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.