This op/ed was written by the Downtown Seattle Association's Vice President of Advocacy and Economic Development, Jon Scholes.
Seattle is losing jobs to the suburbs. In 2009, Seattle had 30,000 fewer jobs than in the year 2000. Two-thirds (21,000) of that job loss occurred in downtown Seattle. During the same period, areas of King County outside Seattle gained more than 15,000 jobs. In 2008, regional urban centers (areas targeted for employment and housing density in King, Pierce, Kitsap and Snohomish Counties) contained just 15 percent of all the jobs in the four-county area, compared to 31 percent in the year 2000.
This migration of jobs to the suburbs is a trend that could undermine efforts to combat climate change, reduce vehicle miles traveled, and increase transit service where it is needed most. The employment shift also runs counter to our region’s adopted growth strategy , which calls for the five largest cities (Seattle, Tacoma, Bremerton, Everett and Bellevue) to accommodate 42 percent of all the region's employment growth by the year 2040.
While Seattle’s policy makers and smart growth advocates are diligently (and appropriately) focused on increasing residential densities, they should also be alarmed that Seattle’s share of all employment in King County and the region is declining.
This data runs counter to the regular praise coming from national business publications that buoy our economic egos by declaring Seattle the “top,” “best,” or “most” innovative, educated, economically viable---you fill in the blank---city in the nation. It seems many of these publications don’t know where the Seattle city limits begin and end, often bestowing credit on the Emerald City for the economic strength of the broader metro region. For example, Seattle is routinely referred to as the home of Boeing, Microsoft, Costco and other regional giants whose employment growth has actually been outside city limits.
There is no doubt that Seattle, and downtown Seattle in particular, have unique economic advantages and assets, including a highly educated workforce, significant federal research dollars, a robust global heath and philanthropic sector and innovators in clean technology. But the numbers don’t lie – Seattle is losing jobs and employment market share in the region.
While decentralization of employment is not unique to Seattle (it's happening, in fact, all over the country), it is occurring more rapidly here than in other large US metro areas.
In a report released last year, the Brookings Institute found that between 1998 and 2006, 95 out of 98 metro areas saw a decrease in the share of jobs located within three miles of the region’s Central Business District. The outermost parts of these metro areas (more than ten miles from the central business district) saw employment increase by 17 percent, compared to a gain of less than one percent in the urban core.
Of the 45 largest metro areas (those with more than 500,000 jobs), the Seattle metro area had the tenth-largest decentralization of jobs (defined as the percent of jobs located more than ten miles from the central business district). Fifty-six percent of jobs in our region are located more than ten miles from Seattle’s downtown core, just seven percentage points behind sprawling Atlanta and less than ten points behind Los Angeles.
It’s a much different story when it comes to residential growth in Seattle over the last decade. Between 2000 and 2009, Seattle added 40,000 new residents – entirely through growth, as opposed to annexation. One quarter of this growth occurred downtown. That's a good thing. Yet while we’ve been focused on creating dense, walkable communities, the jobs necessary to pay the rent and mortgages on those new apartments and condos have been drifting elsewhere.
Some may argue that we can mitigate the impacts of job sprawl by increasing transit service and investing in more transit infrastructure to connect dense residential areas (like Seattle) with jobs elsewhere in the region. However, the financial challenges facing King County Metro do not inspire confidence. Currently, we're asking Metro to serve too large an area with too scattered a distribution of residents and jobs, which results in bus service that is expensive to deliver.
While the region has made significant progress in increasing transit use in recent years, we’ve still more than doubled the total number of daily vehicle miles traveled in the region since 1980. Looking ahead, the region has tens of billions of dollars worth of proposed investment in transit infrastructure and service, with no concrete plan for how to pay for all of it. Relying on significant increases in transit service throughout the region to mitigate the environmental impacts of job sprawl is an expensive---and potentially unsustainable---proposition.
A better strategy – and a more sustainable one – is to reduce the trend of decentralization of employment and increase jobs in Seattle. To do so, Seattle policymakers must make more concerted efforts to identify the barriers to employment growth and embrace a new culture of competitiveness in the city. Our best employment initiative is to retain, nurture and grow the businesses that already call downtown and Seattle home.
Credit goes to Seattle’s Office of Economic Development for launching a new business retention effort this year. This effort---a partnership with business and neighborhood organizations (full disclosure, the Downtown Seattle Association is a partner)---will provide policymakers with better insights about the barriers Seattle employers face and how the city can help.
City leaders also face near-term decisions that could have negative or positive impacts on employment in Seattle, depending on how they are carried out.
Take, for instance, the city’s record budget deficit---nearly $60 million in 2011. In closing this gap, elected leaders should avoid raising taxes on employers, including reinstating Seattle’s tax on jobs (aka the “head tax”)
Russell Investments will make its move to Seattle in late October---one bright spot that doesn’t show up in the data referenced above. Seattle should take Russell CEO Andrew Doman up on his call to make Seattle home to a robust and thriving financial services sector and identify what it will take to attract similar companies to Seattle.
The City Council is currently reviewing a proposal to rezone the neighborhoods that make up South Downtown. The council should be bold and adopt a proposal that will promote a large increase in market-rate housing, which these neighborhoods desperately need to support existing small businesses and attract new ones.
Efforts to combat climate change and increase alternative forms of transportation won't work if our region’s largest city continues to shed jobs while employment increases in outlying areas. If the current economic realities aren’t enough to inspire a renewed effort to create jobs in Seattle, the looming environmental and transportation realities should be.