This article was originally published by The Seattle Times on Jan. 20, 2022.
By Paul Roberts
Seattle Times business reporter
PCC Community Markets formally opened its new location in downtown Seattle Wednesday morning — and the ceremony, which drew business leaders and elected officials, a heavy media presence and a well-heeled crowd stretching down Fourth Avenue, often felt less like a ribbon-cutting than a rescue operation.
Located on the ground floor of the new Rainier Square tower, the 20,000-square-foot natural foods store is one of the biggest new businesses to open in Seattle’s embattled commercial core since the pandemic started two years ago.
For many at the opening, everything about the new PCC — from its well-stocked aisles and smiling staff to its vast deli and striking art by Andrea M. Wilbur-Sigo of Puget Sound’s Squaxin Island Tribe — offered small but potent signs that one of Seattle’s hardest-hit neighborhoods is emerging from the ravages of COVID-19 and the social crises the pandemic has exacerbated.
“They’re literally getting on the ground floor of a renewed downtown,” said Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, as he waited with perhaps a hundred others for the opening ceremony to kick off.
“Investments like these should give us all optimism and confidence in the renewal and recovery of downtown,” added Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association.
More emphatic was Jean Henderson, a downtown resident of 37 years, who after so many recent business closures was “close to tears” over the prospects of one actually opening. “This is a huge deal,” said Henderson, who turns 83 on Thursday, as she waited outside with a friend.
These are heavy expectations for a single high-end grocery when downtown is still laboring under the intertwined crises of homelessness and street crime, not to mention the continued effects of COVID on retail, tourism and downtown employment.
Just blocks from the new store sit the still-vacant spaces of shuttered retailers like Columbia Sportswear and the Kress IGA grocery.
Visitors remain scarce. As of the week ending Jan. 2, downtown hotel occupancy was just less than half the level of the same week in 2019, while foot traffic is just 58% of its 2019 level, according to data posted by DSA. Both are down substantially from as recently as December, when a surge of COVID cases fueled by the omicron variant undercut an incipient tourism recovery.
Some property crimes are up in the downtown commercial core, according to police statistics. The number of burglaries was up 53% during the first 11 months of 2021, the most recent period available, compared to same period in 2019, or roughly twice the increase for the city as a whole.
The number of reported thefts in the area has fallen — but anecdotally, some retailers have said they no longer report shoplifting and other theft. At the Target on Second Avenue, people can be seen shoplifting almost at will, and along Third Avenue, passersby can still observe a vigorous trade in what look to be freshly shoplifted goods.
“I used to walk the streets at 11 o’clock at night, by myself,” said Carole Williams, another longtime downtown resident who attended the PCC opening. Now, the 83-year-old said, “I wouldn’t do it.”
Downtown boosters like Scholes don’t gloss over those problems. “We’ve not made up the ground we need to make here over these last several months,” said Scholes, who adds that shoplifting and concerns around street crime undercut efforts to reopen down businesses.
“They can’t operate in an environment where their employees don’t feel safe, or where they’re losing a ton of money from shoplifting,” Scholes said.
Security at the new PCC is evident, if low-key. The store will employ an armed guard and other deterrence measures, said Jai San Miguel, store director. The store’s approximately 100 employees will be able to get escorts to transit stations by DSA staff.
“The focus isn’t to chase shoplifters,” he added. “The focus is to deliver our best service that we can … And if someone is coming in — honestly, if they’re taking the sandwich because they’re hungry … then more than likely, yes, I’ll give them the sandwiches.”
More broadly, addressing safety concerns is key to persuading downtown employers to reopen offices and bring back the workers that are so vital to many restaurants, retailers and other businesses there.
“We really need office workers,” says Ethan Stowell, a Seattle restaurateur with locations near the new PCC.
Unfortunately, like tourists, downtown office workers remain in short supply, despite a modest uptick last fall. As of Jan. 2, the number of downtown-based office workers who were coming in to work was just 22% of 2019 levels, according to data posted by DSA. That’s down from 30% in early December.
Much of that poor showing reflects how the pandemic has continued to delay employers’ plans to reopen office. But some employers’ return decisions are also being affected by concerns over safety downtown, according to Scholes and others.
In October, Weyerhaeuser delayed plans to bring workers back to its Pioneer Square headquarters reportedly due to employees’ concerns about neighborhood safety.
“Employers are telling us that the No. 1 condition for them to return employees to their offices is action by the city on safety and homelessness,” Scholes said Wednesday.
Officials with the city and with the new Regional Homelessness Authority have said they are working to improve conditions downtown. But the challenges are substantial. Recent pushes to clear encampments and relocate people experiencing homelessness have run into a lack of adequate housing and chronic shortages of staffing at social services organizations.
There have also been disagreements between city officials and the homelessness authority over whether to focus the city’s limited homelessness resources on downtown.
And where the city has had some success in moving people out of tent encampments, there isn’t always a coordinated effort to “to hold that progress” by helping reestablish businesses in those cleared areas, Lewis said.
“Without that,” the council member said, “over time [encampments and other illegal street activity] come back into the space.”
Lewis, Scholes and others see some encouraging signs. Some of the downtown businesses that stayed open during the pandemic or that have since reopened are seeing business grow.
Before the omicron surge in December, The Capital Grille, near PCC, had begun noting pre-pandemic levels of business, managing partner Josh Westcott said.
A December survey by DSA of 213 employers found that, with improvement in downtown safety and homelessness, 77% planned to bring employees back to the office and of those, more than three-quarters intended to require workers to be in the office at least 50% of the time.
Similarly, downtown’s resident population has continued to grow during the pandemic, and as of 2021 was 98,627, up 10% from 2019 and 60% since 2010, according to data provided by DSA.
For downtown boosters, PCC’s new store is a major vote of confidence in their optimistic view for downtown.
The arrival of a big brand name like PCC “is something that people are going to consider in making the decision to move downtown, be they a business moving an office, or a resident looking for a place to live,” Lewis said.
That sentiment was echoed by Seattleite Rufo Calvo, who works near the new store and who says the opening offers welcome, real pushback against the Seattle-is-dying narrative.
“Our city’s not dead yet,” said Calvo. “They haven’t turned the lights off.”
Coverage of the pandemic’s economic impacts is partially underwritten by Microsoft Philanthropies. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.
Paul Roberts: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter: @Pauledroberts.