Downtown Seattle turns in strong 2017, benefiting entire region

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This column was originally published by The Seattle Times on Feb. 15, 2018.

The central core turned in powerful performance. And even bigger breakthroughs are on the way.

Jobs, residents, retail and entertainment numbers all moved up last year in downtown Seattle. For example, 11.2 million square feet of office space, 15,325 residential units, 3,147 hotel rooms and 122 buildings were completed or under construction in the central core in 2017.

Downtown businesses contribute $3.2 billion in taxes, the lion’s share of the entire city. Employee compensation was nearly $22 billion. The private sector’s strength helped provide the means to finance millions of dollars in affordable housing citywide. The construction centered in the core has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes.. (This allowed the City Council to spend ever-increasing amounts on the complex set of conditions lumped under the term “homelessness” — yet the problem seems to get worse.)

At a time when winner and loser cities are usually determined by the strength of their downtowns, this shows why Seattle continues to thrive. Not only did Seattle never let its central core die, but it continued to invest and reinvent. This ranged from the flagship Nordstrom store’s facelift to numerous delightful parks and public spaces.

Centralizing assets is a big advantage, allowing commerce, entertainment and the arts to leverage close proximity. Thus, last year, downtown Seattle saw $1.5 billion in taxable retail sales from nightlife-related businesses, more than 15 million visitors to Pike Place Market, a million passengers board cruise ships, 4.1 million attend a sporting event, nearly 3 million see a show and more than 6 million visit museums or exhibits.

Extending light rail from the University of Washington to Angle Lake station has been a mobility game-changer. The First Avenue streetcar will be an enormous help. And people continue to choose transit, walking and biking over single-occupancy vehicles. The Trump budget’s savage cuts to transit projects nationally are a danger, but one hopes they are reversed in Congress (we should have built that majority-fed funded subway back in the 1970s).

 “Downtown is never done,” as the expression goes. The Pike-Pine Corridor improvements continue (although we need a consistent police presence on the Third Avenue block). Expanding the Washington State Convention Center and reclaiming the waterfront as the viaduct comes down will take the core to a new level.

I’ve gone this far without mentioning Amazon. Why? Because although the company is enormously important to Seattle and the region, let’s not miss the forest because of the huge tree. Downtown lost 20,000 jobs during the Great Recession, especially with the catastrophic loss of Washington Mutual(thanks, Kerry and board of directors). But it added 65,000 new jobs since 2010. Nearly 281,o00 people work in the central core. So while Amazon is a very big tree (40,000 or so workers), it is far from the only one.

Downtown’s success came from generation after generation of focus, commitment, investment and leadership. It’s given Seattle an invaluable edge. We’ll see if the city’s elected leaders today — too many of whom take our golden geese for granted or even see them as evil — will be constructive or destructive in their policies.