Maybe Metropolis: Seven Must Dos for Seattle’s Recovery

Public right-of-way isn’t just for cars anymore.

by Josh Feit

In a recent opinion column for the Seattle Times, Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rachel Smith and Downtown Seattle Association President and CEO Jon Scholes published “7 ‘must dos’ for downtown Seattle’s recovery,” a prescription for renewing downtown after the pandemic. Their list is premised on the idea that, “Every great city has a great downtown. Downtowns are the heartbeat of a region.” In other words, downtowns make the city go.

I like a lit-up downtown as much as anyone, but their column represents pre-pandemic thinking. The focus on “saving downtown” that’s emerging right now (most recently as a nascent local campaign issue) is a revamped version of a bygone Seattle policy agenda dressed up as urbanism; while it appears to be about bright lights and big cities, following this fussy narrative will simply drag us right back to where we’ve always been stuck: In a mindset that promotes suburban seclusion within the city itself.

There are certainly some important ideas on Smith and Scholes’ list, especially their calls for a robust transit system and for keeping shovels in motion on major infrastructure projects (which repeats the mass transit shoutout). Additionally, two of their seven agenda items, which I see as intertwined—activating public space and making it easier for entrepreneurs to set up shop—are also smart.

But these concepts are more urgent and relevant in the rest of the city; promoting them as downtown ideas runs the risk of reiterating and re-instituting a false dichotomy that has set Seattle off course for decades: The old-fashioned idea that downtown, not the rest of the city, is the only place for growth and energy.

The post-pandemic focus for making Seattle vital again should be on harnessing the new neighborhood energy—not sending it back downtown.

What we’ve actually learned during the past year not spending much time downtown is this: neighborhoods are the magic quadrants of cities. I don’t mean this in the trite, anti-downtown tribalist way of the old neighborhood movement, which saw every public-private partnership as some elitist conspiracy to crush the Wedgwood Community Council and rob the city of its authenticity. What I mean—as I’ve documented before—is that the past year has energized business districts outside the city center and alerted us to a new Seattle model. The post-pandemic focus for making Seattle vital again should be on harnessing the new neighborhood energy—not sending it back downtown.

Our past strategy of channeling city action to core neighborhoods such as downtown and Capitol Hill has prevented density in other sectors of the city, which has led to a housing shortage, and thus untenable housing prices. It also makes for dull neighborhoods.

The good news is: There are signs we’re moving in a new direction. Talk of sticking with outdoor street dining is already afoot. And just look at one of the key items on the DSA/Chamber list: “Completion of major infrastructure projects.” This item (unwittingly?) pinpoints where the real focus already is and should be.

Their first example? Light rail expansion. Well, light rail already exists downtown. The bulk of the expansion is coming to the non-downtown neighborhoods. Starting this year, that means the University District, Roosevelt, and Northgate. In 2023, that means Judkins Park (perhaps the most underrated and overlooked transformative capital project in the city!) After that, it means four stations from SoDo out to West Seattle and nine stations from the International District out to Ballard.

With a city-building thinking cap on that re-imagines outer tier neighborhoods as regional centers, here’s a list of non-downtown Must-Dos that will actually make Seattle the heart of the region. My list includes two items for downtown, because downtown is a neighborhood as well.

Allow duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in single-family zones.

You’ve heard about transit-oriented development—adding density around transit hubs. Well, how about: Parksoriented development, schooloriented development, or corner store-oriented development. By upzoning around key community land uses, we can make our city both more vibrant and more equitable.

For example, a 2017 Sightline study found that single-family zoning covers an average of 72 percent of the attendance zones of Seattle’s top-performing elementary schools. In short: if you can’t afford to live in a single-family zone, your chances of sending your children to a top-performing school is low, which is a compelling reason to leverage citywide development as a tool for equity.

By upzoning around key community land uses, we can make our city both more vibrant and more equitable. 

Nearly a decade ago, the city council famously made micro-housing regulations too onerous, effectively stopping this small, affordable housing option in its tracks.  Let’s undo those restrictions to create more housing stock in residential neighborhoods. I’d include garages on this list. Garages should not be used for storage; they should be used for cars, accessory housing, or businesses—which brings me to my next item.

From corner markets to “garage bars,” the city needs to make more room for small businesses in traditionally residential neighborhoods. My Miller Park mini-grocery has changed from a sleepy curiosity to a vital hub during the pandemic.

Arts spaces need to be included in this equation too: small bookstores, performance spaces, and artist studios are needed throughout the city, not just in central-city neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill and Pioneer Square. The Seattle Office of Arts and Culture’s new Cultural Space PDA, set up to help secure affordable spaces for arts groups, particularly BIPOC arts organizations, is one the most innovative and pioneering projects Seattle has put into play in years. It is vital to these city-building efforts.

Too many of the multifamily developments going up reserve the ground-floor commercial component for a single large tenant, like a bank or a drug store. The city should make upzones contingent on promoting business diversity by mandating that developers and landlords divvy up the commercial spaces into 500-1,500 square foot spaces, providing opportunities for an array of entrepreneurs.

In other words: End the policy of reserving the majority of pavement for cars. That means assigning more uses to the spaces adjacent to sidewalks than just parking. This could be micro-parks, bike lanes, e-bike and car charging stations, planters, bike parking, and (heated) café seating. This last suggestion has taken on a life of its own during the pandemic, with hundreds of businesses getting street (or sidewalk) seating permits. The program has been extended until October. It needs to be a permanent option.

Now, on to my downtown neighborhood recommendations, two items that should have been on the DSA/Chamber list:

I exaggerate, but whatever happened to Mayor Durkan’s pledge for a congestion pricing program? Let’s put that idea back in play.

While instituting lower rates for low-income drivers, the city needs to start charging single-occupant vehicles for coming downtown. For starters, it’d serve as a logical offset to the free parking they enjoy on public right of way in too many of our outer tier neighborhoods.

Reserving ground-floor retail for large businesses often leads to vacancies, thanks to the high rent these larger spaces command. This is a problem downtown as well as in the outer-tier neighborhoods. In downtown, the small-space mandate I suggested above for other neighborhoods shouldn’t be an orthodox prescription; we need large footprints for grocery stores and other retailers, as well as entertainment. But it’s beyond me how landlords can sit on vacant spaces for so long rather than lowering rents. Let’s stop vandalizing downtown with vacancies and, instead, let’s provide incentives for smaller, more affordable ground-floor commercial spaces.

Again, I’m not opposed to cultivating Seattle’s downtown core. But as we plan our post-pandemic recovery, let’s not lose sight of what we’ve learned during the pandemic: Seattle’s neighborhoods are dynamic and shouldn’t let downtown have all the fun.

One thought on “Maybe Metropolis: Seven Must Dos for Seattle’s Recovery”

  1. “But it’s beyond me how landlords can sit on vacant spaces for so long rather than lowering rents.”

    This article from Strong Towns gives a pretty interesting explanation of this phenomenon.

    In a nutshell, lowering the rent would reduce the amount that the building owner can claim their property is worth for financing purposes. Commercial loans have pretty short terms so they need to refinance every few years. If the valuation goes down, the amount they can get from the bank the next time around goes down, and the owner needs to come up with the difference. If cash is tight, better to keep advertising that high rent that nobody has agreed to yet (and hope the bank believes a tenant will soon sign up at that price) than lower the rent and have your loan reduced to match.

    I don’t work in real estate or banking so I can’t confirm this explanation first hand, but it does seem to make some sense.

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