Last week, the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) unveiled the latest economic data on the health of downtown at our annual State of Downtown forum. It validated what many of us who work and live in downtown instinctively knew: 2015 was a remarkable year.
We saw record levels of residential development, the groundbreaking of what will be downtown’s largest hotel, the transformation of Westlake and Occidental Parks, and a number of iconic Northwest companies— including Expedia—choosing to relocate downtown.
We’ve added nearly 30,000 jobs downtown since 2010—an increase of 14 percent. And our population growth continues to outpace growth in the city and region. Today, one in 10 Seattleites lives downtown.
Downtown Seattle is experiencing a renaissance the likes of which we have not seen in decades.
This renaissance is not unique to Seattle. Since the end of the most recent recession, 40 of the 41 downtowns in the nation’s largest metro areas have outpaced the suburbs in job growth. Workers and employers are demonstrating a strong preference not just for cities, but for downtowns in particular.
To protect and enhance our downtown, it’s important to understand what’s drawing investment and people here. I believe we have three competitive advantages fueling our success.
First, the adaptability and flexibility of infrastructure and spaces in downtowns is a major advantage in this century. Our ability to repurpose buildings, parks, sidewalks and plazas to serve new users, in different ways, allows us to minimize new infrastructure costs, protect our natural environment and limit the need for additional resources.
For example, this past year, KEXP-FM renovated meeting rooms at Seattle Center into modern new studios. Starbucks remade a former car dealership on Pike into a remarkable coffee experience—the Roastery. Work is underway on the renovation of the Publix Hotel in the International District into apartments and commercial space and the infamous Lusty Lady on First Avenue will soon be transformed into a 43-room boutique hotel.
A second major advantage of downtowns is their ability to offer unique experiences at a time when experiences matter more than ever to consumers. Whether it’s visiting the infamous Gum Wall at Pike Place Market, watching a summer concert in Westlake Park or joining in a Seattle Sounders March to the Match, we’re seeing a strong desire for authentic urban experiences and tradition that the suburbs cannot replicate.
Third, technology is having a profound impact on downtowns. It is improving how we access and experience urban places. The application of technology in dense environments is creating possibilities we could not have imagined a decade ago. Uber, Lyft, Car2Go, Luxe and Zip Car have changed the way we access and move around our downtown. Five years ago few of these services existed. Today, Uber is the most valuable private startup in the world. And this year, BMW will launch a new electric car-sharing service in downtown.
As we experience this urban renaissance, both locally and nationally, it’s important to reflect on the fragility of urban places and what it takes to make and keep them great. Even in this time of tremendous prosperity, we can never take anything for granted. Development patterns, trends, preferences and markets are constantly in motion.
At DSA, we believe a great city is always being made. This requires intentional, purposeful and proactive stewardship of our downtown. It also demands strong partnerships between the public and private sector, which have been critical to shaping our downtown and city. Going forward, there are two things we must get right to continue our prosperity and create more opportunity.
First, we have to develop a long-range vision for downtown’s transportation system and public realm. For too long, we’ve gotten by with incrementalism—a plaza here, a bike lane there, a new bus route over here.
With our current pace of growth, we can’t afford to continue planning project by project, year by year, or mode by mode. We have to design a long-term blueprint to improve downtown’s transportation system to keep downtown accessible, attractive and inviting. And we must be intentional and bold about our choices.
This is why we are partnering with Seattle mayor Ed Murray, King County executive Dow Constantine and Sound Transit to invest in the largest effort ever to develop a public realm and transportation vision for downtown Seattle. This will ensure we prioritize the right investment in our parks, pedestrian realm and transit system to increase the vibrancy of downtown.
The other thing we must get right is housing affordability.
Fortunately, years of forethought have put us in a much stronger position regarding housing than many other rapidly growing cities. We’ve had a housing levy in place since the 1980s. We have a strong nonprofit housing community and other programs that helped create thousands of units of workforce and low-income housing. And, we’ve made decisions over the last two decades to rezone areas of downtown to increase housing density.
While significant, these efforts alone will not be sufficient to meet the demand for affordable housing that we are experiencing in Seattle.
This year, we’ll be working with a diverse group of stakeholders—led by Mayor Murray—to plan for the creation of 50,000 market-rate and affordable-housing units over the next 10 years.
This will not be easy. It’s a major lift. It requires support at the ballot later this year, persistence in Olympia, and conversations in our neighborhoods where we need to make sure the message is heard loud and clear that the front door of a great city should always be open.
Jon Scholes is president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, a member-based nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a healthy, vibrant downtown.