Seattle, WA

Downtown Seattle Won't Recover For A Very Long Time

Matt Lillywhite

The businesses, organisations and individuals that rely on downtown Seattle are desperate to see it come back to life after months of empty streets and shuttered storefronts, but have no certainty whether or when it will recover its former vitality.

The stakes are high. According to the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), 163 downtown Seattle bars, stores and other street-level business sites have permanently closed since the first stay-at-home orders last spring, and anecdotally, even more could be at risk of closing down.

More generally, downtown Seattle was the economic engine of the region until COVID-19. More than half of the city's employment and tax receipts is compensated for. Its restaurants, nightclubs, stores, concert halls, stadiums and other attractions, such as the Pike Place Fair, were magnets for both visitors and workers who transformed Seattle into a "superstar" community.

Yet almost overnight, when COVID-19 replaced the dense social and commercial connections that made large-city urban centres so economically dominant, these strengths became vulnerabilities.

As of December, according to cellphone location data, only one in five workers who had formerly worked in downtown Seattle was back in the office of their employers. As of early February, downtown hotels were at 15 percent occupancy. The vast Washington State Convention Center is largely silent and there are so many storefronts boarded up, others date back to the vandalism that followed some of the protests last year.

Boosters in downtown say Seattle is going to bounce back. According to LinkedIn numbers, its larger economy remains high and its tech sector is so hot that, even through the pandemic, it attracted 2.2 jobs for every one who left.

DSA President Jon Scholes sees a turnaround scenario that speeds up this summer with the return of some office staff and local visitors, gathers traction with in-person holiday shopping, and with the return of conferences and corporate travel, reaches critical mass in early 2022.

Meanwhile, the City of Seattle is launching a "Downtown Revitalization Working Group" focused on an increased rollout of vaccinations, helping smaller, distressed firms, and tackling "the root causes of homelessness," says Mayor Jenny Durkan, among other topics. A big attempt is also ongoing to sweep up graffiti and un-board storefronts.

But even the most passionate boosters in downtown realise that a complete rebound would take years, and pandemic-related concerns such as a vaccination delay or a spike in COVID-19 cases may be derailed. Health anxieties about mass transport, or concerns about violence in the downtown area, might hold office workers and shoppers away. Last Sunday, the broken windows at Nordstrom's downtown store were just the latest examples of security issues for a city where more murder, robbery, vandalism and auto theft crimes were reported by police in 2020 than in 2019 or 2018. If city officials are powerless to confront the homelessness, substance trafficking and street violence challenges in downtown, Scholes says, "recovery talk is hollow."

And underneath such realistic worries is another recognition: that COVID-19, due in part to the popularity of remote jobs, internet shopping, and other pandemic-related disruptions and innovations, has undermined the pre-pandemic arguments for coming downtown in the first place.

For office rooms, vacancy rates are soaring downtown. At the end of 2020, one in every 10 downtown apartment units was vacant, partially as some downtown tenants used the transition to remote jobs to pursue cheaper or more luxurious digs elsewhere. According to DSA figures, after the pandemic, the downtown residential population dropped by 5,000, to 84,000.

There were approximately 348,000 downtown workers before the pandemic, according to DSA report, most of them commuters, whose investment on anything from coffee and lunches to happy hours and sports activities was the lifeblood of many downtown businesses. (DSA reports that in the pandemic, 20,000 of those downtown jobs were lost.)

The sooner those staff return to the workplace, the sooner downtown firms will continue to speed up their own reopenings. But, according to company owners, it's not like turning a key. Ethan Stowell Restaurants president Steve Hooper Jr. expects to reopen four of the company's six downtown eateries (two are already open) soon before Amazon and other major downtown employers have said they would welcome back jobs, likely in early summer.

But Hooper recognises that it's a soft goal: even though the OK is provided by public health authorities, certain companies are likely to bring back staff in steps. That leaves restaurateurs to guess when a "tipping point" of enough foot traffic would reach their respective downtown locations to warrant reopening, Hooper says.

"Instead of restaurants, bars or coffee shops which can bring foot traffic to the neighbourhood, landlords can turn more regularly to banks or "medtail"-dentists and doctors-tenants who are reliable but "historically less active," Sevilla says. "You can't dine outside the office of a dentist."

It is hardly a settled matter whether such changes would be lasting. For example, some employers claim that they will change their models in the workplace when they impact efficiency and job loyalty in the longer term.

David Schroedel, executive director of the Downtown Tacoma Alliance and vice president of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, claims that hotel occupancy in downtown Tacoma is about twice as high as in downtown Seattle, and only five restaurants and stores have shut down. The effect is a downtown that does not look deserted, albeit quieter than it was in 2019, adds Chamber President Tom Pierson: "You don't see the downtown boarded up today."

Downtown Seattle boosters insist that its slower recovery is due in part to its much greater scale and density compared to some nearby cities, characteristics that hinder recovery, but also reflect massive economic potential. After the vaccination enables dense social activities to be restored, the abundance of exclusive services in downtown can once again attract a disproportionate proportion of visitors, staff and citizens.

Photo via Unsplash

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