The Seattle Times, Jon Scholes: Healing the wounds of downtown Seattle begins with prioritizing public safety

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People on a downtown Seattle street
Credit: Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times, File

This column was originally published by The Seattle Times on Sept. 24, 2021.


By Jon Scholes
Special to The Times

Eighteen months ago, the streets and sidewalks of downtown Seattle went quiet. In consultation with public health leaders, employers sent tens of thousands of workers home to slow the spread of coronavirus, save lives and protect our health care system. The cancellation of corporate meetings, conventions and major events soon followed.

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

That commitment has been a critical springboard to economic recovery. Today, we have one of the highest vaccination rates of any large U.S. city and are executing a plan to revitalize and reopen downtown Seattle. The health of downtown matters to the quality of life and future of our entire city. Much is at stake as we work to recover Seattle’s economic and cultural engine. In past 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’re supporting cleaning, beautification, housing and services for the unsheltered, outdoor events and activities, and marketing.

Today, downtown Seattle is no longer quiet. Restaurants, bars, stores and art galleries are no longer shuttered. More than 75% of the storefronts that operated before the pandemic are open today. And more people are living downtown than ever before. In 2020, downtown lost nearly 1,600 apartment households. Since then, we’ve regained more than 3,400. Hotel occupancy, after plummeting to single digits in 2020, topped 60% for much of the summer and reached 80% on the busiest weekends. Pedestrian traffic hit 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 worker foot traffic remain hungry for customers. More than 500 ground-level storefronts have permanently shut their doors and vacancies remain high along certain streets. Staffing and supply-chain limitations continue to impact hours and operations. And corporate travel and events have been slow to return.

Our ability to heal these wounds and sustain our recovery is critically linked to the urgent need to address public safety and homelessness downtown. The current realities — and the impacts on small businesses, workers, residents and individuals in need — are the principal threat to downtown’s renewal.

In the past year, we’ve heard many elected leaders talk about what they want to dismantle, defund and eliminate when it comes to community safety, homelessness and individuals in crisis. We’ve heard much less about their plans to proactively address these challenges or ensure a swift and effective response to 911 calls — when someone draws a knife at 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 do you call? Who will respond? By when? These questions aren’t being answered in our city today, and there’s more self-inflicted confusion by the leaders responsible for our community’s health and safety than ever before.

Recently, the leaders of more than 20 organizations who serve individuals experiencing mental illness requested an emergency summit with public officials, noting that their organizations’ “ability to adequately respond to behavioral health crisis events is itself in crisis.”

This tragic and avoidable reality is costing 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 require answers now.

The city of Seattle and King County’s upcoming budget processes — where billions of dollars in local tax revenues and more than $200 million in federal funding will be allocated — are where these questions must be answered. Budgets are a reflection of priorities. It’s long past time that local governments prioritize an effective, compassionate and accountable response to our community’s safety, mental health and substance abuse crises, and relieve the retail clerks, wait staff, merchants and downtown residents from the front lines of this escalating 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 you value a safe, healthy and vibrant urban core for all.

Jon Scholes is president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association.