The Future of Downtown Seattle: Reasons for Hope, Worry, and Opportunity to Change for the Better

ByShannon J. Cortes

Mar 18, 2022
Downtown Seattle. (File Photo GeekWire/Kurt Schlosser)

By some statistical measures, downtown Seattle is back. Residents have returned in pre-pandemic numbers. The sightseeing, certainly at Pike Place Market, looks like its old, crowded self. And the traffic is almost as bad as in 2019.

But other data tell a much different story. Violent crime in downtown Seattle has doubled since 2017, with the International District and the corridors of 3rd and 2nd Avenues near Pike and Pine ranked among the most dangerous blocks in the city. A recent survey found that only one in four downtown visitors feel safe.

And the vast majority of the tens of thousands of downtown workers who left for remote work in 2020 remain out of the office and out of downtown.

With this alternately bleak and encouraging data as a backdrop, the Downtown Seattle Association released its annual report Downtown Condition Report Thursday with a key question in mind: Is the future of downtown Seattle up or just the opposite?

The answer, as it appears in the DSA’s own report, is complicated.

“We cannot normalize conditions on 3rd Avenue,” said Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the DSA. “There are record numbers of people living homeless downtown, and some neighborhoods are experiencing unprecedented retail theft and violent crime.”

But Scholes, speaking at DSA’s annual event in Seattle on Thursday — his first such in-person event in two years — noted that downtown, which generates 50% of the city’s business tax revenue city, looks set for a comeback.

Thousands of residents who left downtown during the pandemic have returned. Many of those downtown businesses that sent workers home when COVID-19 surged have actually surged in the past two years and started bringing workers back. About 170 new one-storey businesses have opened in the area.

Foot tourist traffic in the summer of 2021 was almost at 2019 levels, according to the group’s report.

Recently elected Seattle City Council member Sara Nelson said there was cause for optimism. It’s true, she says, downtown has begun to recover from the hundreds of businesses that have closed since 2020. But now the city must put its efforts into making the neighborhood safe again for its residents and workers. .

The tech companies that pushed Seattle’s growth while deepening its growing pains have been reluctant to return downtown. Some tech bosses said they would never come back.

A week ago, Amazon told some of its downtown employees to work other locations due to a recent crime around its downtown Seattle office at 300 Pine St.

Nelson said solving this issue must be the city’s top priority moving forward. “How many employers have to close because their employees don’t feel safe? ” she asked. “We need to bring back the community policing teams.”

It’s not going to be easy, participants noted. Seattle has lost nearly a third of its police force in the past four years due to retirements, police jobs elsewhere, career changes and dissatisfaction with the former city council. Nelson, Scholes and others have argued that the city cannot expect downtown to feel safer without an influx of police.

“This is a worker safety issue,” Nelson said. “Public safety is also a matter of fairness.”

And as an equity issue, it cannot be solved by police alone, added Marc Dones, CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. Dones’ organization is leading a new effort supported by donations from Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks and others aimed at dramatically reducing homeless camping downtown.

Noting the number of tents downtown – data from the report shows the downtown tent population in December 2021 was 900% higher than in 2019 – Dones said that simply moving the population elsewhere does not neither helps nor solves much.

Addressing the issues leading to the city’s soaring homeless population will take a nuanced approach coupled with patience and a civic willingness to stay at the table even when disagreements erupt, said Dones, who spoke. during the meeting on a panel with Nelson.

People see tents and people without homes and they confuse that with crime, Dones said. “We have to let go of the narrative that there are heroes and villains,” he said.

Urban planner Richard Florida speaks at the Downtown Seattle Association event in Seattle on Thursday. (Photo GeekWire/John Cook)

But despite all the talk and data aimed at returning the city center to its pre-pandemic state, one expert said that may not be the end goal at all.

Author, professor, urban expert and guest speaker Richard Florida said Seattle had the opportunity to change its downtown for the better and for the better.

First, downtown Seattle should not be seen as a warehouse for day laborers from tech and other businesses, he said. Instead, Florida argued that a modern urban downtown should be more about community and connectivity than work.

Downtown Seattle had become one of its largest residential neighborhoods with 90,000 residents. It must work on amenities found in other neighborhoods where people linger such as parks and open spaces and mixed with retail.

The persistent myth about remote work is that these workers stayed at home, he said. Many times they went to a cafe or a “third place” both to work and to be around people. The future of downtown is to make it a place where people stay, he said, not a place where people just work.

“Seattle is perfectly positioned to make this change,” he said.