Downtowns are surging in many corners of the U.S. The core of Seattle, which never sank as far as many downtowns, is seeing an unparalleled boom despite issues with congestion, transit and affordability.
Most of the hopes for a “great reset” after the object lesson of the Great Recession have proved premature, to put it mildly.
The too-big-to-fail banks are bigger than ever and the rule of law was not applied to Wall Street. Big money in politics is more of a problem than ever. Corporate power over regulators remains substantial, with the revolving door between government and business still turning. That return to human-scale, localized capitalism continues to be undercut by consolidating industries.
One exception is the downtowns of American cities.
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Downtowns are hot. The resurgence received a recent exclamation point with General Electric’s decision to move its headquarters from suburban Connecticut to Boston. This mirrors numerous other recent moves elsewhere. Even downtown Detroit is booming.
Seattle has been a major beneficiary of the trend, as shown off by the Downtown Seattle Association at its State of Downtown breakfast. Consider some points from the DSA’s 2016 economic report about the 5 square miles of the city’s core.
• Over the past five years, 73 new residential buildings have added 11,415 units. An additional 25 buildings are under construction or ready to break ground. Together, this will make a 44 percent jump in housing since 2010. Downtown also has more than 10,000 subsidized housing units.
• In 2014, the latest year figures are available, it held nearly 246,000 jobs, nearly half the city’s workforce. Some 30,000 new jobs were added since 2010, representing 60 percent of the jobs gained in the entire city. This labor-force growth outpaces the region.
• Nearly half the downtown workforce takes transit; 69 percent commute in a way other than solo driving.
• Demand for office space has driven a net occupancy increase of 9 million square feet since 2010, more than half the new space filled in the Puget Sound region. Older buildings are being adapted and put to new purposes.
• Similar gains are reported for retail, with sales increasing 23 percent over five years and 40 new retailers opening last year, as well as more entertainment and restaurants. All this is part of the “live, work, play” advantage of downtown, as marketed and tracked by the association.
“Great downtowns are full of experiences that can’t be replicated, from civic gatherings, arts and culture, parades, music and traditions,” said Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the group.
As elsewhere in America, this is a remarkable turnaround from the long decline of most downtowns, caused by freeways, suburbanization and purblind policies such as 1960s urban renewal.
Even Seattle, which never sank as far as many, suffered when Interstate 5 destroyed the cohesion of downtown with nearby neighborhoods such as First Hill and Capitol Hill and sucked much life away. Downtown also lost all its major bank headquarters to mergers.
But unlike most cities, Seattle had the stewards, consensus and focus to save Pike Place Market, which now attracts 10 million visitors a year, as well as Pioneer Square. It reinvigorated retail and built new assets such as Benaroya Hall and the Great Wheel. Public-private partnerships paid off.
Critically, Seattle never fell out of love with its heart. So despite lost opportunities — such as rejecting both a rapid-transit system mostly funded by the feds in 1968, and the Seattle Commons park in 1995 — it still has a downtown worth loving.
To appeal to what urbanist Richard Florida calls the creative class, Seattle didn’t have to start from nearly scratch as so many cities have been forced to do.
Amazon’s influence has been enormous, but it is far from the only driver. Zillow has 1,000 downtown employees. Weyerhaeuser and Expedia are moving their headquarters from the suburbs to the city. Seattle is cheaper than the Bay Area, drawing numerous tech outposts.
Seattle is not a city that never sleeps, but thanks to downtown’s turnaround it is what the Urban Land Institute calls an 18-hour city, with the energy and wide-ranging assets to attract talent.
“Though they quiet down noticeably in the wee hours, deep into the evening the mix of shops, restaurants, and entertainment truly generates excitement. This is catalyzed by walk-to-work housing that encourages employers in the knowledge and talent industries to keep their offices downtown,” according to the institute.
This is an enormous economic, social and cultural advantage.
Downtown faces problems, to be sure. Among them are congestion, transit, affordability and creation of new amenities such as schools and parks.
“The challenges today are driven by our success,” Scholes told me. “Folks expect (these amenities)….” They had them in London, New York and San Francisco. They want them here.”
In addition, while violent crime is very low compared with other big cities, the core contends with drug dealing, shoplifting and lack of “street civility.” The nine-and-a-half block strategy to clean up these problems was successful, Scholes said, but has lately fallen back a bit.
Also, Bertha remains inert, and the promise of opening the waterfront is behind schedule.
Finally, the City Council’s going to district representation opens unknown territory. It can be easy for politicians to forget that not only is downtown a neighborhood, too, but it pays for all the other neighborhoods.
Still, Scholes is optimistic. “The city electorate values downtown and they’re users of downtown.”
And they don’t have to travel to Iowa to find one.