Recovery: How Portland and Seattle Downtowns Will Come Back


The song, “Downtown,” written in 1965, evokes an earlier wish: “Go downtown, things’ll be great when you’re/Downtown, no finer place for sure.” And then downtowns went into a dark age.

Post-Covid the downtowns in Portland and Seattle seem to be in a darker age.

When will each recover, and what will they be like? And which will be more interesting? The short answer: Seattle will recover quicker, and Portland will be more attractive.

Downtown Portland and downtown Seattle share some key characteristics, but they are very different places. Each is bound by a waterfront on one side and a freeway on the other, and each has a transit corridor running down its middle with busways barren of street-front business. Each also has a former industrial area to the north — the Pearl District in Portland and South Lake Union in Seattle — that has been stealing downtown business for the last 20 years.

But in other ways these cities have a fundamentally different sense of place borne out of how they were settled. Portland was a merchant city that emulated Boston. Seattle was a railhead, the “Gateway to the North,” a rough-and-ready port.

Downtown Portland is relatively flat and walkable, with short, small blocks, and numerous parks throughout. Its Class A office buildings mingle attractively with the smaller, older buildings throughout. In contrast, downtown Seattle sits on a bench above the waterfront, with steep streets like Marion connecting the waterfront to a financial district with skyscrapers. Seattle has few parks downtown, and the streets running by those tall buildings are not a place to linger.

Both cities have had retail problems for the last 20 years, with downtown Portland having lost the best stores to the Brewery Blocks north of Burnside, while downtown Seattle has lost out to University Village. (Another rival downtown retail center, Pacific Place, which opened in 1998 with Tiffany’s, has been struggling since long before Covid.)

Seattle’s retail suffered more from Covid, which wiped out many of the coffee and sandwich shops in the financial district. Some of the stores formerly located downtown have now moved to the tourist path stretching between the Convention Centers and the Pike Place Market. With the internet continuing to eat into brick-and-mortar sales, the future of retail in each place lies with dining out and tourism. Portland, with its more walkable streets, plentiful parking, and downtown performance venues, has the advantage.

Seattle has the edge in office recovery. For starters, Puget Sound easily has twice as much business as Portland, and more of its tech industry, notably Amazon, has located downtown. In Portland, most of the larger tech firms never came in from the office parks in Beaverton or Hillsboro, and smaller professional and tech firms that moved into historic spaces near the river now have to cope with drug dealing on the sidewalks right outside their offices.

The big question for Seattle is how many people will come back to those high-rise, Class-A office buildings, particularly those in the financial district. Refilling that space will be harder than most property owners or leasing agents will admit. Actual occupancy rates, measured in person days per week, are probably 30 to 40 percent of what they were pre-Covid, and no major employer will want to pay for a lot of space when people are only coming in two or three days a week.

Of all the industries, tech has had the lowest return-to-work rate, probably because much of the work is amenable to a once-a-day Zoom call. Bellevue is the other big threat for Seattle. Amazon plans to add 25,000 workers on the Eastside, and many of those could come from leased space in downtown Seattle.

Additionally, as Amazon’s workforce matures, those with young families may move to the Bellevue offices because the Eastside schools are far better than Seattle’s. According to, 14 of the top 15 high schools in the state are on the Eastside. 

In Portland, the question is how fast many of the older Class B and Class C office buildings will find another use. That process will probably take three to five years to start, as longstanding owners sell or those who have purchased them more recently lose them to receivership. Expect another five to ten years before others follow those pioneers and create a critical mass of repurposed, vibrant buildings. It took 15 years for that process to gain momentum in the Pearl District, and it may now take ten years to repeat in the Rose City’s downtown.

Downtown Seattle has the clear leadership advantage, but that leadership may be naive about what it will take to turn around the place. At a recent Urban Land Institute event held at the UW’s Foster School of Business, panelists from real estate and government focused on the problems of safety and security, and there was little talk about reimagining downtown with different land uses or functions. Instead, the panelists spoke of “reactivating” downtown with events, as if it was a car with a dead battery that could simply be jump-started with occasional entertainment on the streets or in pop-up stores.

The real question is what will happen 20 stories above the streets.  Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell has a revitalization strategy for downtown, but that strategy is long on process and short on outcome.  In downtown Portland with its endemic political problems, there is no plan for how to deal with the real estate.

There has been so little done to remedy drugs or homelessness that the governor of the state, Tina Kotek, finally stepped past the mayor and formed a task force whose primary recommendations were re-criminalizing hard drugs and putting a moratorium on new taxes, which are now the highest in the country after New York City.

Voters have grown so frustrated with city government that, for the first time in 110 years and eight prior attempts, they have changed the form of city government. No one knows who will be in charge a year now, when the new charter takes effect, or how that government will work. The Portland Development Commission oversaw many physical improvements downtown that made the place livable and famous, but that organization now has a DEI agenda and has lost many of its more experienced staff to suburbs like Beaverton.

With a stronger economy and better leadership, downtown Seattle will come back sooner, probably in four to six years, but in a recovery will be far from incomplete. I predict a more organic and grass-roots recovery in Portland, one that will lead to a far more interesting place, but that that recovery will take ten years or more. 

For Portland and Seattle, a true turnaround will require reimagining the role and function of downtown, and neither city has the leadership right now to do that. Seattle will go through the motions of revitalizing downtown, with “clean and safe” patrols along Pike and Pine and other major tourist areas near Nordstrom and the Market. Large areas of downtown, however, will remain lonely and menacing places, particularly downtown along First, Second, and Third Avenues south of University Street and around the Government Center. Many landlords, like those at the Metropolitan Tract, will be forced to form business improvement districts to provide for their own security. 

The big financial challenge in both downtowns is office values, which may fall 40 percent from their pre-Covid highs. Some properties will go bankrupt and others will lack the funds for tenant improvement. The “walking dead” period for a number of downtown buildings could last five years or more. 

While the recycling of older buildings in Portland will probably take five to ten years, at the end of that period more of its downtown will be in new uses, whereas large parts of downtown Seattle will still be struggling. Downtown Portland is the only major urban center in the state and it has an emotional pull on the heartstrings of people in the region. Enterprising Gen Y developers will pioneer those building conversions for which the parks, streetcars, and walkable streets will provide a stronger sense of place than in downtown Seattle, as now. 

I expect those Portland conversions south of Powell’s Books and near the landings of the Burnside, Morrison, and Hawthorne Bridges. Some of that renovation will likely include workshops for design an production moving from the inner southeast industrial area. 

Seattle’s biggest challenge will be a familiar one — not thinking too big and not simply copying strategies that worked elsewhere. Doing so creates big projects that eat up most of the public funding and squeeze out high-character retail. Such uses do not have widespread impact, and they can  quickly go stale. (Think the Westlake Mall, the South Lake Union Streetcar, and even the waterfront park now under construction.) 

Ten to 20 years from now, the most interesting and vital part of downtown may be Pioneer Square, where the parks, street trees, and smaller buildings can make for the kind of urban mix that people find in Europe.

At some point, Seattle leaders will likely send a task force to other cities to look at what’s working. Those trips should start with a visit to Seattle’s pioneering roots, our own first place, where urban life is already coming back.

Rod Stevens
Rod Stevens
Rod Stevens is a development consultant specializing in urban revitalization. 


  1. Portland has a very active design community, one reason why their downtown is more attractive. Seattle once had that, with Allied Arts, but that organization has faded from view. Portland also has development tools such as tax-increment financing that Seattle lacks.

  2. —- Downtown Seattle has the clear leadership advantage, but that leadership may be naive about what it will take to turn around the place. —-

    Is it naivety? Another explanation is political expediency is compelling the leadership to turn a blind eye to how “the role and function of downtown” has changed, and what needs to be done going forward.

  3. Live in Vancouver, across from Portland. Family in Seattle.
    My perception is that both cities lack strong leaders and are drowning in “process” and DEI.
    Vancouver is the “new Portland.” We have our issues – some spill over from Portland – – and maybe comparable to Seattle and Bellevue – but it took us 50 years.

    • One of the best things Vancouver did was to make its down streets two-way. That reportedly almost immediately boosted sales at adjoining stores and restaurants by 30% or more without all the delay and cost of traffic studies. When I spoke to knowledgable people abou which cities in the region have the best governments, two came up again and again: Vancouver and Beaverton. There are always things that cities can do to make their downtowns stronger. The main thing is to do them.

  4. The author is a revitalization expert. Can we find people that can prevent devitalization? What ever happened to polite civics minded society? Slow steady growth or pendulum swinging reactionary idealist decision making? FFS people its not rocket science. When either city recovers it will be when the real estate values support the cost on the clean up[. Not before.

    • After drug use and homelessness, the biggest challenges are office’s loss of value, which the smart money, including Starwood CEO Barry Sternlicht, expects to lose 40% or more of its pre-Covid value nationwide. Unfortunately, Seattle’s single-purpose financial district, which for decades was a machine for bringing in jobs and tax revenue, has a street front poorly suited for other uses. Perhaps the biggest issue in repurposing areas of downtown is the lack of parks. Curiously, Freeway Park was often derided as lonely place full of homelessness, but it’s a model of what could be done if streets were closed or narrowed.

  5. “Reactivating” downtown with events” will only work if the parking situation in downtown Seattle improves.

    It doesn’t have to be free, but I don’t want to have to sign up for an app, giving out my personal information, in order to pay for parking.

    Every time I have parked on the streets of Seattle to take my family to an event downtown, like Folklife,
    McCaw Hall, Museum visits, out to dinner… I have received a parking ticket.

    It’s not fun to be preyed upon for extra revenue when trying to support the downtown venues.

    And why did you get rid of the free downtown bus area?

    • Cities need to address the things you talk about that keep you from coming downtown. People generally come downtown to go in a building for something. What other uses in those buildings would get you to come more often?

  6. All old midrise offices building should be repurposed as residential yesterday, with city government brokering/subsidizing moves into the underused modern ones. Older mid-rise usually are structured in a way amenable to conversion, while modern high rises are not. This would kill two birds with one stone, helping on the utilization rates while also addressing our housing crisis. The equity club will need a solid stiff arm to ensure that the projects can pencil out, and to avoid homeless central in the area which would drive away potential tenants.

    Once you get the people moving in, the ground level retail and entertainment will follow.

    • Large areas of downtown with mid-century buildings not easily converted to residential and don’t have nice streets. If they did, it would be easier to turn them into a “neighborhood”. The first residential conversions will probably be where there’s a large block of older buildings and some kind of park or open space.

  7. Environmentally, it makes far more sense to me to focus on repurposing existing buildings than to remove existing neighborhood residential structures, many of which could easily stand up for another century,. Why deforest and pave existing harmonious neighborhoods, where gardens and open space have been proven to add as much or more cooling as parks, when you could fit so many people in the downtown core? Urbanist who want and prize density and see no purpose for yards should be happy to move into downtown buildings. 40% of landfill comes from the construction industry, vast majority of it from houses being torn down.

    I would love to hear more from the commentary who said that two-way streets improve business. I was informed by a business in Pioneer Square that there is a plan a foot to create yet more one way street through Pioneer Square and downtown and it is just death to the neighborhood when they do that. I do not know what the motive is and I don’t know why they don’t listen to the people whose businesses front those streets. Ideas?

    • The important question on street management is goals: travel speeds, relieving congestion, supporting small business growth, wayfinding, etc. Tacoma is the poster-child for bad downtown management, and its one-way system is likely to spit you out of the downtown and leave you frustrated about not finding your destination. Many great places have a high-level of travel congestion that makes it safer and easier to walk and cross streets. Looked at holistically, are the streets and adjoining sidewalks more for cars or people?

      • Holistically. That’s a curious word. People walk. People drive. They’re all trying to get where they’re going. They share the same goal: start to finish. Public transport has a skewed view: From where you aren’t to where you don’t want to go. The hidden premise is that transport is more economical. Can this be right, when you find yourself in Tukwila when you want to be in Renton? Or Burien? I don’t think so.

  8. Despite the problems of Seattle, as well as the large vacancies in downtown highrises, people actually seem to keep coming here. Driving around town I notice fewer sprawling homeless camps and riffraff than I did, say, 3 years ago or and certainly 5 years ago it was much worse. Seattle realizes it has to change its ways in order to survive. With Portland? That place is driving by ideology which is like a religious belief. It is unchangeable. They refuse to change and keep voting for leaders who do nothing different. Portland has been losing population for 4 years and if it doesn’t change its policies drastically, it will end up being just like Detroit.


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