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.