The Seattle Times, Talton: Some promising signs showing in downtown Seattle

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Cityscape of downtown Seattle's waterfront

This column was originally published by The Seattle Times on March 25, 2022.

By: Jon Talton

This month’s “State of Downtown” meeting was a victory in itself, with 1,000 people at the Hyatt Regency, the first in-person gathering for this event since early 2020.

Keynote speaker Richard Florida, a leading scholar of cities and author of such books as “The Rise of the Creative Class,” told the audience that “cities are far stronger than infectious disease” going back centuries. “Young people, ambitious people came for the greater opportunity.”

He also pointed to a recent Axios poll of college students indicating Seattle was where most respondents wanted to live after graduation, a sign that the city remains a magnet for talent.

Florida is optimistic about downtown bouncing back.

I hope he’s right. The overall picture is mixed. Some promising signs are showing. Yet the central city finds itself in a deep hole because of the pandemic, crime and homelessness.

Downtown matters. As Mayor Bruce Harrell said, “Downtown is our region’s economic engine.” Indeed. Every fully successful metropolitan area has a strong downtown.

According to the Downtown Seattle Association’s 2022 State of Downtown Economic Report, the central core accounts for more than half the city’s business taxes and jobs, 81% of its office-space inventory and 87% of hotel rooms.

Apartment and hotel occupancy is rebounding. Tourism and the cruise season are back. Pike Place Market received more than 2.2 million visits in summer 2021, four times as many as in 2020. But offices continue to suffer from remote work.

Permits for new buildings of all kinds totaled only 35 in 2021, the lowest since 2010. In 2016, permits hit a recent record of 101 — years when Seattle was the construction crane capital of the nation.

The year-over-year change in occupied office space fell in most peer downtowns from 2020 to 2021. Only Austin saw a rise (4.8%), while Seattle’s declined 1.8%. Portland and San Francisco fared worst, down 4.2% and 4.6% respectively.

That may begin to change when Amazon plans to return most employees to its headquarters by the fall (some are there already).

The core is home to more residents than ever before. More than 98,600 as of 2021, up 67% since 2010.

Downtown employment peaked at more than 50% of total Seattle employment in 2020 before the pandemic hit. The 2021 estimate was still 323,158 jobs in the core, but nearly half were working remotely.

Brick-and-mortar retail jobs have fallen 15% since 2010, while hotel, dining and arts employment is down 37%.

Violent crime in downtown Seattle has doubled since 2017. The city has lost nearly a third of its police force in the past four years because of retirements, officers taking jobs elsewhere, and lack of support from the majority of the City Council.

Amazon recently moved some employees out of the former Macy’s building because of crime. Some tech leaders said they are never coming back, moving to the Eastside.

A recent DSA survey found that only 24% of visitors said they feel safe downtown during the day, and 14% said they feel safe at night.

No wonder public safety is a priority of Harrell and new City Attorney Ann Davison. It’s a hopeful sign that Weyerhaeuser plans to return to its Pioneer Square headquarters next month after pausing it because of safety concerns.

About 170 new street-level businesses have opened downtown in the past year. But they don’t make up for the many that closed, especially along Third Avenue, primarily because of looting amid mostly peaceful protests after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, fear of crime and an epidemic of shoplifting.

The report also showed that the downtown tent population in December 2021 was 900% higher than in 2019.

Transit is another challenge from COVID-19. The report stated, “With a 14-minute trip from Northgate to downtown’s Westlake station, and trains coming every eight minutes, this line is projected to carry as many as 49,000 passengers daily in 2022. Now, more people than ever have access to downtown via reliable and efficient light rail.”

Last year, one quarter of typical downtown workers were working exclusively remotely. More than 44% of workers commuted by transit in 2019, but that fell to less than 19% in 2021.

“Survey findings also indicate that the majority of workers still plan to use public transit once the pandemic is no longer a serious threat.”

Downtown desperately needs the First Avenue streetcar, completing the Center City Connector, and streetcars running in designated lanes. This would link tourists to Pioneer Square and the Chinatown International District, as well as making it possible for disabled people to easily reach these areas.

I didn’t know what to think of the panel discussion with Davison, citywide Councilmember Sara Nelson and King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones discussing how to manage public safety and offer mental health, addiction and housing services.

Working better together on these issues is a constructive step.

Another was Dones’ pledge of a “goal within a year of creating permanent exits for the folks who have been forced to live unsheltered downtown …”

Partnership for Zero is focused on making a dramatic dent in reducing the unsheltered population. It includes help from numerous Seattle companies and philanthropies.

But they lost me with this: “I believe fundamentally that how we interrupt cycles of violence and crime are by addressing material needs that drive crime cycles. People steal bread because they’re hungry, not because they’re mad at other people.”

This is simplistic in the extreme. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food insecurity in Washington is below the national average. The connection between hard times and crime is tenuous. For example, crime was low during much of the Great Depression.

Beyond that, Seattle has spent huge sums on the “homeless emergency” — a projected $156 million this year alone. If people are stealing because of lack of food, we’re facing a criminal lack of accountability.

In reality, some people commit crimes to get their fix or support an anti-social “lifestyle.” And some are predators, not least preying on the homeless.

Until we get them off the streets, and get judges who will lock them up, downtown and Seattle will struggle.