Will downtown Seattle bounce again after the pandemic?


Like many in Seattle’s downtown enterprise group, Ali Ghambari, proprietor of Cherry Avenue Espresso Home, has little concept methods to plan for a post-pandemic financial restoration.

Earlier than COVID-19, Ghambari’s downtown areas — he had 11, however simply 4 are nonetheless open — relied closely on workplace staff and vacationers. However Ghambari doesn’t know when vaccines will enable tourism to return. He doesn’t know when huge downtown employers will reopen their workplaces, or how rapidly staff will really hand over their house workplaces and begin coming again downtown.

And even when downtown Seattle begins to refill, Ghambari worries that his personal restoration may very well be blunted by issues with homelessness and avenue crime that have been already severe earlier than COVID-19 — and at the moment are so disturbing that he needed to set up buzz-in door safety at his Pioneer Sq. retailer or “my workers would have give up on me.”

“Realistically,” says Ghambari, “we don’t know what the brand new regular goes to appear like.”

Ali Ghambari, owner of Cherry Street Coffee House, just installed new security at his Pioneer Square location to deal with street crime. Reliant on office workers and tourists, only four of his 11 downtown shops are open. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Ali Ghambari, proprietor of Cherry Avenue Espresso Home, simply put in new safety at his Pioneer Sq. location to take care of avenue crime. Reliant on workplace staff and vacationers, solely 4 of his 11 downtown outlets are open. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Instances)

Trash and graffiti remain a problem in downtown Seattle and a focus of recovery efforts. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Trash and graffiti stay an issue in downtown Seattle and a spotlight of restoration efforts. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Instances)

After months of abandoned streets and shuttered storefronts, the companies, establishments and people that rely on downtown Seattle are determined to see it come again to life, however have little certainty whether or not or when it might probably regain its earlier vitality.

The stakes are monumental. For the reason that first stay-at-home orders final spring, 163 downtown Seattle eating places, outlets and different street-level enterprise areas have completely closed, in accordance with the Downtown Seattle Affiliation (DSA) — and anecdotally, many extra could also be prone to shutting down.

Extra broadly, earlier than COVID-19, downtown Seattle was town’s financial engine. It accounted for greater than half town’s jobs and tax income. Its eating places, nightclubs, retailers, live performance halls, stadiums and different sights, like Pike Place Market, have been magnets for vacationers in addition to the employees who turned Seattle right into a “celebrity” metropolis.

However nearly in a single day, these strengths turned weaknesses as COVID-19 eradicated the dense social and business interactions that make big-city city cores so economically dominant. In comparison with many different Seattle neighborhoods — and, to a lesser extent, rival downtowns in Tacoma and Bellevue — Seattle’s downtown typically looks as if a ghost city.

As of December, only one in 5 workers who had beforehand labored in downtown Seattle was again of their employers’ office, in accordance with cellphone location information from Placer.ai. Downtown resorts have been at 15% occupancy as of early February. The huge Washington State Conference Heart is essentially silent and plenty of storefronts are nonetheless boarded up, some relationship again to the vandalism that accompanied a few of final yr’s demonstrations.

Downtown boosters say Seattle will bounce again. Its broader financial system stays sturdy and its tech sector is so sizzling that even in the course of the pandemic it pulled in 2.2 staff for each one who left, in accordance with information from LinkedIn.

DSA President Jon Scholes sees a restoration situation that ramps up this summer season with the return of some workplace staff and native vacationers, picks up momentum with in-person vacation procuring, and hits essential mass in early 2022 with the return of conventions and enterprise journey.

Downtown Seattle Asssociation President Jon Scholes sees a recovery scenario that ramps up this summer with the return of some office workers and local tourists, and picks up  momentum with in-person holiday shopping. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Downtown Seattle Asssociation President Jon Scholes sees a restoration situation that ramps up this summer season with the return of some workplace staff and native vacationers, and picks up momentum with in-person vacation procuring. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Instances)

Tents line Third Avenue near Stewart Street in the heart of downtown Seattle. Until the local governments confront downtown’s homelessness, drug abuse and street crime,  “talk of recovery is hollow,” says Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Tents line Third Avenue close to Stewart Avenue within the coronary heart of downtown Seattle. Till the native governments confront downtown’s homelessness, drug abuse and avenue crime, “discuss of restoration is hole,” says Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Affiliation. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Instances)

Town of Seattle, in the meantime, is launching a “Downtown Revitalization Working Group”targeted on an accelerated vaccine rollout, supporting smaller, deprived companies, and addressing “the foundation causes of homelessness,” amongst different points, says Mayor Jenny Durkan. A significant effort to scrub up graffiti and un-board storefronts can also be underway.

However even downtown’s most ardent boosters know {that a} full restoration will take years — and may very well be derailed by pandemic-related issues like a vaccine delay or a surge in COVID-19 instances. Workplace staff and consumers may very well be saved away by well being anxieties over public transit — or fears over crime within the downtown space. The smashed home windows at Nordstrom’s downtown retailer final Sunday have been solely the newest reminders of safety issues for an space the place police recorded extra instances of murder, arson, housebreaking and car theft in 2020 than in 2019 or 2018. If native governments can’t confront downtown’s homelessness, drug abuse and avenue crime issues, Scholes says, “discuss of restoration is hole.”

And beneath these pragmatic issues is one other recognition: that COVID-19 has weakened the pre-pandemic arguments for coming downtown within the first place, thanks partly to the success of distant work, on-line procuring, and different pandemic-related disruptions and developments.

Downtown retailers don’t know how many of the customers they lost during the pandemic to online shopping or to regional malls will come back downtown. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Downtown retailers don’t know the way most of the clients they misplaced in the course of the pandemic to on-line procuring or to regional malls will come again downtown. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Instances)

Motorhomes line Fourth Avenue South in SODO. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Motorhomes line Fourth Avenue South in SODO. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Instances)

Emptiness charges are hovering downtown for workplace house. One in each 10 downtown condominium items was empty on the finish of 2020, partly as some downtown residents used the shift to distant work to seek out cheaper or roomier digs elsewhere. By DSA estimates, downtown’s residential inhabitants fell by 5,000, to 84,000, in the course of the pandemic.

“We’re going to have challenges we didn’t have earlier than,” Durkan concedes.

These variations make it troublesome to foretell what a post-COVID-19 downtown seems to be like or methods to put together for it, says Margaret O’Mara, a College of Washington historian who has written extensively about tech hubs like Seattle. “It’s all in flux proper now, and it’s sort of unimaginable to plan,” she provides.  

Extra questions than solutions

These uncertainties run the gamut for downtown companies. Downtown retailers, for instance, don’t have any method of figuring out how most of the clients they misplaced in the course of the pandemic to on-line procuring or to regional malls will come again downtown.

Likewise, resorts, Pike Place distributors and different tourist-dependent companies don’t know after they’ll see a return of vacationers and enterprise vacationers. Tom Norwalk, Go to Seattle CEO, says each section of the native vacationer business — together with cruise ships, worldwide leisure, enterprise journey and conference enterprise, and native and regional tourism — “simply completely went away and must be rebuilt.” He doesn’t anticipate downtown tourism to completely recuperate till 2024.

And that grim forecast got here earlier than Canadian authorities not too long ago prolonged the ban on massive cruise ships and successfully canceled Seattle’s cruise season for a second yr. “We’re sort of up a river with out a paddle,” says Jess Hibbard, a longtime vendor at Pike Place Market who was serving to a buddy promote T-shirts final week, and who says cruise ship passengers normally account for nearly all of their enterprise.

However the larger uncertainty, arguably, facilities on the way forward for work downtown.

Buildings and businesses are still boarded up in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.   (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Buildings and companies are nonetheless boarded up in Seattle’s Pioneer Sq.. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Instances)

Fourth Avenue, in downtown Seattle’s main shopping district, is oddly deserted on a  Thursday midmorning. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Fourth Avenue, in downtown Seattle’s essential procuring district, is oddly abandoned on a Thursday midmorning. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Instances)

Earlier than the pandemic, in accordance with DSA estimate, there have been round 348,000 downtown staff, most of them commuters, whose spending on all the pieces from espresso and lunches to completely satisfied hours and sporting occasions was the lifeblood for a lot of downtown companies. (DSA estimates 20,000 of these downtown jobs have been misplaced within the pandemic.)

The earlier these staff return to the workplace, the earlier downtown companies can begin ramping up their very own reopenings.

Nevertheless it’s not like flipping a swap, enterprise house owners say.

Steve Hooper Jr., president of Ethan Stowell Eating places, plans to reopen 4 of the corporate’s six downtown eateries (two are already open) shortly earlier than Amazon and different huge downtown employers have mentioned they’ll carry again staff, presumably in early summer season.

However Hooper is aware of it’s a tender goal: Even when public well being officers give the OK, some employers are prone to carry staff again in levels. That leaves restaurateurs to guess when their respective downtown areas will hit a “tipping level” of sufficient foot visitors to justify reopening, Hooper says.

That uncertainty is one cause DSA has been lobbying downtown employers to go public with their back-to-office timelines. Employers might not be able to “announce that they’re bringing all people again by June,” says Scholes. “However can we get a couple of of them that say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to divulge heart’s contents to 25%’? That begins to create some confidence and momentum.”

However outcomes up to now have been combined. Some employers are reluctant to disclose their return timelines or plans.

Amazon, whose roughly 50,000 downtown Seattle workers are principally working remotely, publicly has mentioned solely that its distant work coverage will proceed by way of June 30, 2021. A spokesperson declined to touch upon how rapidly workers may return after that.

A altering office

Some huge downtown employers are making clear they’ll have fewer staff within the workplace even after the pandemic.

Nordstrom plans to hand over greater than a 3rd of its downtown workplace footprint, no less than partly because it depends extra on distant work. Dropbox and F5 additionally plan to sublease a few of their downtown house partly due to extra distant work.

Zillow, which had round 2,000 workers in downtown Seattle pre-pandemic, says 90% of its staff can work remotely no less than a part of the time after the pandemic.

Fb, which has round half of its 5,000 native workers primarily based in downtown Seattle, says it’s nonetheless growing a post-COVID work technique however is prone to have a versatile mannequin. To that time, many staff Fb employed for Seattle-area positions in the course of the pandemic have been allowed to telecommute from as much as 4 hours away from town — they usually’ll have the ability to maintain doing that.

“After we do return … it definitely can be at lowered capability,” says spokesperson Tracy Clayton. “It gained’t appear like it did earlier than.”

Smaller corporations are additionally making ready for a smaller downtown presence. Over half (57%) of Seattle employers with 100 or fewer staff are contemplating everlasting will increase within the variety of workers who work remotely, in accordance with a survey by Commute Seattle.

Ryan Schmid, CEO of Vera Complete Well being, a Seattle-based nationwide primary-care supplier, says many of the roughly 100 workers primarily based in its downtown headquarters will in all probability maintain working from house, however with some conferences nonetheless held on website. In reality, an all-office technique in all probability wouldn’t work at the moment. “We’ve had [employees] transfer all around the nation and are simply carrying on just about now, so we’re not going to disrupt that,” Schmid mentioned.

Derrick Morton, CEO of Seattle gaming firm FlowPlay, says greater than half of his 61 staff will maintain working from house. Although he expects to finally resume FlowPlay’s pre-pandemic work mannequin of three workplace days per week, the technique finally can be formed by worker sentiment and “the way it’s working for everyone to be again, no matter meaning.”

These shifts will have an effect on not solely how briskly downtown recovers, however what downtown seems to be like post-COVID-19.

Derrick Morton, CEO of Seattle gaming company FlowPlay, says more than half of his 61 workers will keep working from home. The company is considering subleasing half its office space. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Derrick Morton, CEO of Seattle gaming firm FlowPlay, says greater than half of his 61 staff will maintain working from house. The corporate is contemplating subleasing half its workplace house. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Instances)

One apparent distinction is that many corporations will want much less workplace house, no less than within the close to time period.

Vera Complete Well being might reduce its 13,000-square-foot workplace footprint by maybe a 3rd, Schmid says. FlowPlay is contemplating subleasing half its 12,000-square-foot workplace on Western Avenue, says Morton.

Choices like which can be one cause downtown Seattle’s workplace emptiness is rising — it was 8.7% within the fourth quarter of 2020, up from 5.4% a yr prior, in accordance with information from CoStar.

It’s additionally an element within the ballooning provide of downtown sublease workplace house, which jumped final quarter to three.7 million sq. toes, or 4.7% of whole stock, from 3% a yr earlier, in accordance with Nicholas Carlsen, a analysis analyst within the Seattle workplace of Colliers. For comparability, in the course of the Nice Recession, the downtown sublease provide peaked at 2.5% of whole stock, Carlsen says.

The combination of companies downtown might additionally change. Even earlier than the pandemic, Hooper says, downtown Seattle was broadly considered “overfed” with too many eating places.

With the prospect of fewer staff downtown, Hooper expects fewer restaurateurs or different companies to gamble the capital essential to open or reopen downtown.

That in flip might change downtown’s social and cultural material.

Fewer downtown eating places and outlets, for instance, will imply a good smaller contingent of entry-level staff in a downtown that was already tilting upscale.

It additionally might shift downtown’s avenue scene by altering who leases street-level retail areas downtown, says Damian Sevilla, a vp with the Seattle workplace of business actual property agency Kidder Mathews.

Rather than eating places, bars or espresso outlets, which may carry foot visitors to the neighborhood, landlords might flip extra typically to banks or to “medtail” — dentists and docs — tenants who’re reliable however “traditionally have been seen as much less lively,” says Sevilla. “You’ll be able to’t dine outdoors of a dentist’s workplace.”

Whether or not such shifts could be everlasting is hardly a settled query. Some employers, for instance, say they’ll alter their office fashions as they be taught how distant work impacts productiveness and employee satisfaction long run.

However different observers suppose COVID-19 already has completely altered the connection between work and office. After the pandemic, “there’s not going to be a default setting” that “you go to an workplace for 5 days” per week, says O’Mara.

Margaret O’Mara teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in U.S. political and economic history, urban and metropolitan history, and the history of technology at the University of Washington.  (Jim Garner / jgarnerphoto)
Margaret O’Mara teaches undergraduate and graduate programs in U.S. political and financial historical past, city and metropolitan historical past, and the historical past of expertise on the College of Washington. (Jim Garner / jgarnerphoto)

That has been the pandemic lesson for mega-hubs like San Francisco and New York, which have seen a gradual exodus of staff.

However it might additionally be an rising actuality in downtown Seattle — particularly as employers compete for extremely expert staff who now want distant work, and don’t care that an organization simply opened up a model new downtown campus. “None of that issues,” says Heather Redman, co-founder and managing associate of the Flying Fish Companions enterprise agency. “It’s all about the place do the workers wish to be and why.”

That delinking of labor and office is fueling downtown Seattle’s rivalry with some Eastside and South Sound communities — which, on prime of cheaper houses and workplaces, now can provide downtowns which can be much less affected by COVID-19.

In Bellevue, the downtown workplace emptiness price was round half of downtown Seattle’s and no buildings are boarded up, says Bellevue Downtown Affiliation spokesperson Mason Luvera.

In downtown Tacoma, lodge occupancy is roughly twice as excessive as in downtown Seattle, and simply 5 eating places and retailers have shut down, says David Schroedel, govt director of the Downtown Tacoma Partnership and vp of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber. The result’s a downtown that, although quieter than it was in 2019, doesn’t look deserted, provides chamber President Tom Pierson: “You don’t see the downtown at the moment boarded up.”

Boosters of downtown Seattle insist that its slower restoration relative to some neighboring cities is due partly to its a lot larger dimension and density — options that complicate restoration, but additionally signify huge financial potential. Because the vaccine permits resumption of dense social interactions, downtown’s number of distinctive facilities will as soon as once more draw a disproportionate share of vacationers, staff and residents.

However O’Mara says the pandemic has additionally pressured a debate over how city facilities like Seattle will operate sooner or later.

And within the meantime, provides FlowPlay’s Morton, “all we are able to do is type of postulate at the moment about what that may appear like.”