Seattle downtown facing challenging recovery after COVID

In late January 2020, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States was reported in Snohomish County. As the virus spread across the country, Seattle was one of the earliest cities to experience the devastating economic effects of the virus.

Downtown Seattle was hit particularly hard; the workforce of the district’s many office buildings disappeared overnight as work-from-home policies came into effect. This, in turn, caused the small businesses that served the office workers to rapidly close down. Added to that economic strain was the pressure on the area’s thriving tourism industry, which cratered as people everywhere began to avoid public spaces.

Seattle’s downtown is the city’s economic heart: over 80,000 people live there, and almost four times that number are employed by businesses in the area. Most of the infrastructure that existed before the pandemic — transport networks, small businesses, restaurants and even parking garages — had effectively nothing to do when office workers stopped commuting, putting thousands of jobs in peril.

This problem was not limited to Seattle but spread across the nation’s city centers. Jon Scholes, a leader in Seattle's business community, has argued that the pandemic “reinforced how fragile our downtowns are: We can’t take anything for granted.”

Seattle’s city leadership agrees with Scholes. In the summer, the city announced that it would be investing $9 million into revitalizing downtown, and then-outgoing Mayor Jenny Durkan made the effort a top priority for her final months in office. The city is also considering rebooting projects, such as a new streetcar in central downtown, that were put on hold by the arrival of the pandemic.

The effort to revive downtown is being spearheaded by the Downtown Seattle Association, the group led by Scholes. The DSA is a consortium of over 1,700 businesses, nonprofit groups and residential organizations that have been involved in city life for more than six decades and frequently partners with — and sometimes opposes — the city government’s actions on economic issues.

To strategize the recovery of downtown, the DSA hired a prominent local expert in industrial and organizational design, Surya Vanka. Vanka has spent months examining urban revival efforts across the world — from homelessness policies in Melbourne, Australia, to earthquake recovery in Mexico City — to analyze the most successful tactics used by crisis-struck cities.

The problem is a daunting one, and Vanka’s comprehensive strategy reflects the scale of the task at hand. When he spoke at the “State of Downtown” virtual conference hosted by DSA member organizations, he told his audience that recovery would not only need money, it would also require “the creativity of ordinary citizens coming together and reimagining their city.”

Part of that reimagining will involve the creation of a more equitable city. Vanka is adamant that “when we serve those folks who are typically overlooked, we end up with solutions that work for everybody.”

Downtown business leaders across a variety of sectors are optimistic that Seattle will make a strong recovery from the pandemic.

Tom Norwalk, the CEO of Visit Seattle, spoke at the “State of Downtown” conference. While he admitted that the damage to the tourism, cruise ship and airline industries was “broad and felt everywhere,” he expressed confidence that travelers would soon be returning to the city.

“By 2023, we think we’ll see a return to pre-COVID levels of travel,” Norwalk predicted at the conference.

Seattle had an advantage, he said, because all the things that make the city attractive to visitors — the history, arts scene, technological prowess and abundant natural beauty — are all still here.

Seattle’s business leaders anticipate a very different downtown environment once the COVID-19 pandemic recedes: — the nature of office work has been fundamentally changed, many downtown business lots are empty, visitors and locals alike will be more cautious than before.

Nevertheless, Scholes is confident the city will bounce back.

“The foundation and the number of assets we have in place as a downtown is incredibly strong,” he said.

Scholes said the best way for Seattleites to help the city’s recovery is for people to “come downtown!”

“Seriously, come downtown!”