Pike Place Market

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.

Pier 62

Who Lives Downtown?

Downtown Seattle has evolved into one of the most dynamic urban centers in the country. During the past decade, a prospering job market, a beautiful natural environment and vibrant shopping, arts, restaurant and cultural scenes attracted record numbers of new residents. While growth slowed in 2020 due to COVID-19-related factors, the downtown core is expected to remain an attractive place to live in the years to come. Today more than one in 10 Seattleites — 84,000 people — live in the center city.

The following is a snapshot of who makes downtown their home. Please note that all statistics on downtown population and households are estimates for July 1 of each year. Given the speed and severity of the COVID-19 crisis, the data inputs used for these estimates may not yet capture the full impact of the pandemic.

Downtown Demographics

84201 * population
37 median age
1.4 average household size
$ 82586 median household income

 

*Our downtown total population estimate from Esri was adjusted using residential occupancy data from CoStar to account for changes due to COVID-19.

Source: Esri Community Analyst

Educational Achievement
Among downtown Seattle residents, age 25+
Source: Esri Community Analyst

While the city of Seattle ranks the highest in the nation for educational attainment, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, the downtown population scores even higher on education than the city or county.

Children Under 18
Downtown Seattle

Source: Esri Community Analyst

More than 5,500 children under 18 live downtown. In the past decade, school-aged children (ages 5-17) increased by 168%. Downtown has the densest and fastest-growing child population in the city but, is the only neighborhood without its own public school.

Households by Income
Downtown Seattle

Source: Esri Community Analyst

Difference in Share of Households by Income
Downtown Seattle compared to King County

Source: Esri Community Analyst

Downtown has a larger share of low-income households and a lower share of high-income households compared to Seattle or King County.

Fifth & Pine

COVID-19 Had a Profound Impact on the Urban Environment

Loss of Foot Traffic Means the Loss of Business

COVID-19 led to the closure of many businesses downtown and across the region. In DSA’s Business Outlook Survey conducted in May and September, restaurants and retail were hit particularly hard and were more likely than those in most other industries to express concern about having to close locations or pay rent. These industries, along with arts, entertainment and hotels, also said it would take longer to bring employees back and become profitable than those in other industries represented in the survey.

Business Closures

  • According to a study by Yelp, more than 4,500 businesses in the Seattle Metro area had closed between March and April. By the end of August, that number was still over 3,000, with 59% being permanent.
  • DSA has tracked more than 220 permanent street-level business location closures in Seattle in 2020, including more than 160 downtown alone.*
  • Despite a decline in foot traffic downtown, roughly 90 businesses overcame all odds to open new storefronts in 2020.

*Note that this count refers to specific brick-and-mortar locations. Some of these businesses shifted to other models such as online and delivery and some may still have open locations downtown or elsewhere. While it’s assumed that the majority of these locations closed due to the pandemic, there may be other reasons for business closures. DSA’s business closure tracking is not a complete inventory. Rather, it is primarily based on news reports, announcements by individual businesses, and listings and direct observation of spaces that have gone up for lease.

Creative Solutions in the Face of Crisis

Economic recovery could be a two- or three-year time horizon, but actions can be taken now to sustain downtown’s treasured mix of amenities and ensure a thriving urban core. Support for small business is essential. Creative adaptation of shared public space is key to addressing the economic effects of the pandemic and impacts of social isolation. Also, maintaining outreach, clean and safe services, which the DSA provides through the Metropolitan Improvement District, are a foundation for recovery and renewal.

Below are just a few of the creative responses that emerged in 2020.

Credit: FareStart

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.

Pike Place Market

Outdoor Seating

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.

Local artist, Carina / Sixth & Pine

Urban Art

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:

38 + Belltown

53 + Capitol Hill

50 + Chinatown-ID

53 + Pioneer Square

39 + Retail Core

Tougo Coffee, First Hill

A Changing Retail Landscape

Assuming that downtown followed the trends for King County, the center city lost an estimated $103 million in taxable retail sales in 2020 (a 5% drop for the year). We also estimate (based on county trends) that approximately 4,400 brick-and-mortar retail jobs were lost downtown in the second quarter, though some of those have come back. This was after downtown had seen a 5% increase in brick-and-mortar retail employment in 2019.

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.

Retail Rent
Downtown Seattle

Retail Rent Vacancy
Downtown Seattle

Sources: Esri, Opportunity Insights, Puget Sound Forecaster, Puget Sound Regional Council.

Nordstrom flagship store, Seattle

Peer-city Comparisons

Seattle was about on par with other downtowns nationally for retail performance. Retail occupancy was either flat or down in all of these downtowns. Overall, they fared somewhat worse than their metro areas but, retail struggled at both the downtown and metro levels.

Change in Occupied Square Feet of Retail Space
Among peer-city downtowns, year-over-year in 2020

Source: CoStar. The cities were selected based on similarities to Seattle that make them competitive markets (for example, strong growth in tech talent). For consistency, CoStar’s “multifamily” downtown boundary was used for each city except for Seattle, where DSA’s boundary was used. Note that these are preliminary numbers.

The Paramount Theatre

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.

Job Impacts

While many of the jobs lost have already started coming back, COVID-19 shutdowns had a profound impact on these industries. There were approximately 13,700 job losses among downtown food-service workers in the second quarter of 2020. This is the equivalent of approximately 60% of the total food-service jobs downtown in 2019. Center city jobs in arts, entertainment and recreation industries decreased by roughly 6,300 in the second quarter, the equivalent of approximately three-quarters of the employment in these industries downtown in 2019.

Food-Service Jobs
Downtown Seattle

Economic Impacts to the Arts

Nearly all arts organizations canceled programs due to COVID-19 and a majority called off annual fundraisers, a critical source of revenue for these organizations. ArtsFund surveyed its members in March 2020 and projected that Puget Sound-area arts organizations would see the following as a direct result of COVID-19:

  • As much as $135 million in lost revenue in 2020
  • Nearly 5,000 workers furloughed or laid off

Arts, Entertainment and Recreation Jobs
Downtown Seattle

Source: Puget Sound Regional Council. Note that the 2020 figure was estimated using data from PSRC and the Washington State Employment Security Department. While PSRC figures are for March of each year, we estimated 2020 using data from April to better capture the effects of COVID-19. The 2013 jobs data were unavailable and were therefore interpolated.

Looking north from Beacon Hill

COVID-19 Heightened Challenges Facing Downtown’s Urban Environment

Before downtown can return to viability, some key challenges must be addressed. Public spaces must feel accessible, safe and welcoming to everyone. Before COVID-19 and the civil unrest triggered by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, the issue of homelessness nearly always topped the list of concerns in downtown stakeholder surveys, along with transportation and housing affordability. Recently, there has been a notable increase in the number of people citing concerns about public safety as well.

Violent Crime in Downtown Seattle
Includes aggravated assault, homicide, rape and robbery


Source: City of Seattle

A Safe Urban Environment for Everyone

Seattle’s criminal-justice and behavioral-health systems are fractured and fail to protect all Seattleites, deter crime, support, or help those who become trapped in a cycle of crime, arrest and release. In the face of a public-health crisis, this puts downtown small businesses in further jeopardy. Concerns over personal safety are compounding concerns about returning to the office. Citywide and downtown polling shows that Seattleites believe there is an urgent need to help people struggling in crisis on our streets. In this environment, downtown is in a fragile state and without action, this could have long-term impacts.

Without a cohesive solution, downtown has seen an increase in reports of violence, theft, vandalism and individuals in crisis. All of these make the neighborhood feel less safe. The increase in violent crime is particularly disturbing. Between 2015 and 2020, these crimes increased by 23%.

As downtown reckons with the current health and economic crisis and continued social injustice, our city leaders must come together to forge a way that allows Seattle to be a model for cities around the world by becoming a safe and welcoming place for everyone and an attractive destination for visitors, residents and investment.

DSA Outreach Team near Western Avenue

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.

A Vision for Downtown

For downtown Seattle and urban centers across the country, 2020 proved to be a very challenging year. But we believe our future is bright. As we rebuild, we have the opportunity to double down on what makes Seattle strong and reinvent what needs improvement. By investing in our neighborhoods, businesses, parks and infrastructure and creating a downtown that is truly everyone’s neighborhood, downtown will emerge even more resilient, more inclusive and more dynamic than before.

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.

Art Installation: Holding Hope

Fostering a Vibrant Public Realm

This past year, we saw the advancement of transformative public projects, including the waterfront redevelopment and the opening of the city’s newest park, Pier 62. Climate Pledge Arena moved closer to completion, building anticipation for the games, concerts and events that will delight locals and attract new visitors to downtown. As we build toward recovery, we must recommit to the care and maintenance of our parks and public spaces and plant the seeds for more public and private investment to ensure Seattle remains a desirable place to live, work, visit and do business for years to come.

Data last updated January 2021.