This column was originally published in The Seattle Times on March 4, 2021.
By Jon Scholes and Rachel Smith
Special to The Times
Every great city has a great downtown. Downtowns are the heartbeat of a region, and help shape their brand and identity. Downtown Seattle is no exception — it’s the skyline you see in national coverage of the Greater Seattle area, it’s home to must-visit spots like the Pike Place Market, and it reflects the city’s character, energy and promise.
A year ago, our downtown concluded a 20-year period of record investment, economic growth and expansion of arts, entertainment, dining and sports. Downtown Seattle outpaced nearly every urban area in North America over this two-decade stretch. The geographic footprint expanded north, the residential population topped more than 90,000, and the growth of large employers fueled the creation of hundreds of small businesses and thousands of jobs.
One year later, the effects of COVID-19 on downtown Seattle — alongside preexisting challenges — have been devastating. More than 160 small businesses have permanently closed, hotel occupancy remains below 20%, more than $135 million in revenue to arts and culture organizations has been lost, and nearly 80 conventions have been canceled.
As we look ahead to rebuilding our region’s economy in an equitable, inclusive way, we can’t overstate the importance of a healthy downtown Seattle. Renewing downtown will take a focused, urgent, determined strategy and partnership between the public, private and nonprofit sectors. As we recover, we’ll be competing with downtowns across the country and world, all working to attract the same pool of leisure travelers, conventions, events and innovators.
Seattle can’t afford delays or missteps in our recovery and renewal effort. Our immediate strategy must include the following elements:
- An immediate plan to address chronic homelessness in downtown. We must create safe and healthy emergency housing and treatment for people experiencing homelessness. We’re five years into declaring a state of emergency on homelessness, and it’s past time we began treating it as one by meeting people where they are with needed services.
- A commitment to creating a safe and welcoming downtown for all. Everyone who comes downtown deserves to feel safe. Safe walking down Third Avenue. Safe interacting with law enforcement. Safe walking home after a late restaurant shift. Business owners and employees deserve an environment free from assaults, threats and shoplifting. Efforts to reimagine policing must be based on facts and sound policy to ensure community safety and the elimination of violence against our Black neighbors. Those coming downtown simply to destroy property and put the safety of others at risk must be held accountable. These acts continue to serve as a major roadblock to renewal, and public officials must make clear that they will not tolerate this behavior in Seattle.
- A safe, healthy and robust transit system with clear messaging so employers and riders know what to expect and have reliable mobility options. The renewal of our urban core won’t be successful without frequent bus and rail service.
- A commitment to make downtown Seattle the easiest place in the region for entrepreneurs and innovators to open a new business and fill vacant storefronts. This should include a full evaluation of the current permit system and establishment of a public/private alliance to accelerate and support new business creation, as well as retain and expand existing businesses, particularly among marginalized communities.
- Completion of major infrastructure projects critical to downtown mobility, quality of life of and economic competitiveness. Local, state and federal leaders must align on strategies to ensure completion of generational infrastructure projects, including light rail expansion and the Washington State Convention Center Addition. Mothballing this project would immediately eliminate 1,000 construction jobs and impact thousands of contracts for minority and women-owned businesses.
- An events and public space activation strategy that draws on Seattle’s creative talent to bring vibrancy to public spaces through music, performances and interactive experiences.
- A broad-based marketing and communications campaign to celebrate and amplify reopening and the creation of new businesses and experiences in downtown to reintroduce regional residents and leisure travelers to all downtown has to offer.
This is not an à la carte menu. Each of these is a “must do.” This community has bet big on the assumption of a healthy, thriving and economically vital downtown Seattle to support investments in services, programs and infrastructure critical to our region’s quality of life, equity and sustainability. While the historic resilience of cities provides a measure of optimism for our efforts and outlook, we cannot take anything for granted.
It’s time to get to work to advance a practical and bold strategy for the renewal of downtown Seattle.
Jon Scholes is president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association.
Rachel Smith is president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.