Every successful major metropolitan area has a great downtown at its core.
If you have urban values, downtown Seattle is one of the best places in America.
My condo has a Walk Score of 99 out of 100. Everything is convenient, from the grocery stores a block away in each direction to the neighborhood Pike Place Market.
Cinerama is across the street. Four blocks take you to the heart of the shopping district, including two department stores and Pacific Place. People come here from around the world to eat at restaurants that are nearby.
Street life is vibrant and diverse. People walk or bike to work. History is all around. The waterfront and Elliott Bay are nearby. Want to take in a concert? Benaroya Hall is right down the street, as well as the Moore Theatre, Jazz Alley and The Triple Door.
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If you don’t have urban values, you think I’m crazy.
But my charge in this space is to write about the economy, and on this topic downtown Seattle is a subject that affects everyone. I don’t know of any successful major metropolitan area without a great downtown.
The recent annual meeting of the Downtown Seattle Association was packed with good news.
Downtown employees, residents, retail sales and entertainment and hospitality sales were all up from 2009. The central core has recovered nicely from the Great Recession. Its growth is outpacing that of the region.
Much of this is the Amazon effect, but hardly all. The central core is an epicenter of other tech companies, as well as a corporate, tourist, maritime and, increasingly, residential hub. Nordstrom, Starbucks and Expeditors International are headquartered there.
For example, in 2013 downtown was home to nearly 244,000 jobs, nearly half of those in the entire city. Although downtown comprised two-thirds of Seattle’s job losses in the recession, propelled by the collapse of Washington Mutual, it has accounted for three-quarters of the net increase in employment since 2010.
Unlike so many cities, downtown Seattle was not destroyed by freeways, suburbanization and the loss of local banks and other companies in the last four decades of the 20th century. It never lost its retail — damage once done is almost impossible to reverse. Every few years, a new burst of renewal would bring fresh investment to the city’s heart.
We’re living through one of the most impressive in decades. More than 90 projects are under construction. The opportunities for downtown will grow dramatically if/when the viaduct is removed and the waterfront opened.
But Seattle is far from alone from enjoying a strong central city today.
We’re seeing a historic downtown renaissance nationwide, even in Detroit. Los Angeles, freeway central, is enjoying an amazing comeback. Although most people live in suburban subdivisions in Austin, the Texas capital saw the largest downtown job increase from 2007 to 2011.
For the first time in decades, employment growth is surging in city centers while it is declining in suburbs.
The reasons are varied. Many millennials and empty-nest boomers want the energy and convenience of vibrant downtowns. All sorts of people enjoy shorter commutes. Companies use vibrant downtowns as recruiting tools.
Whether this is a lasting trend or an effervesce that fades is an open question. No one should write the obituary for suburbia. Many Americans prefer them, at least at some point in their lives, not least for quality schools. And suburbs are varied. Bellevue is very different from the dreary sameness of the look-alike subdivisions that surround Phoenix.
But a healthy downtown means at least three things for a metropolitan area, and this makes the return of central cores likely to last:
First, it is a highly efficient use of space, energy and infrastructure, no small thing in an era of austerity and climate change. It’s the most efficient place to concentrate employment served by transit.
Second, a great downtown offers choices for people and companies. Every metro has suburban subdivisions and malls. Only a relative few offer a downtown in the league of Seattle’s but most want a strong core to compete.
Third, successful downtowns are economic engines in their own right. They concentrate productivity and synergies. No longer mostly appealing mainly to banks and traditional offices, they are drawing tech companies and startups. Employers notice the “creative friction” where density goes hand in hand with innovation.
This doesn’t mean downtown Seattle’s trajectory is assured.
The change of City Council to districts raises the risk of politicians using downtown as a straw man for the oligarchs and inequality, or to claim it is a force that weakens “the neighborhoods.”
In fact, the oligarchs live elsewhere, and inequality is happening because of misbegotten national policies. And not only does downtown pay for the rest of the city, but it is comprised of real neighborhoods itself.
Other risks are familiar to readers here: inadequate transit, taking the maritime sector for granted and inattention to street civility. I worry constantly about Macy’s. Also, it is bad policy to warehouse the homeless downtown.
To take an example, someone is not a suburban prig to tire of having to step across human feces or urine on the way to work every morning. If Seattle’s political elites love street people, why on earth don’t they have abundant public toilets like any world city?
Everyone should celebrate downtown Seattle, but never take it for granted.
|The number of people working and living in Seattle’s core has risen since the recession.|
|Source: Downtown Seattle Association|