Downtown Seattle makes moves to become a 24/7 city
Unprecedented investment in downtown Seattle seeks to create a 24-hour city
By Stacy Kendall and Rob Smith June 5, 2023
To Downtown Seattle Association President and CEO Jon Scholes, a vibrant, thriving city depends as much on its nightlife as its daytime business climate.
“I think we were at least an 18-hour city before the pandemic knocked us off our game,” says Scholes, noting that DSA’s revitalization strategy has long focused on the city’s quality of life after dark. “Great cities of the world are 24-hour cities, and Seattle’s brand is more global today than it was 10 years ago. We have the ingredients.”
As with many other large cities, Seattle’s downtown was struggling with crime and homelessness prior to the pandemic. Today, though, many encouraging signs point to a comeback of sorts.
First off, let’s be honest. Seattle has never been a 24/7 city. That will change — if we want it to. A 24/7 city, and a healthy downtown, is more than just nightlife. There’s an entire economy and a population of workers from hospital staff and caregivers, emergency services, those in the restaurant and hotel industry, warehouse and janitorial employees as well as entertainment professionals who need services during their off-hours.
Proponents of the 24-hour model (think cities such as London, Tokyo, New York, and Buenos Aires) cite the benefits of a place that never sleeps — boosting tourism, being more inclusive of all types of workers, having more entertainment, and an assumed extra layer of safety if a bus stop or a train station is filled with riders. Not only that, but it’d just be cooler if we had one. Few people’s best nights of their life ended at 10 p.m.
A 24/7 city, and a healthy downtown, is more than just nightlife. There’s an entire economy and a population of workers from hospital staff and caregivers, emergency services, those in the restaurant and hotel industry, warehouse and janitorial employees as well as entertainment professionals who need services during their off-hours.
A slew of activity points to an increasingly vibrant and active downtown as the city slowly lurches toward round-the-clock vibrancy. Local leaders are discussing potential changes to zoning codes to create more residential housing. Already, about 100,000 people live in the downtown area, a broad neighborhood the DSA defines as from Uptown to Pioneer Square and east to Capitol Hill. There’s also talk of allowing new hotels, restaurants, and entertainment venues adjacent to the city’s sports stadiums, especially T-Mobile Park and Lumen Field in the SODO neighborhood.
In his recent State of the City address, Mayor Bruce Harrell stressed a “downtown activation plan” focused on filling vacant storefronts, converting unused office space to housing, and creating a linear arts-entertainment-culture district that connects downtown with multiple neighborhoods. He even mentioned the possibility of creating a “24/7 street.”
That would be “a stretch of several blocks where you can find a restaurant, bar, grocery, or your favorite clothing boutique at any hour of the day,” he said. “We have to realize that economic activity at our city’s core is essential to our shared prosperity.”
The new 1.5-million-square-foot, $2 billion addition to the Seattle Convention Center, called the Summit Building, occupies four full city blocks in the heart of the urban core. It will appeal to more than just conventioneers, though that impact will be significant. (It is already booked for more than two dozen conventions this year.) The mixed-use project also includes residential, office, retail, and public space designed to bring residents downtown year-round.
“The demand for increased density and tall, more efficient buildings is making a mark on urban centers around the world,” says Leonardo da Costa, principal of LMN Architects, which designed the building. “The venue is … a space where people can experience the culture of Seattle’s distinctive urban core.”
The waterfront redevelopment project will create a 20-acre pedestrian-friendly walkway to connecting Pike Place Market to downtown and other nearby neighborhoods. Recent data from commercial real estate firm Kidder Mathews show Seattle’s hospitality industry is recovering from the pandemic. The $40 million Pike + Pine Renaissance Project recently broke ground with the goal of creating an inviting, pedestrian-friendly corridor along Pike and Pine Streets. It includes improvements to crosswalks and sidewalks, more greenery, protected bike lanes, and new public seating.
Seattle is still filled with empty storefronts, but several retailers envision the potential. Apparel company Uniqlo recently opened its first store in downtown Seattle, joining existing stores in Bellevue Square and Westfield Southcenter. Clothing company Atelier just opened its first store outside of New York City in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Scholes even mentioned that a recent meeting with retail and property owners centered around a shared goal of making Seattle “the easiest downtown in the country to open a small business.” Although only words at this point, it’s a glimmer of hope to many who have experienced the city’s notoriously slow permitting process and past zoning dramas.
Brendan McGill is on board with all of it. The chef and owner of Hitchcock Restaurant Group — Bainbridge Island’s Seabird and Bruciato and Seattle’s Café Hitchcock — just placed a big bet on Seattle’s downtown renaissance with his newest venture, Bar Solea, on the corner of First Avenue and Marion Street. The first words on the Italian-themed restaurant and bar’s website even proclaim, “We believe in downtown Seattle.”
McGill envisions Bar Solea as an example of a quality neighborhood restaurant that you could eat at “because it’s a Wednesday.” He adds, however, that residents themselves are ultimately responsible for the evolution of the downtown core, particularly those who live in it.
“To have a vibrant, pulsing city, everyone has to go out in it,” he says. “If you’re staying inside your condo and ordering Grubhub, the street level is always going to look like Blade Runner.”
Numerous upcoming, large events will also organically bring throngs of visitors and locals to the city core. Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game will be held at T-Mobile Park in July and will shine a national spotlight on the city. Visit Seattle estimates all All-Star week events will generate more than $50 million in economic impact. The NHL recently selected T-Mobile Park as the host of its 2024 Winter Classic, a major annual event that features teams playing outdoors. Further down the road, Seattle will host the 2026 FIFA World Cup.
“If you’re staying inside your condo and ordering Grubhub, the street level is always going to look like Blade Runner.”
As to the 24/7 concept, many encouraging signs are on the horizon. The Hideout, a seven-day-a-week bar on Boren Avenue, is adding a food program because its owners see a hole in the market. The beloved Five Point Café in the Denny neighborhood remains open 24 hours. Ho Ho’s Seafood Restaurant in the International District is open until 4 a.m. and Capitol Hill’s Rancho Bravo doesn’t close until 3 a.m. on weekends. And a relative newcomer to the city, Fat Shack in Pioneer Square, peddles sandwiches until 1 a.m. most nights.
Harrell says mayors across the country tell him about the challenges they’re facing and how they’re working to overcome them. He insists that what’s needed for Seattle’s downtown is “unabashed boldness.”
“Our plan will light up our downtown corners with artists and musicians, pop-up vendors, and social service workers, and members of the faith community creating a proactively positive presence for all,” he says. “We must ensure downtown is once again a destination where people want to be.”