Healing downtown Seattle’s wounds starts with prioritizing public safety

ByShannon J. Cortes

Sep 24, 2021

Eighteen months ago, the streets and sidewalks of downtown Seattle fell silent. In consultation with public health officials, employers have sent tens of thousands of workers home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, save lives and protect our healthcare system. The cancellation of corporate meetings, conventions and major events quickly followed.

The eerie silence downtown in the spring of 2020 stood in stark contrast to the bustle we had grown accustomed to after 20 years of record growth and investment downtown. But the hushed buzz of a once-thriving urban core reflected our community’s commitment to science, public health, and each other.

This commitment has been an essential springboard for economic recovery. Today, we have one of the highest vaccination rates of any major US city and are executing a plan to revitalize and reopen downtown Seattle. The health of downtown is important to the quality of life and the future of our entire city. Much is at stake as we work to reclaim Seattle’s economic and cultural engine. Over the past few years, we’ve made a big bet on a thriving downtown and its associated tax base to help pay for multiple citywide measures.

In partnership with Mayor Jenny Durkan, the Downtown Seattle Association and the city are investing more than $15 million to welcome people back to downtown and reinvigorate Seattle’s urban core. Together we support cleaning, beautification, accommodation and services for the unprotected, outdoor events and activities, and marketing.

Today, downtown Seattle is no longer quiet. Restaurants, bars, shops and art galleries are no longer closed. More than 75% of storefronts that were operating before the pandemic are open today. And more people are living downtown than ever before. In 2020, the city center lost nearly 1,600 apartment households. We’ve since recovered more than 3,400. Hotel occupancy, after dropping low single digits in 2020, topped 60% for much of the summer and hit 80% on the busiest weekends. loaded. Pedestrian traffic reached 60% of 2019 levels.

In many ways, downtown Seattle is turning a corner. But we still face the deep wounds of the pandemic. Most weeks, office workers are present at 20% to 25% of pre-pandemic levels, meaning small businesses that rely on foot worker traffic remain hungry for customers. More than 500 ground-floor storefronts have closed permanently and vacancy rates remain high along some streets. Staffing and supply chain limitations continue to impact hours and operations. And business trips and events have been slow to return.

Our ability to heal these wounds and support our recovery is closely tied to the urgent need to ensure public safety and homelessness downtown. Current realities — and the impacts on small businesses, workers, residents and those in need — pose the greatest threat to downtown renewal.

Over the past year, we have heard from many elected officials about what they want to dismantle, defund and eliminate when it comes to community safety, homelessness and people in crisis. We have heard far less of their plans to proactively address these challenges or ensure a quick and efficient response to 911 calls – when someone pulls out a knife in a crowded sidewalk cafe; when a person is lying in their own feces with a needle stuck in their arm; when someone is lying on the sidewalk, seemingly lifeless. Who are you calling? Who will answer? Until when ? These questions go unanswered in our city today, and there is more self-inflicted confusion from leaders responsible for our community’s health and safety than ever before.

Recently, leaders of more than 20 organizations serving people with mental illness called for an emergency summit with public officials, noting that “the ability of their organizations to respond adequately to behavioral health crisis events is itself in crisis.

This tragic and preventable reality costs countless lives and millions of dollars. And for a city that prides itself on equity and inclusion, many of these issues disproportionately impact people of color.

For the health of downtown Seattle, our entire city and region, these questions demand answers now.

The upcoming City of Seattle and King County budget processes — where billions of dollars in local tax revenue and more than $200 million in federal funding will be allocated — are where these questions must be answered. Budgets reflect priorities. It is time for local governments to prioritize an effective, compassionate and responsible response to our community’s safety, mental health and addictions crises, and provide relief to retailers, servers, merchants and residents of downtown on the front lines of this growing emergency.

If you visit, work or live in downtown Seattle, now is the time to raise your voice with city and county elected officials and tell them that you value a safe, healthy and vibrant urban core for all. .