Op-ed: Results, partnerships helping turn the corner for downtown Seattle

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Crowd on downtown sidewalk

This op-ed by DSA President & CEO Jon Scholes was originally published in The Seattle Times on July 17, 2022

The green shoots of progress are evident across downtown Seattle as we emerge from the depths of the pandemic. People are again lining up at food trucks and at Amazon’s community banana stand, which is back doling out daily free potassium to passersby. Lines are also spilling out the doors of java shops across downtown. These are simple but evident signs of vibrant city life we took for granted in pre-pandemic times.

In addition to the food trucks, bananas, latte lines and traffic that have reemerged, the data tell a story of steady progress for Seattle’s urban core. Downtown hotel occupancy averaged 85% for the month of June, putting Seattle No. 2 in the nation among the 25 largest urban markets. Total foot traffic (workers, residents and visitors) is now 86% of normal. After downtown lost several thousand residents in 2020, more people live downtown today than ever before — a whopping 104,000. The number of workers spending three or more days in the office each week, while still relatively low at 40% of normal, has increased by nearly 30% since January.

These numbers mean more customers for small businesses, arts and cultural organizations, more dollars in the pockets of workers, artists and performers and more tax revenue flowing to city coffers to fund critical services.

As the economic and cultural engine of our city comes back to life, we’re reminded of the significance of downtown to our shared humanity, community and culture. Downtown is where we gather to celebrate, as many did last month at Pier 62 following the announcement that Seattle will be a host city for the 2026 World Cup. It’s where we come together to raise our voices — as thousands did following the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade. Downtown is where we connect to make memories at arts, entertainment and sports experiences you can’t get anywhere else — as more than 17,000 did last fall to watch the puck drop at the inaugural Kraken game at Climate Pledge Arena.

Downtown’s recovery was accelerated by Seattle voters who, last November, elected leaders who understand the significance of a thriving downtown to a healthy city and committed to addressing the worsening safety and homelessness crisis with action and results, not political performance art.

While much work remains on both fronts, we are seeing signs of early progress downtown. Violent and property crime in April and May decreased nearly 20% downtown compared to the monthly average from January-March. Increased police presence this spring and action by prosecutors aimed at those harming others is making a difference.

A year ago, there were more than 130 locations with tents downtown. Today, fewer than 12 remain following intensive outreach efforts. To fully address downtown’s homelessness crisis, business, philanthropy and government have come together to invest in additional outreach workers, housing, shelter and services to bring people in need inside and bring downtown’s homeless population to functional zero within a year. This effort, built on best practices, hit the streets last month.

However, we are not ready to declare victory. More must be done to fully address the safety and homelessness crisis that worsened during the pandemic due to poor policy decisions and inaction. But we’re turning a corner under the leadership of County Executive Dow Constantine, Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, Mayor Bruce Harrell, City Attorney Ann Davison and newly elected Councilmember Sara Nelson. Their leadership, along with significant investment in cleaning, security, events and promotion by downtown property owners and companies, is putting downtown on the right path. We’re beginning to see the results of a renewed partnership between the public, private and nonprofit sectors to acknowledge the challenges we face, accept that we all have a role in addressing them, and agree that we’ll get further faster by working together instead of by pointing fingers. This is the recipe for further success.

The pandemic forced us apart, and so many forces across our country are currently calibrated to keep us that way by highlighting our differences and dialing up discord. Downtowns are a counterweight to these toxic forces. They bring us together to celebrate our shared humanity and our differences. They are places that lay bare our values as a community and our ability to meet the basic responsibilities of municipal governance. Our progress (or lack thereof) is front and center for citizens — and visitors from across the world — to see and judge for themselves.

Seattle’s business and nonprofit community stands alongside elected leaders and Seattle citizens to revive Seattle’s urban core and build upon our early progress by committing to actions, results and partnership to ensure downtown is safe, healthy, vibrant and welcoming to all.