Seattle is working overtime to bring its downtown back. The loss of tourists and office workers the past year and a half left the area struggling. The city is pouring $9 million into the revitalization of downtown, which includes the retail core as well as Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square.
Some city leaders, including Mayor Jenny Durkan, say recovery of the area is vital as it accounts for the majority of the city's tax revenue. But some business owners are skeptical of Seattle’s commitment and say underlying issues, such as public safety, need to be addressed.
The view from below
At The London Plane restaurant, on the street level of a 1920s brick building in Pioneer Square, business partners Katherine Anderson and Yasuaki Saito say it’s been a tough year and a half and they’re exhausted. Anderson says they’ve only survived because of a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan.
Initially, when the pandemic forced everything to shut down, they made and delivered meals to health-care workers. Then, when it became clear in-person dining wouldn’t be returning anytime soon, they pivoted to being a grocery and a take-out restaurant. Now, they’ve shifted back to full-service dining outdoors.
They say, with nearby office workers and tourists mostly gone, the economic challenges have been huge. But their major frustration is with what they see as the city’s lack of response to another result of the pandemic: an overwhelming number of people on the streets who are experiencing homelessness and mental illness.
“We’ve all gotten used to it in a way. Like the mountains of trash and the tents – my question is, just, what’s the plan? And what I hear from city council is we don’t want to trample on people’s rights. That also seems like a non-solution,” Anderson said.
"Isn’t there a solution that involves not trampling on people’s rights and taking care of people?" Saito added.
As small business owners, they feel like they’ve been on the front lines of the crisis. Nearly every day, they have customers who are dining at outdoor tables harassed by people in crisis. Sometimes they and their staff are able to diffuse situations; sometimes they aren't. And, Saito said, when they call for help, they often don't get a timely response.
“The onus is almost always on the small business owner and the ground-floor tenant to deal with these issues when it’s a much bigger problem than any one of us can handle individually,” Saito said.
The view from above
Up on the 56th floor of Seattle’s Municipal Tower are the offices of the city’s director of economic development. From here, Pamela Banks has a breathtaking view of the water, the ferries and the mountains.
She said she’s sympathetic to the concerns of small businesses and what they often have to deal with at their storefronts – from tents to trash to drug dealing. But, Banks said, the reality is that other cities have worse problems than Seattle when it comes to crime and safety.
“I’m hearing the stories of the small business owners saying the feces and the vomit, and that’s real to them, so we’ve got to address that. That is real. But, on the level that it’s happening across the country or violent crime, we’re damn lucky, and we need to do a better job getting that word out,” Banks said.
Banks, who is in charge of downtown revitalization for the city, said there's lots to look forward to on that front, including low-interest loans for Black and brown businesses and lots of “welcome back to downtown” events planned for this summer.
“We’re gonna do stuff at the aquarium and on the waterfront, and Pioneer Square’s gonna do some really cool stuff,” she said.
At a news conference in June at the Pike Place Market, Mayor Jenny Durkan said she understands the feeling of small business owners who've felt abandoned during the pandemic.
But at a news conference at Pike Place Market, she said it's been a tough year "for everyone" and "the pandemic was bigger than any of us." She said the millions the city is spending to bring downtown back is evidence that it is committed to helping downtown businesses, including cultural and arts organizations that are also a big part of what attracts people downtown.
Will people return?
Everyone agrees that, for downtown to thrive again, office workers and tourists need to return in large numbers.
Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, said foot traffic along with hotel occupancy dropped dramatically during the pandemic and still hasn't returned to pre-pandemic levels. He said it resulted in hundreds of small businesses closing downtown. Some new ones have opened, but boarded up storefronts are still visible.
Scholes, whose organization is kicking in $3 million for recovery efforts, said people have choices when they decide where to hold a convention or go on vacation, and Seattle is in competition with other West Coast cities. He said he worries that Seattle's image has been tarnished by the vandalism and graffiti that have also been a constant this past year downtown.
He said what happened the day President Joe Biden was inaugurated was an example.
"We had a dozen-plus folks who came down and broke the original Starbucks windows. There was an assault and other damage, and it led the 'Today' show the next morning. It’s not a good look for Seattle," Scholes said, adding that the city's failure to strongly condemn the action was an "unforced error."
In the last few weeks, as Washington state and Seattle got set to reopen, there were visible efforts by the city to address issues raised by small business owners. Leaders touted the removal of an entire block of tents on Third Avenue downtown after people in the tents were relocated to hotel rooms.
Whatever the recovery ultimately looks like, everyone agrees small business needs to be an integral part of it.
When I ask The London Plane business partners Anderson and Saito about the city’s plans for recovery, they say they'll wait and see, saying they've seen "comprehensive plans" in the past that weren't delivered on.