How to Fail at Building a Great Downtown

Downtown Seattle is poised to join the ranks of other iconic cities. Unless we muck it up.

By Seattle Mag August 27, 2012


This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of Seattle Magazine.

For decades, Pier 57 owner Hal Griffith dreamed of building a Ferris wheel at the end of the historic landing. Now, after 30 years, he’s putting his money where his dreams are—and he says the time couldn’t be better; he fears the waterfront is in real peril, thanks to the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement. “We thought this was the perfect time to make a project like this work,” says Griffith, who owns the Great Wheel with his sons Troy and Kyle. “The waterfront businesses will benefit from the new tunnel, but first we have to survive the construction.” The 17-story-tall, white observation wheel is either a multimillion-dollar Hail Mary or a harbinger of things to come—early investment in what’s going to be the jewel in the crown of a vibrant downtown.

Despite a recent wave of crime in Belltown, extended parking-meter hours and flare-ups of street disorder that have some Seattleites avoiding downtown, the neighborhood has what developers call “fundamental assets,” the key ingredients that keep a downtown—and, by extension, a city—healthy: plenty of independent, street-level retail; strong cultural institutions; and a diverse commercial/business base (not to mention its lens-popping Puget Sound setting). Only significant residential density has lagged behind, and with it the all-important “live/work/play” environment that keeps city streets humming after 9-to-5 businesses close down. And now that’s changing.

During the past two decades, Seattle’s urban core has encompassed the city’s fastest-growing neighborhoods, thanks in large part to South Lake Union/Denny Triangle, whose growth exploded 305 percent between 1990 and 2010. During that same time, Belltown grew by 183 percent, and the retail core by 109 percent. In contrast, the fastest-growing Seattle neighborhood outside downtown was the Central District, with a growth rate of 29 percent.

An increase in people living and working downtown adds more than bustle to sidewalks; density fuels retail, creates lively urban neighborhoods that attract young educated workers and the businesses that need those workers, and helps squeeze out pockets of crime, which, in turn, draws more investment, energy and people. And that’s good news even for those who live in outlying neighborhoods; downtown is a major economic engine and job generator, a source of 30 percent of the city sales tax revenue and a symbol of the city as a whole. A successful downtown drives a successful Seattle.

But this recession-defying boomlet is only the beginning for downtown. Several large projects are in the pipeline that will significantly reshape the urban core, including the mixed-use Stadium Place development, just north of Qwest Field (which will double the market-rate housing in Pioneer Square); the public-private redevelopment of Yesler Terrace on First Hill (potentially creating 10 times the current number of units in the next 10 or more years); and Amazon’s three million-square-foot towers in the Denny Triangle (rendering shown below). In 2011, more than 3,000 new apartments were under construction in downtown Seattle.

Add to this a multitude of civic projects, including the University Link Light Rail connection, First Hill Streetcar, Mercer Corridor improvements, the redevelopment of Seattle Center, the new Bell Street Park in Belltown, the possibility of an NBA/NHL stadium in SoDo and, of course, the massive, superlative-evoking Viaduct/tunnel/seawall/waterfront project—which is almost universally described as the biggest thing to hit Seattle since the World’s Fair.

So, with momentum and ambition on our side, how might we fail to realize the promise for a thoroughly energized downtown?


1. Continue to ignore families

Alex Landes has raised her daughter (both shown below) in the area west of Belltown for most of the past 12 years. That makes her an exception to the trend of downtown-based parents migrating to leafier neighborhoods and suburbs as their children get a little older. In 2000, 776 children younger than the age of 5 lived downtown. Ten years later, many families had moved away; only 394 children between ages 10 and 14 lived there. Downtown has the highest attrition rate of all Seattle neighborhoods for children younger than 5—by a long shot.

Now 12 years old, Landes’ daughter learned to ride a tricycle on the Bell Street Pier and used to refer to the fountain at the cruise ship terminal as “the pool.” The only thing missing has been neighborhood playmates. “I think the one thing that downtown lacks as far as vibrancy goes is more families,” says Landes, sitting in Speck Gallery, a pocket-size art space at 55 Bell Street that she opened in May. “To me, the pulse isn’t down here as much, due to the lack of families.” The key culprit from her point of view: lack of playgrounds. “It’s weird to me that in a city this size, there isn’t one playground right downtown. Not one. There are dog parks!”

Seattle has long waved its banner as unchurched and childless, but the latter reputation isn’t good for downtown. Almost everyone agrees that families are a net-plus for neighborhoods. “If families and kids want to be here, everyone wants to be here,” says Kate Joncas, CEO and president of the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA). “It makes it a real place; otherwise it’s just a sterile, go-to-work place.” The association’s five-year strategic plan includes making downtown more family friendly, starting with a fenced play area between the tree grove and See’s Candies in Westlake Park (see rendering below). Scheduled to open this summer, the park—a pilot project, subject to reevaluation in two years—will feature climbing and sliding equipment on which kids can blow off energy.

A second front in the family-friendly movement is a downtown school. Earlier this year, DSA partnered with the city and the school district to research the need for, and feasibility of, opening a public school somewhere downtown. Comparable cities—San Diego, Boston, San Francisco, Portland and Vancouver—all have public or charter schools in their downtowns. “Parents who live downtown are drawn here because of the ease of lifestyle, the ability to walk to most places and the opportunity to expose their children to an urban environment,” says Jon Scholes, vice president of Advocacy and Economic Development for the DSA. “So the neighborhood school model that the district has adopted is particularly important within a dense community like downtown.” Scholes moved downtown from Madison Valley with his wife and 3-year-old twins in June.

Currently, John Hay Elementary on Queen Anne is the public school for children living north of Yesler downtown. If the numbers pencil out, the DSA hopes the district will consider incorporating funding for a downtown school (age ranges and exact location to be determined) in the February 2013 levy. If these incentives take hold, it remains to be seen if they will be enough to convince Seattle moms and dads to trade backyards for urban parks, and neighborhood grocery stores for Amazon Fresh delivery.


2. Fail to solve the street-disorder problem in the core

On any given day, the heavily used transit corridor on Third Avenue around Pike and Pine streets is a place where street drugs are sold openly. Public drunkenness and street disorder are common. According to The Seattle Times, the Seattle police logged 1,300 incident reports along Third between Battery and South Jackson streets last year. A large transient population, parking garages, poor lighting, a lack of lively retail, a concentration of human service agencies and reputation are some of the factors that make this strip a canker on the heart of the retail/tourism zone.

Crime is at the top or close to the top of most agendas for downtown. Business, neighborhood associations and human service groups have long called for a greater police presence on the street, including the DSA and some City Council members who were disappointed when Mayor Mike McGinn vetoed an aggressive panhandling bill in 2010.

In January, McGinn appointed a task force to generate new solutions for the problem (no findings had been released by press time), but there are signs of change on the street. In June, officers from the Seattle Police Department and King County Sherriff’s Office arrested 38 suspected street-level drug dealers as part of Operation Blade Runner, a two-month joint operation named for the downtown Pike/Pine corridor, which some dealers refer to as “The Blade.” In addition, a grant-funded Seattle‒King County pilot program in Belltown, another downtown crime hot spot, might offer a more sustainable solution. Launched in October 2011, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program gives officers the discretion to immediately refer drug-crime suspects to treatment rather than jail. In these instances, intervention could include everything from drug treatment to employment services.

But to some, crime in the transit corridor feels embedded in the concrete, going back at least to the 1970s, when council member Tim Burgess was a Seattle police officer. He’s pushing a “hot spot” policing policy that’s proven successful in several major cities, including New York City. The multipronged, data-driven approach focuses on micro places where crime is anchored, making an example of high-frequency offenders and expanding the role of natural guardians (i.e., business owners’ and residents’ eyes on the street), among other things. While police leadership is key, he says, “If we rely only on the police to solve these problems, it isn’t going to happen. The whole philosophy is really very grassroots-oriented; it’s down at the street level and it involves everybody.” Interestingly, King County Metro’s decision to discontinue the downtown ride-free zone (projected to yield $2 million) could inadvertently improve transit-hub crime by taking away an easy escape for troublemakers.

Meanwhile, the city and the DSA are working to clean up and enliven the streets. An amount of $500,000 was added to the 2012 budget for street improvements and more frequent cleaning in the transit corridor. Ongoing efforts include more outdoor cafés and street-food vending, and sponsoring everything from art to concerts to movable furniture in downtown parks, which have long been magnets for trouble. For more than a decade, DSA’s Metropolitan Improvement District (MID) has deployed crews in blue-and-yellow uniforms to act as ambassadors and provide cleaning and outreach services for downtown. Last year alone, they removed 21,400 graffiti tags and stickers from public structures. Belltown business owners have just signed on with the MID, hoping to create their own business improvement district.

Efforts to boost attractiveness and civility in the heart of downtown are essential for supporting tourism and retail. From Pacific Place and the Nordstrom flagship store to Pike Place Market, retail is arguably the most important (and the most fragile) ingredient in a vibrant downtown. But just as the streets need to be safe and inviting for retail to thrive, thriving retail helps make the streets safer and more inviting. Just imagine how Third Avenue would have been transformed if the cheerful, bustling CityTarget (at Second Avenue and Pike Street, where a new boutique hotel is also in the works) had been located one block east. Solving the corridor’s problems will probably require an adventurous retailer to help lead the transformation.


3. Sink the waterfront under an enormous price tag

When you walk along Alaskan Way with Peter Steinbrueck (shown below), he doesn’t gaze out at Elliott Bay. He looks east to the city. What excites him about the changes coming to the waterfront are the opportunities to knit downtown back to the water; to reignite neighborhoods, especially Pioneer Square; to celebrate historic buildings from a new perspective (loading docks as sidewalk cafés, for example); and more.

While the architect, preservationist and former three-term City Council member focuses on these individual incremental changes, the Central Waterfront’s lead designer, James Corner, has been thinking on a grander scale, with preliminary plans for a post-Viaduct world that joins downtown to the waterfront via a fairly elaborate series of ramps, plazas and funiculars. The final design is still years away, although the Seattle Central Waterfront Committee was charged with presenting a strategic plan to the mayor early this summer. Back in private practice with Steinbrueck Urban Strategies, Steinbrueck is consulting for Pike Place Market on the James Corner plan. He’s jazzed about what the waterfront might become, but worries about the process, and with good reason. Seattle has a record of gunning down ambitious, expensive projects. Remember The Commons?

In the mid-1990s, Seattle voters twice rejected the $111 million property-tax levy to fund the development and construction of a 61-acre park stretching from downtown to Lake Union—in part over concerns that it was a gentrification gambit to enrich a few on the backs of the poor.

“I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned about big, bold, expensive ideas that don’t seem to fit everyday people’s priorities…and that may have a whiff of developer-inspired get-rich schemes,” Steinbrueck says. “If they come out with a massive package of amenities with a $1 billion-plus price tag, it’s going to fail, especially during these times.” Steinbrueck hopes the city will downsize costs and focus on essential foundation projects, such as rebuilding the seawall (currently slated to cost around $300 million), transportation infrastructure and east-west connections that will provide the framework for private investment rather than “overdressing” the waterfront with publicly funded, costly amenities.


4. Squeeze out teachers, police officers, recent grads and seniors

“I love that it feels like a small town here,” says artist Jane Richlovsky about Pioneer Square, where she works and lives. “I walk around and I know people. My coffee place is right across the street. If my dog got lost, she would go there, because they give her bacon.” Richlovsky was one of the 100 artists forced to relocate when city inspectors deemed 619 Western Avenue—a ramshackle but much loved collection of artist studios—structurally unsound. A master leaseholder with a business bent, she was able to find and refurbish studios on the second floor of the historic red brick building at First and Cherry. Some of her fellow artists joined her, but others moved farther south, up to Capitol Hill or still haven’t found a studio—affordable work and/or living space, especially the kind artists like, is hard to come by downtown.

While everyone claims they want artists in here, Richlovsky says, the proof will be in the pudding. If Pioneer Square’s economic fortunes improve, will she still be able to afford the rent when it’s time to renegotiate her lease? Barring a major economic downturn, as the urban core becomes denser, it will become more expensive, with higher prices driving out the folks who make downtown interesting or supply the “work” piece of the celebrated live/work/play equation.

Affordable rentals downtown are possible, according to Seattle developer Denny Onslow, who pioneered downtown high-rise rentals with Harbor Steps at First and University in the 1980s. “We started with the question: What can people pay in rent?” Onslow says about Harbor Urban’s latest project, the 17-story Alto on Cedar Street in Belltown. Geared for Gen Y, Alto features very compact, “urban one-bedrooms,” served by tricked-out communal spaces that are kept humming with plenty of networking events.

Starting at $1,294 for a 550-square-foot, open one-bedroom, Alto falls at the higher end of the affordability scale, often referred to as “workforce or middle-income housing.” In this case, affordable for individuals making 70 percent of the median income, or about $43,120, what a social worker might make.

When the city revised the land-use code in 2006, it offered long-desired height and density bonuses in the downtown area for commercial and residential developers who provided affordable housing. These incentives were extended to south downtown neighborhoods late last year. “We need more people to live here and call it home in order for these neighborhoods to be truly successful,” council member Sally J. Clark said at the time. “The trick is to entice new development without pushing out what makes these neighborhoods great.”

But most affordable housing built with these city, county or federal funds is aimed at those considered low-income or moderate low-income, making 80 percent or less of the median income. While there is always need for low-income housing, the lack of funding and projects like Onslow’s has a downside. Administrative and lab assistants making $40,040, teachers making $49,280 or associate professors making $55,440 can’t afford to live downtown.

“There is no record of a growing city building its way out of the affordable-housing problem,” says developer Hal Ferris, principal at Spectrum Development Solutions, which most recently provided development services for a series of residence halls and apartments around the University of Washington. “As more gets built, demand increases and prices rise.” There has to be a corresponding land-use policy to encourage affordable housing—at all levels. Ferris is actively involved in pushing governments to proactively address the “silent epidemic.” A lack of workforce housing in downtown means workers aren’t living near their jobs, which contributes to pollution-inducing commutes and, Ferris says, “socioeconomic separation.” In addition to bankers and lawyers, you need artists, civil servants, nurses, janitors, recent graduates, retirees and young families advocating for things such as public schools, parks and safety to make downtown better for everyone. As Ferris says, “It touches all of us when we drive out the people who contribute to the overall health of a society.”

With the ground rumbling under bulldozers for the deep-bore tunnel in the south and the demolition machinery for the Amazon towers in the north, downtown will continue its relentless transformation. But the question remains: Will the result be a safe, attractive and lively downtown for everyone?


Seattle’s downtown is staying globally competitive, despite the recession. Read more in this month’s issue of Seattle Business magazine.


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