The powerful economic boom in Seattle’s core continued last year and it has strong winds at its back. It’s a true live-work-play downtown. Will an anti-city agenda in the other Washington break its stride?
I received an advance copy of the Downtown Seattle Association’s latest report on the central city’s progress while I was visiting Phoenix.
The differences could not be starker.
Although Phoenix is the nation’s sixth most populous city, it nearly killed off its downtown from the 1960s to the 1980s. Its rise during the era of automobiles and sprawl was made worse by the death of local headquarters and civic stewards, as well as massive demolition of the old downtown.
Although it has made a comeback of sorts (even enjoying a boom by Phoenix standards), including a downtown campus of Arizona State University and a light-rail line, Phoenix’s central city is weak compared to other big cities. Almost all the major employment centers are in office “parks” on the suburban fringes with little or no transit.
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To be fair, single-family detached houses are affordable in metro Phoenix. The catch: It’s a low-wage, back-office economy with few advanced industries and low levels of college-educated adults.
It’s not fair to compare downtown Phoenix with downtown Seattle. But it’s necessary. Oftentimes we don’t know how good we have it.
I can’t think of a metro area with a strong economy without a great downtown (no disrespect to San Jose, but Silicon Valley’s downtown is San Francisco).
Downtown Seattle was mauled by interstate highways that took people and employment to suburbia. But it never came near death.
The core retained key corporate, cultural and retail assets. It went through repeated waves of reinvention. Noteworthy were saving Pike Place Market in the early 1970s and keeping the loss of Frederick & Nelson and I Magnin in the early 1990s from causing the death of downtown shopping.
Seattle never fell out of love with its downtown.
This helped put Seattle into a perfect position to be one of the most successful examples of the nationwide “back to the city” phenomenon that predated the Great Recession but really hit its stride over the past six years.
Many millennials want to walk or take transit to close-by employment. Companies all over the country have moved headquarters or major operations to downtowns in order to attract top talent. “Authentic” and “cool” downtowns generate innovation.
For example, Wilson Sporting Goods is one of several companies to announce it would move its headquarters from the suburbs to downtown Chicago. In Los Angeles, a city synonymous with cars, freeways and sprawl, downtown construction is moving at a pace not seen since the 1920s. Detroit’s downtown is making an impressive comeback, as shown by Microsoft moving a tech center there from the suburbs.
According to research from the Federal Housing Finance Agency, home values have increased faster in central cities than anywhere else over the past quarter century.
The Downtown Seattle Association’s latest State of Downtown report confirms that the boom here continued into 2016 and shows no signs of stopping.
The city led the nation in the number of construction cranes last year, most of them in the core. With 265,000 jobs, employment increased 23 percent from 2010 to 2015. As of last year, downtown residents totaled more than 70,000, up 18 percent since 2010. The city as a whole saw its population grow by 10 percent during that period.
Of course Amazon is the major driver. But the central core’s employment base is wide and deep, ranging from the headquarters of Starbucks, Nordstrom, Zillow, Expeditors International and Weyerhaeuser to high-end outposts of Silicon Valley to a significant biosciences cluster and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s also a major entertainment, sports and tourist destination.
“This is a continuation of the story we’ve seen the past several years,” Jon Scholes, chief executive of the association, told me this past week. “What’s new is the investment in public infrastructure that’s happening or will soon come online.”
Among the projects: light rail and approval of Sound Transit 3, an expanded convention center, Bertha wrapping up and downtown connecting to the waterfront, as well as the improvements that have been made to Westlake and Occidental parks.
The next level, according to Scholes, will be expanded public-private partnerships and collaboration, including on the projects mentioned above. “Urban places that figure out how to get that right will be successful in 21st century,” he said.
“The goal is to get this growth working at the end of the day for everyone, and sustaining this momentum.”
It’s not empty language. The center city generates about $2.6 billion in taxable revenue annually. That helps fund the entire city, as well as some of the most cherished initiatives of progressives, such as affordable housing and programs to ease homelessness. A strong downtown lowers the tax burden the entire city would otherwise be paying.
To be fair, discontents and challenges exist. Seattle is not going to return to circa 1990, easy motoring and all. Many delightful local retailers have been lost. So has much architectural variety.
But is downtown Seattle in the middle of its upward trajectory? Or does 2017 mark a turning point?
Republicans in charge in the other Washington are hostile to cities and funding urban projects. They favor the suburban life and car-based subsidies that have distorted land use for half a century. In addition, the administration has made threats of withdrawing federal funding for sanctuary cities such as Seattle.
These may be speed bumps or worse. But I suspect America has reached a positive and unstoppable turning point with many of its cities. Suburbia isn’t dead. But neither are downtowns. That’s good for everyone.