‘The good old days are gone’: Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell on reimagining downtown

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell speaks at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle in October. (GeekWire File Photo / Dan DeLong).

As his city tries to emerge from the pandemic, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell is thinking about how to revitalize downtown amid long-term changes in work habits that pull people away from the urban core.

Re-thinking the role of downtowns is the “greatest opportunity” for mayors across the country, said Harrell Wednesday at the Brookings Institution during a discussion with Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb, “Governing the post-pandemic city.”

Seattle is among a group of cities participating in meetings hosted by the Washington, D.C.-based think tank to “exchange ideas on re-envisioning the future of their downtown business districts,” the New York Times noted last month.

The pandemic affected downtown centers across the country, and some are still struggling with the rise of hybrid work policies and ongoing safety concerns, among other trends.

A recent analysis from the University of California Berkeley and University of Toronto ranked Seattle No. 27 in a list of 31 large cities measured by economic and social activity downtown compared to pre-pandemic levels.

A ranking of cities measured by downtown activity, compared to pre-pandemic levels. (downtownrecovery.com chart)

Many companies in Seattle — including large and small tech firms — are ditching or downsizing their downtown space, and office demand remains a “big question,” noted a recent report by real estate firm Kidder Mathews.

According to Harrell’s recent 2023-2024 budget proposal, a return to the traditional five days in the office “seems unlikely for many.”

Meanwhile, companies are trimming headcount. Amazon, headquartered near downtown Seattle, is cutting at least 2,300 Seattle-area jobs, and is pulling about 2,000 employees from a downtown office building. Facebook parent Meta, which announced a 13% layoff late last year, said this month it is subleasing a 6-story building near downtown Seattle.

Harrell said he’s thinking about how to adapt downtown. His ideas include bringing in more arts, music and culture; improving the built environment, such as Seattle’s new waterfront projects; and supporting educational institutions and even day care centers. He is also thinking about how to best get services to people on the streets and how to leverage the faith-based community.

The city is also grappling with the shift towards e-commerce and away from brick-and-mortar stores, said Harrell.

“All of us are redefining the city right now, we’re going through a change we didn’t anticipate,” said Harrell, a former city councilmember who took office at the start of 2022. “There’s no playbook on this.”

During a keynote speech at Downtown Seattle Association’s annual luncheon last year, urban expert Richard Florida argued that a modern urban downtown should be about community and connectivity more than only about working.

He said downtown needs to work on the amenities found in other neighborhoods where people linger such as parks and open spaces mixed with retail. The future of downtown is to make it a place where people stay, he said, and not a place where people only work.

“Seattle is perfectly placed to make this change,” he said.

Foot traffic of workers in downtown Seattle. (Downtown Seattle Association chart)

Harrell highlighted endeavors to reduce blight, such programs to pay for window repair and efforts to bring businesses into vacant storefronts and unused areas. “Plywood is my enemy,” he said. Public safety and addressing homelessness are also priorities.

“Every major city seems to be grappling with the issue of a subclass of poverty when we’ve also created a subclass of wealth,” he added.

He’d like to create “entry points” for people to support civic life, including helping to provide solutions to homelessness. Harrell envisions community centers or golf courses as places where youth can interact with mentors in the tech industry, and said the city’s parks department recently hired a leader for the nascent effort.

Speaking at the GeekWire Summit in October, Harrell said he was worried about the impact of people working at home on the city’s retail businesses and potential loss of tax revenue.

“I cannot mandate people to come downtown unless there’s something to drive them there,” he said at the GeekWire Summit.

Harrell’s office recently outlined its accomplishments for 2022, including investments in affordable housing; renovating and maintaining parks; and efforts to bolster the police force, including a new recruitment and retention plan and securing new funding from the city council to hire more officers.

Downtown is becoming more lively since the depths of the pandemic, according to data from the Downtown Seattle Association. There are 55,000 occupied apartment units, a rise over pre-pandemic levels, and hotel room occupancy in September was at 95% of the level in 2019 prior to the pandemic.

In December, 2.2 million people visited downtown, an increase of more than 8% from the prior December, but lower than 2019 levels. Worker foot traffic is also increasing, but in November was still at 44% of pre-pandemic levels.

Cleveland’s Mayor Bibb sees opportunities in some of the trends. He aims to “poach” workers from Chicago and New York drawn to more affordable housing and Cleveland’s Lake Erie waterfront. Said Bibb: “I believe this is going to be the era of the midsize city.”

Harrell said he is excited to work with the Brookings Institution on a path forward.

“We have to be bold enough and creative enough to realize that the nine-to-five downtown is no longer going to take place,” said Harrell. Positive change, he said, “starts by saying that the good old days are gone.”

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