Seattle is working overtime to bring back its downtown core. The loss of tourists and office workers over the past year and a half has left the region struggling. The city is investing $ 9 million in downtown revitalization, which includes the commercial core as well as the Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square.
Some city leaders, including Mayor Jenny Durkan, say the area’s recovery is vital as it accounts for the majority of the city’s tax revenue. But some business owners are skeptical of Seattle’s commitment and say underlying issues, such as public safety, need to be addressed.
The view from below
At The London Plane restaurant, on the ground floor of a 1920s brick building in Pioneer Square, business partners Katherine Anderson and Yasuaki Saito say it’s been a difficult year and a half and they’re sold out. Anderson says they only survived on a loan from the Federal Paycheck Protection Program.
Initially, when the pandemic forced everything to shut down, they prepared and delivered meals to healthcare workers. Then when it became clear that in-person meals weren’t coming back anytime soon, they became a grocery store and take-out restaurant. Now, they’ve returned to full-service outdoor dining.
They say that with office workers and nearby tourists mostly gone, the economic challenges have been enormous. But their main frustration is what they see as the city’s lack of response to another outcome of the pandemic: an overwhelming number of people on the streets suffering from homelessness and mental illness.
“We’ve all got used to it in some way. Like mountains of garbage and tents – my question is just, what’s the plan? And what I hear from the city council is that we don’t want to violate people’s rights. It also seems like a no-solution, ”Anderson said.
“Is there not a solution which consists in not violating the rights of the people and in taking care of the people? Saito added.
As small business owners, they feel like they’ve been on the front lines of the crisis. Almost every day, they have customers who dine at outdoor tables harassed by people in crisis. Sometimes they and their staff are able to defuse situations; sometimes they are not. And, Saito said, when they call for help, they often don’t get a timely response.
“It’s almost always the responsibility of the small business owner and the downstairs tenant to sort out these issues when it comes to a much bigger issue than each of us can handle individually,” he said. Saito said.
The view from above
On the 56th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower are the offices of the city’s Director of Economic Development. From here Pamela Banks has stunning views of the water, ferries, and mountains.
She said she was sensitive to the concerns of small businesses and what they often have to deal with in their storefronts – from tents to garbage to drug trafficking. But, Banks said, the reality is that other cities have more serious problems than Seattle when it comes to crime and safety.
“I hear the stories of small business owners saying the feces and vomit, and it’s real to them, so we need to fix it. It’s real. But, in terms of what’s going on across the country or violent crime, we’re pretty darn lucky and we need to do a better job of getting that word out, ”Banks said.
Banks, who is in charge of revitalizing the city’s downtown core, said there was a lot to look forward to on this front, including low-interest loans for black and brown businesses and many “back to downtown” events planned for this summer.
“We’re going to do stuff at the aquarium and on the waterfront, and Pioneer Square is going to do some really cool stuff,” she said.
At a press conference in June at Pike Place Market, Mayor Jenny Durkan said she understood the sentiment of small business owners who felt abandoned during the pandemic.
But at a press conference at Pike Place Market, she said the year had been tough “for everyone” and “the pandemic was bigger than any of us.” She said the millions the city is spending to bring back downtown proves its determination to help downtown businesses, including cultural and arts organizations which are also a big part of what draws people in. downtown.
Will people come back?
Everyone agrees that in order for the city center to thrive again, office workers and tourists alike need to come back in large numbers.
Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, said foot traffic and hotel occupancy rates had declined significantly during the pandemic and still had not returned to pre-pandemic levels. He said this resulted in the closure of hundreds of small businesses downtown. New stores have opened, but the barricaded windows are still visible.
Scholes, whose organization donates $ 3 million for recovery efforts, said people have a choice when deciding where to host a convention or go on vacation, and Seattle competes with other cities in the Western coast. He said he feared Seattle’s image might be tarnished by the vandalism and graffiti that was also a constant in the downtown area last year.
He said what happened on President Joe Biden’s inauguration day was an example.
“We had over a dozen people come down and smashed the original windows at Starbucks. There was a mugging and other damage, and that ran the ‘Today’ show on the next morning. It’s not good for Seattle, “Scholes said, adding that the city’s failure to strongly condemn the action was an” unforced error. “
In recent weeks, as Washington state and Seattle prepared to reopen, the city has made visible efforts to address issues raised by small business owners. Leaders have touted the removal of an entire block of tents on downtown Third Avenue after people in the tents were moved to hotel rooms.
Whatever form the takeover takes, everyone agrees that small businesses need to be an integral part of it.
When I ask The London Plane’s business partners Anderson and Saito about the city’s takeover plans, they say they will wait and see, saying they have seen “full plans” in the past that haven’t have not been implemented.