Downtown’s heartbeat is there, but it’s faint

Posted on

Man and woman wearing face masks, leaving London Plane in Occidental Square, Seattle

This story was originally published by KUOW-FM on Sept. 4, 2020

More than 100 stores and restaurants in downtown Seattle have closed during the pandemic. But lately, things have been looking up — just a little.

There are little nodes of activity, like new growth in a garden after winter.

Sally Haddad loves visiting Seattle. She came here on vacation five years ago. Now, she’s here with her family as part of a pandemic road trip.

She said downtown has been a little disappointing.

“There’s less people. Not everything’s open. And what is open, closes early. It just feels sad.”

Her family stopped by the gum wall, in Post Alley, and took some selfies with masks on.

“If this is the way things are gonna be, then we have to start adapting to it, and not be afraid to come out,” she said. “Take the precautions for you and your family, but with everything going on, live your life. Don’t live scared.”

This is the attitude of many people I met downtown: Be safe and soldier on.

While some businesses remain locked behind plywood panels, other business owners stand resolutely behind the counter, waiting for that rare customer.

At Parfumerie Nasreem, just off the lobby of the Alexis Hotel, standing around paid off for owner Shilpa Shah.

“Today we had a couple coming in because tomorrow is their wedding. They wanted to buy fragrances for their wedding. And we were like – WOW! We have a customer today,” she said.

Shah said a few months ago, the hotel adjacent to her store had almost no guests.

“The parking lot was empty,” she recalled, “I could park anywhere I want. I could take five spots and park my car.”

But now, she’s seeing a trickle of customers again at the perfume shop. Because few people buy perfume without sampling it first, she sprays her scents onto sterile blotter pads, which customers can then slip beneath their masks.

“Not many people want the pricey full bottles – they’re kind of wanting something more small, less pricey,” Shah said.

But she’s hopeful. After all, guests are returning to the Alexis Hotel.

There are a couple of lawyers working on a case. People who needed a place to crash while changing apartments. There’s someone who drove up for a hospital visit. There’s a guy in town to buy a boat.

All those people add up to around 30% occupancy.

“As the hotel guests keep growing, you can see that our sales also grow,” Shah said. “Not just because of the hotel, but it tells that everybody in and around Seattle are doing things.”

One thing people are doing is eating outside.

Early on in the pandemic, Matt’s in the Market had to lay off its staff. But since they fenced off part of Pike Street and started offering al-fresco dining, things have turned around a little.

“We actually are completely sold out for our patio service tonight, if you can believe that,” manager Chris Armstrong said on a recent sunny Friday afternoon.

Matt’s In The Market has re-hired the staff, who returned to a workplace transformed by the pandemic. Gone are the paper menus. They’ve all moved online, for sanitary reasons.

And of course, the staff all wear masks, which can make it difficult for customers to hear them. In hospitality, Armstrong said his crew is used to having facial expressions as a way to communicate.

“As you can see, I’m gesticulating a lot more with my hands than usual,” he said.

Also, he can’t open a bottle of wine and smell the cork.

“That’s all gone,” he said.

But on the bright side, they’re making 60% of the money they made pre-Covid.

Soon it’ll be too cold for outdoor dining, though. What will they do then? Armstrong doesn’t know.

“We can’t make projections at this point,” he said, preferring to help keep the staff optimistic by focusing on one day at a time. “But it’s working today, and I hope it works tomorrow, and I hope it works Sunday, and then I get a day off on Monday. So we’ll see.”

In the time of the pandemic, even the most successful retail and restaurant businesses are on a razor’s edge.

And most downtown street-level businesses that depend on foot traffic and passers by are really suffering, according to Jon Scholes, who leads the Downtown Seattle Association.

The DSA has been surveying its members constantly, looking for signs of economic life. And it’s picking up a faint heartbeat.

“You know, some of that activity has started to pick up,” Scholes said. “But there’s big chunks of it where we’ve really seen no movement. No cruise ships, no conventions. Very little business travel. Those really big events we’re used to seeing in the summer like the Bite of Seattle, a great Mariners game, or the Storm playing. Those aren’t happening.”

And the impact of all that lost economic activity pales in comparison to the loss of the 330,000 workers who worked downtown before the pandemic. They were the biggest piece of this neighborhood’s economic engine, Scholes said.

Despite those losses, Scholes is optimistic about the future. People want to be around people. And cities have an advantage when in comes to satisfying that desire. Like the line out the door to Macrina Bakery in Belltown, when you see others doing things, you want to also. It’s the same thing with outdoor dining at the Pike Place Market. In this way, economic activity tends to grow in clusters.

This is the reason Scholes says in the long term, people are going to want to return downtown. With so much to do and see, from art and theater to food and shopping, downtown Seattle is the cultural center of the region, and having that at your fingertips before or after work is fun.

But there’s a long way to go between now and that bright future.