Here’s How to Fix Downtown: Better Parking and Tax Breaks


A few months back my friend Alec Fisken (now passed away) and I were picking our way through downtown on our way back to Horizon House. At one point, somewhere in the Denny Triangle, we drove past the base of a new office or apartment tower which had a sign in one of its large ground-floor windows: “Restaurant Space for Lease.”  How, I wondered could they sell that: on the three sides of the block we could see as we drove by, there was no street parking.

And that’s one of the big obstacles to fixing downtown Seattle. Surface parking lots between Denny and Jackson and west of I-5 have virtually disappeared in the Amazon-Plus growth bomb. The few that remain start at $15 just to drive in. Parking in the buildings’ garages goes up from there. What, an extra $30 just to go to the dentist?

And how many street parking places have been lost in recent years to bike lanes and bus lanes, desirable as they may be? With nearly nothing available at the curb, parking costs probably deter a lot of people from even thinking about shopping downtown. Lower income families are stuck with the bus, more evidence that Seattle is splitting, rich and poor.

That said, there’s still the problem of getting shoppers (and even office workers) downtown. One wishes for the days when Mayor Norm Rice and development whiz Matt Griffin (and I’m sure there were other players) put together the Nordstrom move to the old Frederick and Nelson building and included (relatively) low-cost public parking in the Pacific Place development across the street.

It’s a way to go: the city and businesses need to come up with a parking program that significantly reduces cost for everyone. City centers – our downtown’s not alone – are public amenities and a significant part of the glue (and the tax base) that holds communities together. You shouldn’t have to open your wallet and peel off a twenty just to go there. It should not surprise anyone that University Village is the competition. Need I say that parking there is free?

More parking is one essential step. Getting workers back downtown is another. Amazon’s announced requirements for return to office work is certainly one thing I can admire them for (not so much some of their other business practices). Now the city, county, and the federal government should get on board. All those governments should insist on at least four days in the office. I know they’re moving toward it, but how far, how fast? A decade and more ago when I worked for city government, so-called 4-40 work weeks were common — 10 hours a day four days a week. It worked pretty well but we never held important meetings on Fridays. A 4-40 plan or regular 8-hour days with one day a week at home sounds like a nice perk.

And then there’s retail, particularly small, locally owned retail operators, the ones that Covid and the homeless population have driven out of downtown. They need a tax break – a rent break, really — and here it is:

As I proposed here in Post Alley back in late 2022, there’s a way to create a great tax exemption for retail and restaurants at street level.  Offer an exemption to landlords, buildings large and small, for the ground floor, street-facing square footage of their property as long as they reduce the rent of their street-level businesses by the same amount. That would amount to a terrific break on rent, one that will keep small shops in business and offer opportunity to new ones. (All street-level businesses, even chains and franchises count. They all build traffic for the area.) The reduction in tax take would be spread across all other properties and likely would not be noticeable.

During Covid the city provided grants up to $10,000 for impacted small businesses and Amazon gave free rent to businesses at street level in its office towers. That kind of support also needs to continue.

Admittedly, it’s hard to change property tax law. The state’s in control. But one possibility would be a law that applied only to Class A cities (Seattle is the only one), a dodge that’s been used before, or perhaps a law declared applicable only to the state’s most populous county.

A final thought: Starbucks bailed out of its Westlake and Pine store somewhere in the pandemic, no longer wanting to be a magnet for the homeless, staff safety, or labor reasons. But now they need to come back and liven up the public space that surrounds their store, a location that benefitted them hugely for years.

How to do that? Well, I think it’s up to a few of our civic leaders, John Scholes, CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association; Rachel Smith, CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce; and Tammy Blount-Canavan, new CEO of Visit Seattle, the tourism promoting outfit. They need to get together, hop an Uber and beard Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan in his office down in SODO. Maybe add Mayor Bruce Harrell to the gang, who would be helpful if they have to offer extra police around the site. It would be worth it to repopulate downtown.

Dick Lilly
Dick Lilly
Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered local government from the neighborhoods to City Hall and Seattle Public Schools. He later served as a public information officer and planner for Seattle Public Utilities, with a stint in the mayor’s office as press secretary for Mayor Paul Schell. He has written on politics for and the Seattle Times as well as Post Alley.


  1. There is also the thought that people might consider public transportation to their favorite eateries. Wouldn’t have to worry about that extra glass of wine.

  2. Really thoughtful solutions, Dick! It would be wonderful to be able to go downtown regularly again and find reasonable parking again. Thank you!

  3. (1)”Lower income families are stuck with the bus, more evidence that Seattle is splitting, rich and poor.” Hmm. “Stuck” with the bus? Lots of my friends at Horizon House, where I live, find the #2 bus an easy way to go downtown, even if they own cars. (2) Forcing workers to work 4 days a week in a downtown building negates the benefits of lessening traffic congestion and car pollution, and in my opinion will not solve the problem of street level drugs and shoplifting. I know the jail is overcrowded and the police say they are overworked but my fantasy would be to have undercover cops roaming the stores and arresting shoplifters (clerks can’t do this) and give them mandated 2 days in jail. (3) I know parking is your problem, Dick, but my big problem is lack of public rest rooms and places to sit down. Back in the day, I loved going into the beautiful women’s restroom at the Bon, use the toilet, and actually rest in a comfortable chair. I know the city’s experiments with porta potties have failed, but how about requiring all big office buildings to have restrooms, publicly available and on the ground floor and with an attendant? At the expense of the building owners, a cost of doing business in the city.

    • All true. Another angle for the city to set the table for pedestrians while while accommodating all of us who used to shop downtown.

  4. Part of Seattle’s downtown crisis involves the problem of getting there by car: once you’re there, you’ve got to park somewhere, and the cost of parking is very high. So why not take public transit? Well, it’s all right for some. But transportation issues are mobility issues, and as we know, maintaining mobility is a challenge for older folks.

    As a recent arrival to Seattle in the mid-1970’s, I considered myself fortunate in being able to take the bus to my work downtown (at the now long-gone United Pacific Building at 2nd and Madison), stroll across 2nd to have lunch at the Kau-Kau Restaurant, and perhaps meet colleagues for an after-work drink at an Exchange Building watering hole before riding the bus back home. In those days, my young legs allowed me the luxury of hiking uphill and downhill around the city center, as well as legging it back home from the bus stop.

    Now I am in my mid-70’s, the old legs aren’t up to the challenge of walking uphill several blocks to catch a bus, and I tend to categorize my destinations by those which have parking nearby, and those that don’t. So now I am very selective: for a concert or an important meeting, I’ll pay what it costs to park (and grumble afterwards). To get medical care, shop or meet up with friends, I’ll patronize downtown establishments that offer convenient validated or low-cost parking, or else stick to more car-friendly neighborhoods.

    Since a lot of downtown office space is reportedly vacant, one could assume that those buildings also have a lot of parking spaces sitting unused. Perhaps part of the solution to low tenancy rates for ground-level space would be to offer reduced-cost parking to prospective restaurant and retail tenants to in turn use “free parking” as an inducement to drive business their way.

  5. Yes to everything except more parking. Parking = cars and they are anathema even in electric form. Keep putting the funding and energy into public transport. Busses and light rail are the solution that all great cities in the world rely on to move people. It has taken Seattle decades to get over the short-sightedness of turning down the light rail option decades ago. Ask any sport lover whether she/he would prefer the car grind to either of the city’s two downtown stadiums versus light rail (even if you park at the end of the line).

  6. To the anti-car zealots – Bellevue Square, Downtown Bellevue, Kirkland, and University Village say keep up the good work in making it harder to park in Downtown Seattle. They’re so happy with your idealistic elitist idiocy they can hardly count (with apologies to Pink Floyd).


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