Seattle blessed by downtown's upswing
No metropolitan area succeeds without a thriving downtown. Fortunately for Seattle, its core is not only healthy but also booming again.
Special to The Seattle Times
From the window of my Belltown condo, I can see four cranes — soon to be five — erecting residential and office towers. There goes part of my view. I'm happy.
Why? Because no metropolitan area succeeds without a thriving downtown. Fortunately for Seattle, its core is not only healthy but also booming again. And luckily for the core, it has Amazon.com.
The company's South Lake Union headquarters, with 1.7 million square feet in 11 separate buildings, is likely to spread into the Denny Triangle, where the online-retail giant is considering adding a staggering 3 million square feet. It has already single-handedly driven down the vacancy rate in the northern edge of downtown by leasing up other space nearby.
Amazon is secretive about its workforce, but its headquarters could soon employ at least 12,000 mostly high-paid workers. Hence the restaurant, condo and apartment surge in South Lake Union and the rush to build apartments elsewhere in the core.
Meanwhile, more construction is planned north of CenturyLink Field, including a 25-story apartment tower. South of the stadiums, a basketball/hockey arena might actually happen. And long-term, bringing down the viaduct will open the waterfront for one of America's most promising urban-redevelopment projects.
This is a remarkable turnaround from the fallout of Washington Mutual's collapse, when downtown employment fell from a 2008 high of 244,500 to around 222,000 last year. Largely because of the nation's largest bank failure, 12 percent of downtown jobs were lost between 2000 and 2010, compared with a 4 percent decline for the county as a whole
That will almost certainly now be reversed, not only because of Amazon but also the other companies it will attract, as well as the new campus for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Even Boeing has leased office space downtown.
Meanwhile, downtown residents keep increasing — to more than 60,000 in 2009, up 77 percent since 1990, and including 3,200 children. Seattle has seen more residents move into its downtown core since 1990 than Boston, Denver, Philadelphia, Portland, San Diego or even San Francisco. Per-capita income is slightly higher than the citywide average.
Many places dream about a "live-work-play"downtown. Seattle actually has one.
The biggest reasons: Seattle never allowed its downtown to collapse, especially losing all its retail to malls. Cities such as Phoenix and Charlotte, N.C., that allowed this have found it nearly impossible to reverse. Seattle didn't experience massive tear-downs, replacing buildings with surface-parking lots. Downtown fits into a larger central core fabric with attractive, affluent and even funky neighborhoods.
It also has good bones: A variety of architecture, including renovated historic buildings; cultural centers; the Port of Seattle; the retail core with its flagship Nordstrom, grand old Macy's and hundreds of specialty shops, including unique locally owned stores; Pike Place Market; a large corporate base; and the stadiums.
Downtown is the region's transit and passenger-rail hub. Tourism is a big driver of the economy. The core is a foodie paradise.
Another plus: Downtown has maintained strong civic connections and continued to draw investment. This is particularly true with such stewards as Paul Allen, whose Vulcan Real Estate led the South Lake Union revival.
Finally, Seattle has enough residents who have what might be called urban values. They crave the energy, diversity, authenticity and density of downtown — what urbanist Jane Jacobs called its "underlying intricacy."
Many natives are painfully conscious of what has been lost, what might have been. Having lived in downtowns across the country, I can tell you Seattle is incredibly blessed.
Downtown Seattle's quick rebound from the Great Recession isn't unique. Center cities around the country have done better than much of suburbia, and especially the overbuilt far-exurbs.
Young, educated people and empty-nest boomers are migrating to cities with real downtowns.
Tastes are changing. Neighborhood walkability and abundant transit, something the South Lake Union development has achieved, are in high demand. Quality density is green development, a more efficient use of infrastructure and easier on the environment.
Urban researcher Rob Pitingolo compiled a telling analysis of another benefit, looking at the density of human capital. Seattle ranked fifth nationally in people with bachelor's or graduate degrees per square mile. Not surprisingly, the most sprawling cities tended to have weaker economic performance.
The density afforded by downtown and South Lake Union is naturally attractive to creative-class workers who crave diversity and easy opportunities to collaborate, where ideas and inspirations can migrate along the sidewalks and through the coffee houses. This is exactly what we see with Amazon and the life sciences here.
To a certain extent, downtown will always be in competition with the suburbs. It must also shoulder a disproportionate share of social services for human suffering that has its origins in the overall metropolitan area. This is all part of the push and pull of a center city.
Downtown is never done. Like Seattle, downtown must continually reinvent itself. But the new upswing is real, broad and to the entire region's advantage.
You may reach Jon Talton at email@example.com. On Twitter @jontalton.
About Jon Talton
Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest