The Seattle Times: PCC’s closing doesn’t mean a ‘doom loop’ for downtown Seattle

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Image source: The Seattle Times

This story was originally published by The Seattle Times on Nov. 10, 2023

As much as it stings me as a downtown resident, I’m inclined to accept PCC Community Markets’ explanation for closing its supposed flagship store on the first floor of the Rainier Tower as true.

My colleague Paul Roberts reported that the company cited disappointing sales and foot traffic, partly because of continued remote work keeping many people out of downtown. The store will close at the end of January.

The downtown location wasn’t PCC’s only problem, however. The co-op is still dealing with the aftereffects of the pandemic and customers switching to less expensive competitors to deal with inflation. PCC also expanded too quickly.

And as a “consumer owned cooperative” it lacks the financial resources in an industry with such tight margins to compete against grocery stores such as Safeway, QFC, Fred Meyer, Metropolitan Market, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.

It’s too early to see PCC’s closing, along with Bartell Drugs on Fourth Avenue, as a sign that downtown Seattle is falling backward, risking the “doom loop” of crime, homelessness and empty office buildings.

Downtown Seattle is coming off an exceptional summer season, with some visitor and hotel numbers that outpaced those seen in 2019.

Private sector return of workers continues to trend in a positive direction. In October, worker traffic averaged more than 85,000 visits daily, according to the Downtown Seattle Association. This is the second-highest daily average since the start of the pandemic and marks the sixth straight month where worker foot-traffic levels have surpassed 50% compared to the same period in 2019.

Those numbers should climb as more companies are likely to follow the lead of our largest employer, Amazon, which requires employees to be in the office at least three days a week.

Nearly 2.4 million visitors came downtown in October. This represented about 93% of the visitors seen in October 2019.

Public safety in downtown is trending in the right direction compared with this time a year ago — both violent crime and property damage are lower than 2022 levels.

This week’s election may play a significant role in determining how long that trend continues. We still need more officers, and the right kind of officers, to get Seattle Police Department staffing to levels commensurate for a city of our size.

From October 2021 to now, approximately 110 street-level businesses either opened or will open soon in the 300-square-block footprint of downtown.

These businesses are showing confidence in a central core that has a record residential population (more than 106,000), cultural assets and transformative projects ahead that could dramatically alter how we experience the city. For example, a gallery and event space is being planned for the building once occupied by Bergman Luggage on troubled Third Avenue. Also, the Seattle International Film Festival taking over the former Cinerama is another triumph.

Now the city must ensure that these businesses — and those that follow — are set up for success by ensuring downtown is vibrant, clean, welcoming and the easiest place to set up a thriving enterprise in the city.

PCC’s upcoming closure is certainly a loss for the neighborhood, but with a growing residential population, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see another operator decide that the time is right to invest in downtown Seattle.

Mayor Bruce Harrell announced plans for city workers to return to the office in his 2022 State of the City address and it’s been happening gradually. King County began bringing back approximately 5,000 remote workers around the same time, although not without pushback from some employees and the unions that represent them.

And downtown shoppers have a right to feel betrayed by PCC’s closure. Sure, another grocer might come in and use the space in Rainier Tower. For now, the central core is left with Whole Foods on Westlake and Pike Place Market.

We already lost shopping options when IGA Kress closed on Third Avenue in 2020, citing crime as the biggest reason behind the shuttering. This was after the loss of the beloved Ralph’s Grocery and Deli at Fourth Avenue and Lenora Street in 2015.

Even Phoenix — the nation’s fifth-most populous city, but with a downtown that has a fraction of Seattle’s central core population and businesses — has a full-service downtown grocery store.

For Seattle, despite the good news mentioned above, the road ahead will be challenging.

In 1999, the late Jennifer Moulton wrote an influential paper seeking to explain the near death and revival of many American downtowns, while offering a map to success. At the time, she was the director of Denver’s Community Planning and Development Agency.

The Mile High City, where I worked at the Rocky Mountain News, had experienced just such a renaissance in its central core. It saw the construction of Coors Field for the Major League Baseball Rockies and the Pepsi Center (now Ball Arena) for pro basketball and hockey.

Light rail was arriving and soon voters would approve a multibillion-dollar program for commuter trains, extension of light rail, renovation of downtown’s Union Station and other transportation priorities.

She laid out 10 steps to a “living” downtown.

For example, prioritize housing; keep downtown accessible, clean and safe; preserve and reuse old buildings; and surround the area with vibrant neighborhoods or those with potential.

Moulton wrote: “Downtowns need people — a lot of people — in order to be efficient economic machines and to have lively, vital streets. If regional amenities are located within or close to downtown, legions of newcomers in the form of sports fans or arts patrons will be exposed to the diversity of downtown’s entertainment and shopping choices. The more familiar and comfortable the area becomes, the less threatening it seems. This promotes a sense of habitability.”

She’s also the first person I know of to use the phrase, “downtown is never ‘done.’ ” And it’s true with or without PCC.

Jon Talton:; on Twitter: @jontalton. Talton writes about business and the Pacific Northwest economy in the Sunday Seattle Times.