Downtown Seattle’s public safety challenges are well-known. The death throes of traditional retail — and what it means to big cities — have received less attention.
Recreating a lively, interesting urban core to shop, explore and stroll will be just as important as resolving longstanding problems with street crime.
As the National League of Cities wrote in a recent report: “The future of cities and the future of retail are intertwined as we rebound and rebuild in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Across the country, the pandemic wreaked havoc on traditional retail. Eighty seven million square feet of retail space went dark during the 2008 Great Recession. By comparison, an estimated 158 million square feet emptied out in 2020, mostly due to major chains closing.
More than 450 street-level businesses in downtown Seattle have permanently closed since March 2020, according to the Downtown Seattle Association. Brooks Brothers, J. Crew, Forever 21 and Sur La Table were some of the national retailers with a downtown presence that filed for bankruptcy.
To fill the increasing number of boarded up storefronts, Mayor Jenny Durkan and the City Council changed laws that previously allowed only select types of pedestrian-friendly businesses that could operate in the storefronts. As of last Friday, the city began allowing businesses like medical offices, gyms, art installations and bike parking to occupy the spaces.
If the policy change fills up a few empty storefronts, that’s fine. But creating an interesting retail environment should be the ultimate goal.
The City Council must monitor applications to track the number of non-pedestrian friendly businesses that come into downtown. At the same time, City Hall should encourage unique sellers and other entrepreneurs who will increase foot traffic.
“Retail is an essential piece of the vibrancy of cities. It brings people downtown and drives the tourist economy,” said Lena Geraghty, program director of Urban Innovation at National League of Cities, who supports flexible zoning and land-use.
Seattle should emulate Nashville, which brought in small-scale, artisanal manufacturing to its downtown. These types of businesses draw customers interested in seeing the production process and are good neighbors to traditional retailers, according to NLC.
A big missing piece downtown is the former Macy’s building between Third and Fourth Avenues in the heart of the retail core. The 770,000-square-foot, eight-story building was purchased by investment firm KKR and Seattle-based commercial real estate firm Urban Renaissance Group in April for nearly $600 million.
Macy’s closed in February 2020 and Amazon leases the upper floors as offices.
Seattle could follow the example of Mankato, Minn., which helped developers break up a large retail space into smaller businesses. Many of the vendors donate a portion of their proceeds to charities and local causes.
Geraghty said city government can play an important role in helping usher an urban renaissance, bringing together developers, property owners, retailers and restaurateurs to chart the best course.
This will happen only with an engaged mayor. In November, Seattle voters have a stark choice as they select the city’s 57th chief executive. This editorial board has endorsed former city Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who understands the unique role the downtown plays as an economic engine and gateway to our region. The other candidate, Councilmember M. Lorena González, has demonstrated an indifference to the city’s central core, even snubbing the Downtown Seattle Association’s candidate questionnaire.
Public safety may be the most pressing concern for downtown right now, but the future of the city center is still very much in flux.
We need leadership that will promote retailers and restaurants to make sure Seattle rebounds as a vibrant, lively place where people want to spend time and money.