villages and/or urban neighborhoods, too. Perhaps we could use better planning and coordination and thoughtful people with ideas working together.

    No offense intended with my final thought, but here it is: let’s have more women and people of color involved! They have much to offer and we all need them to fully participate and be full partners in what I hope will be an ongoing discussion.

  7. You lost 5 k just from me cancelling my vacation. Get the police back and get rid if crime if you want tourists to come back. I wonder how many 5 to 10k tourists you’ve lost this year alone? Get it together. Vote in leaders who arent afraid to support law and order. I loved Seattle. You are letting it go to shit! The guy with the purse who said he mugged a bitch was it for me. Maybe you can censor the news like you’ve undermined every law abiding citizen and police. Time to STOP keeping your head in the sand and do what you were elected to do. Just disgusted.

  8. Thanks for starting this conversation. It aligns with the current Seattle Times guest editorial from an Expedia spox. His angle? Where’s the Mayor’s “Space Needle-thinking” plan. Don’t leave King County off the hook: Covid-era staffing shortages (still?) leave KC Public Health plumbing permits (restaurants/bars) SIX MONTHS in the offing.

  9. A June 26 Seattle Times’ op-ed by the Expedia spokesman (Richard de Sam Lazaro) slammed Bruce Harrell for not acting fast on promises to revitalize downtown, dinged Harrell for failure to follow San Diego (which bans camping on public property) and (surprise) Paris. After scolding his honor, de Sam Lazaro (president of Transportation choices board) came up with a single concrete suggestion: close down Pike Place Market traffic. He said that the ban has “broad support of Seattleites and the vast majority of Pike Place vendors.” Which ones? Those who dispense coffee?
    As one commenter said: Pike Place has survived many attempts to eliminate it altogether, but this one might “succeed where other attempts have failed.” Turning our historic Farmers Market (one of downtown successes) into a yuppified plaza is
    not the answer.

  10. I appreciate many of your ideas, but the Do No Harm points are way off base. 1) The First Ave streetcar line would connect our two existing lines into a coherent system. 2) Traffic has no place in the Market if you want to encourage people to be there. There’s no reason to exclude deliveries — most of the world has long discovered bollards for this sort of place. 3) Third Ave is in desperate need of a remodel. More trees and space for ped would complement all the other steps you propose. These are obvious modest moves to make downtown more a place for people.

  11. The Urbanist-driven campaign to shut down traffic in the Market is class warfare pure and simple. I defy any of these ideologies to run a Market fruit stand for a month, in the real world, on a bike.

    How do we stop the insanity of the Streetcar? It would be an absolute disaster for First Avenue businesses and Pioneer Square. It siphons dollars yet again…from the needs of the unwashed worker-resident classes who need reliable roads that don’t break an axle, bridges that don’t fall down, and a commute that allows a life. I will never forget the day I tried to get from North Greenwood to Swedish for an appointment at 3pm. I was trapped on Broadway in one lane due to the (empty) street car on Broadway, and the last mile from St. Marks Cathedral took, I kid you not, 45 minutes. I missed my appointment.

    We desperately need a city planner. The idea that we can (pretend to have) have a functional city this large with all of these essentially impractical dreamers throwing darts at random flow charts and no overarching vision continually amazes me.
    I am still incredulous that Bruce Harrell thought that in the midst of a fentanyl pandemic, a cure for the ailing gallery district was allowing people to walk and drink in public.

    • Excellent points. Tourists love the Pike Place Market (or Farmer’s Market as we used to call it!) because of its authenticity, including fishermen selling fish; growers and their workers selling their fruits, vegetables and flowers; beekeepers selling honey. I don’t think we need to worry about encouraging people to come to the Market. It’s jammed with people every day, people of all ages and backgrounds, including disabled people. As it should be. Make it impossible for people to drive to the market and it will be even more thronged…but elderly, blind, disabled, who currently go there, will be gone.

  12. Thank you, thank you, David for your focused and comprehensive comments.

    I love my Orca card, love buses, but not the “cultural connector” streetcar, and for all the reasons cited so far. We have the “hop on, hop off bus”, and can further have either electric trolly buses on first, or all electric buses doing the same. Much lower cost but gets the job done well. The Mayor and SDOT think we love it, but we don’t.
    Bob Messina

  13. Yes, avoid harm. Improve the network; trust the grid of Link-bus transit service that will improve in 2024 with ST2 Lynnwood Link and the SDOT G Line.
    So, kill the CCC Streetcar; do not waste its capital funds ($300 million?; SDOT may study it in 2023 to determine that); do not spend scarce service in downtown, where waits for service are already short; if Seattle has available service subsidy, spend it outside downtown where waits are longer; each streetcar hours cost about 1.5 times a bus hour. Do not use half of the lanes of 1st Avenue for the CCC Streetcar for about 12 trips per hour per direction (the last SDOT plan under Kubly). (Most of the time, under the Kubly plan, 1st Avenue would have been an empty bowling alley). Instead, shift several already funded bus routes to 1st Avenue from 3rd Avenue to reduce waits there. The two existing streetcar lines are sunk cost and should not be considered when deciding how to spend future funds. They will be weak forever; the SLU line will always get jammed by the Mercer mess; the First Hill line will always be slow and deviate to 14th Avenue South; these are past mistakes by mayor Nickels, McGinn, and Murray. We need not be wed to them.

  14. PPM traffic: a more subtle approach would ban vehicular traffic between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. after and before stocking and break down.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.