Anyone who tells you with certainty what’s going to happen to downtown Seattle as America gradually reopens from the pandemic is a liar.
But that doesn’t mean some very smart people don’t have informed opinions, at least about cities in general, and we can extrapolate some scenarios locally.
Downtown was especially important pre-pandemic because it generated more than half of Seattle’s business taxes, was the regional employment hub with 81% of the city’s office space and 55% of its jobs, and held important tourism (78% of hotel rooms), convention and arts assets.
Some national commentators are expecting major changes to downtowns everywhere.
NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway said many companies will be more comfortable with employees working remotely part of the time. That could bring a big shift for cities.
“If you look at a 20-30% destruction in gross demand for office space, you’re talking about the GDP of Japan flowing out of the office-industrial complex into residential,” he recently told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “The transition of time and capital from offices to residential is a tsunami.”
As he got going, Galloway ran away with the downtown disaster scenario.
“Office buildings are the new malls,” he said. “The really nice ones are going to be fine.” Not so for the others. “It’s going to be a difficult time to be in commercial real estate.”
Lest we throw ourselves off Columbia Center tower, keep in mind that Galloway is not an urban expert. But he’s an “influencer” with a powerful platform (among his gigs has been serving on the board of directors of Eddie Bauer).
Real urban expertise comes from an article in City Journal, published by the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. It carried the unlikely double bylines of Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin — unlikely because in general Florida is a backer of cities while Kotkin is an apologist for suburban sprawl.
But they found many points of agreement.
While superstar cities such as Seattle “are not about to disintegrate,” remote work will be the biggest challenge they face, the pair write. Moreover, “The pandemic has worsened the new urban crisis of rampant gentrification, high living costs, and class and racial division — all sharply dramatized amid the wave of protests and riots in the summer of 2020.”
Most provocatively, they see the shifts “likely to disrupt the central business districts of superstar cities. With their massive skyscraper blocks, these office districts may become the last remaining urban holdover from the industrial revolution.”
Perhaps more aspirationally than realistically, they write that the moribund office towers could be turned “into housing, flexible workspaces, and artisanal businesses, transforming once-deadened districts into much livelier, 24-hour communities.”
I’m skeptical that the capital could be found to do this or that developers would give up on their office towers.
(Florida doubled down on his prediction of the death of central business districts in a recent essay on Bloomberg CityLab.)
The reopening might also rebalance the winner-take-all concentration of the innovation economy from which Seattle has so benefited, along with a few other coastal metros. Other cities might get in the game, taking “some pressure off the housing and real-estate markets of superstar cities and tech hubs, making them more affordable,” Kotkin and Florida write. At the same time, some suburbs are boasting “walkable downtowns and amenities similar to those found in larger cities.” (Think Bellevue).
Call this the big shake-up scenario, less apocalyptic than Galloway but requiring tectonic shifts.
There’s little comfort for a return to the old normal coming from some historians, either.
For example, University of Washington professor Margaret O’Mara tweeted to me this week, “Historians don’t like to predict, but … this seems like it is going to be transformative for urban/suburban/metro commercial and retail (real estate) markets, and to a degree that those markets don’t yet seem to understand.”
Not everyone is down on downtowns, however.
For example, a survey by the Harris Poll and Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that city residents remain committed to staying, despite the anecdotal stories of flight to suburbia.
Meanwhile, Big Tech is still building, including Amazon’s HQ2 and Google’s ambitious remake of downtown San Jose, California, with 7.3 million square feet of office space. That says urban spaces aren’t dead and offers at least distant comfort for Seattle.
I’ll lay out a comeback scenario for Seattle, with some caveats.
Amazon’s plan to return to its Seattle campus by the fall is a big boost, both for nearby businesses and as an example to other companies. “Our plan is to return to an office-centric culture as our baseline,” the company has said. “We believe it enables us to invent, collaborate, and learn together most effectively.”
Occupied office space here actually grew slightly in 2020 while other cities saw declines. Developers completed 21 projects downtown this past year, while 54 were under construction as of December, according to the Downtown Seattle Association. About 84,000 people live in the center city.
Downtown will benefit from the return of tourism and eventually conventions, which will revive hotels and restaurants.
Canada has been a slowpoke on vaccines, leading to a cancellation of much of this year’s cruise season. But ticket sales have resumed for Alaska voyages that will sail past Canada, set to start in July. I suspect the enormous pent-up economic demand awaiting reopening includes millions who are ready to travel.
Reopening will also mean the arts, disproportionately and efficiently located downtown. Limited crowds are already watching the Mariners play at T-Mobile Park.
Recovery will take time, willpower and commitment from political leaders. People will need to be wooed back to transit. Crime is up and tents are blocking some downtown sidewalks. The retail and restaurants lost during the pandemic will take years to replace.
I’m skeptical about a massive rebalancing from superstars to other cities. The much-hyped winner from COVID-19 moves is Austin. But the Texas capital was already a tech center with plenty of young talent, urban energy and a world-class university.
Localities that skimp on education funding and are marked by endless suburban sprawl aren’t going to win more than data centers and Amazon warehouses.
Speaking of sprawl, it’s a major cause of climate change because of its destruction of rural land and dependence on automobiles. If this brand of suburbia is a winner from the post-pandemic America, we’re toast.
Back to downtowns and cities: New York is reopening and California cities are following in June. Florida and Texas cities are already open. It’s time for Seattle to do the same.