These are days that require sober, factual and fair journalism more than ever.
Looking at the long term, one of the critical questions is what happens to our downtowns after the twin blows of the pandemic and the looting that sullied peaceful protests. Here’s where columnists go out on limbs.
I believe in downtowns and refuse to accept that this marks the end of the “back to the city movement.” That trend redeemed many center cities after decades of subsidized civic vandalism from freeways, suburbanization and misguided “urban renewal.”
But honesty requires me to lay out my biases. I live in downtown Seattle (Belltown), and have lived in or near downtown in six other cities during my journalism career odyssey. I haven’t owned a car in 10 years and use transit. I’m staying.
Even before the civil unrest sparked by a white Minneapolis police officer’s killing of George Floyd, who was Black, pundits were writing the obituaries for downtowns and cities because of COVID-19.
CNN reported, “the pandemic is changing the way we talk about life in big cities. And some experts say it could change who opts to live in them.”
The suburban booster Joel Kotkin wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, “The experience of the current pandemic is not likely to prove a great advertisement for living cheek by jowl, riding on a crowded subway or getting to work on a busy commuter train.”
Much of this criticism can be traced to the large number of pandemic cases in New York City, America’s densest. MIT economist Jeffrey Harris went so far as to assert the “subways seeded the massive coronavirus epidemic in New York City.”
Harris’ study was convincingly dismantled by Alon Levy, writing in Streetsblog, but the damage to transit ridership and finances nationwide is undeniable. Transit ridership may take years to recover.
That’s far from the only challenge facing downtowns, however.
Remote working will hollow out offices, even in successful downtowns such as in Seattle. A Redfin survey last month found that 44% of Seattleites expect to continue working from home indefinitely, the highest percentage among the high-cost cities examined. To be sure, some of these folks live downtown, where the residential population was 88,000 last year.
The pandemic and ensuing shutdown have raised the potential for a tectonic shakeout in the restaurant industry. The cruise and convention sectors, big parts of downtown Seattle’s lifeblood, are shut for now. An expansion of the Washington State Convention Center is in trouble.
Some downtown employment may be gone for good. A Downtown Seattle Association survey of businesses in mid-May suggests that about 12,000 of the jobs lost in the core are permanent layoffs. (The central city had about 330,000 jobs as of the start of the year.)
And even before the pandemic, when downtown was roaring along, we were suffering losses. Chief among them was the closure of Macy’s, the former beloved Bon Marché.
When I got here in 2007, downtown also had such delights as Ralph’s Grocery and Deli, City Kitchens, a fly-fishing shop, two piano stores, and such basics as Office Depot, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Aaron Brothers, Radio Shack and Payless Shoes.
There was nothing like this in the downtowns from which I came. I was in heaven. Yet all were gone in the ensuing years. Pacific Place was ailing.
In the rocks-come-with-the-farm category, many of these losses can be attributed to Amazon’s market power — yet we got 50,000 well-paid jobs with Amazon’s central city headquarters.
Now we have the likelihood of Cinerama closing, a terrible blow. Never have we needed the stewardship of the late Paul Allen more than now.
But the immediate crises don’t write the medium- and long-term future. After the much-deadlier 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, embedded trends continued, including urbanization.
Today, downtowns continue to offer unique advantages in efficiency, productivity and innovation. They are the places where “creative friction” happens as ideas are easily shared and serendipitous encounters happen.
They offer public spaces and cultural amenities for all. In Seattle, large numbers of low-income housing units are sustained here, too.
In an era where the greatest challenge is climate change, downtowns served by abundant, frequent and convenient transit are essential to reducing greenhouse gases.
It won’t take long for companies to realize that productivity requires a return to offices, albeit refitted for viral protection. Such essentials as client service and especially business development can’t be done for long via Zoom. And for Seattle, the sunk costs of companies, as well as port facilities, would make a pullback from downtown unlikely. Not every city may be so fortunate.
“Density should not be confused with ‘overcrowding,’ which is neither inherently nor solely an urban condition,” Jennifer Keesmaat, former chief planner of Toronto, wrote in Foreign Affairs. “Overcrowding can happen in all kinds of contexts — say, in prisons, meatpacking plants, and senior centers — regardless of geographic location.”
Indeed. The COVID-19 hotspots here were not downtown but in assisted-living centers on the suburban Eastside.
Also, the Trump administration’s bungled response to the pandemic is far more to blame than density. Such highly dense cities as Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore and Taipei had a fraction of the COVID cases that hit New York City.
Keesmaat suggests such constructive responses as more mid-rise density, reducing spaces for cars in order to expand bike lanes and widen sidewalks, and adding protective measures to transit — what she calls “density done right.”
I’m confident about the long-term health of downtown Seattle. It’s the essential economic engine of the city. But, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it, I’m an optimist who worries a lot. Helping the heart of the city will take a lot of work.