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.