Downtown has a strong economic foundation. In recent years, the center city has seen growth and investments that position Seattle for resiliency. Downtowns are strong due to their density, access to public spaces and diversity of residents compared to car-centered neighborhoods. Downtown Seattle’s walkability and accessibility make it a place that a large cross-section of society can access and enjoy. To ensure the resilience of downtown and the region, these assets should be protected and built upon. Ongoing attention to affordability, public amenities and safety are critical.
Downtown is the center of Seattle’s cultural life. Before COVID-19, downtown saw more foot traffic, more park users and more tourists than anywhere else in the city. While the pandemic created a major economic setback, we are confident that downtown will remain an attractive place to visit, shop, live, work, play and invest.
In the section that follows, we look at what makes a vibrant urban experience and how downtown Seattle is performing against these metrics.
Takeout and Delivery
As COVID-19 impacted the ability to serve large groups of patrons with the same density, businesses and nonprofits shifted gears. Some restaurants enhanced delivery services and added take-out options and to-go windows for food and cocktails. Some offered products that were not previously part of their business model. And some began using their kitchens to make food for those in need.
Many restaurants added outdoor seating. Some brought shelters by way of tents, canopies or plexiglass. Others experimented with dining bubbles. In response to the impacts of COVID-19 on local businesses, the Seattle Department of Transportation has issued special permits allowing for expanded use of sidewalks and street space by restaurants. At the start of 2021, there were 61 downtown restaurants with these temporary outdoor seating permits. DSA’s Park Ambassadors spaced out tables and chairs for social distancing and added spacing indicators for food truck lines.
DSA helped coordinate corporate and private funding to hire artists and create many storefront murals on boarded-up buildings during business shutdowns. The murals added a touch of vibrancy, creativity and positivity and helped to deter graffiti and damage while stores were closed. With these shutdowns, there was more than an acre’s worth of plywood spread across the facades of businesses in the Pike-Pine corridor alone.
Through the work of DSA and others, numerous murals were created in downtown neighborhoods:
Downtown’s Retail Real Estate
Downtown currently has 10.3 million square feet of retail space, with nearly a half million more under construction. After achieving a record low of 1.7% in 2019, downtown’s retail vacancy is estimated to have reached 2.5% by the end of 2020 and rent growth slowed to a halt.
Arts, Entertainment and Restaurant Industries Were Hit Hard in 2020
Parts of the economy have already started to reopen with new protocols in place to ensure safety for workers and customers. Nevertheless, national polling and evidence from other areas that have reopened show that — regardless of the level of reopening — the pandemic will continue to have a depressing effect on the economy, particularly for sectors related to travel or in places where people congregate such as fitness centers, restaurants, hotels, sports, arts and entertainment venues.
Seattle Continues to Face a Growing Homeless Crisis
A January 2020 point-in-time count conducted by All Home King County tallied 11,751 individuals experiencing homelessness in King County — a 5% increase over 2019. Roughly half of those were sleeping outside, mostly within the city of Seattle.
The need has only gotten more urgent in the face of a public-health crisis. As COVID-19 outbreaks created fear of sleeping in shelters and capacity was limited due to social-distancing requirements, the number of tents throughout downtown’s neighborhoods multiplied dramatically. By the end of 2020, the number of tents downtown had increased to more than three times the highest previous record.
As a region, we must address our growing homelessness crisis. The city of Seattle and King County are moving forward together on plans to merge operations and policy-making for homelessness services. This is a much-needed step toward housing the incredible number of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle and King County. However, this work has only begun. We can’t lose focus on what’s happening downtown, where hundreds sleep outside on any given night. A sustainable solution requires working together on many fronts. This includes increasing coordination, diversion and prevention, state and regional investment, and increased housing supply.
Getting Our City Back to Work
Downtown provides more than half of the city’s jobs and business taxes. City operations and municipal services depend on its economic recovery. Over the past year, more than 160 downtown businesses were forced to close permanently and our tourism and hospitality industries ground to a near halt. A successful recovery means supporting business owners and employers as they get back on their feet. It means ensuring a welcoming center city for employees, residents and visitors. And it means a downtown that is clean, safe, well-maintained and with a stable, predictable business climate.
Connecting Our Region
A successful recovery is dependent on ensuring that people have many ways to move around our region. As more people are vaccinated and it becomes safe to gather in greater numbers, we must ensure our transit network keeps pace and can meet demand. Last year, Seattleites overwhelmingly voted to bring 150,000 transit service hours back to our streets, and we’ll carry forward generational investments in streetcar and light-rail networks. In the coming years, Sound Transit 3 will add six new light-rail stations in downtown and connect downtown to new corners of our region.
Innovating a Better Crisis Response
The COVID-19 pandemic further challenged our capacity to serve Seattle’s most vulnerable and provide immediate services to people in need. The urgency of the crisis gave rise to programs that demonstrated a new, successful model for serving the unsheltered in hotels rather than crowded, congregate shelters. King County laid plans to house thousands of the area’s chronically homeless by purchasing available hotels and assisted-living facilities. But with a growing unsheltered population, we must do more. We must make good on our values as a compassionate city by streamlining resources and innovating new strategies to efficiently deliver additional emergency housing capacity, new crisis response programs and evidence-based treatment services.
Fulfilling Our Promise for a Safe and Just Downtown
Violent crime downtown increased 23% between 2015 and 2020, and vandalism during the pandemic crippled businesses with already razor-thin margins. Meanwhile, Seattleites — like peers across the country — are demanding substantive changes to policing strategies and greater accountability. Identifying appropriate and effective solutions will require intentional planning, a deliberate and inclusive public process involving the business community, and an evidence-based approach.