Keeping Downtown Neighborhoods Attractive and Strong

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A couple of weeks ago, I attended a quiet little celebration that highlighted the new residents and new jobs that have sprung up and transformed the South Lake Union neighborhood. About a hundred neighborhood activists, representatives of the area's mega-developer Vulcan, business owners, urban planners, and others reflected on the ten-year conversion of a sleepy, somewhat run down area adjacent to downtown into a thriving, upbeat area with thousands of new residents and jobs.

Danny Westneat wrote about South Lake Union's success in last Sunday's Seattle Times, giving appropriate credit to former Mayor Greg Nickels for his vision and persistence in pushing forward the redevelopment of the area.  David Brewster posted an interesting historical perspective at last Monday.  (Here's a link to the report that both Westneat and Brewster cite that summarizes what's happened in South Lake Union.)

Brewster, in his Crosscut piece, raises an interesting question about how the success of South Lake Union will impact the downtown core of Seattle.  Frankly, we would do well to accept Brewster's commentary as more of a challenge than a question. We dare not become complacent about our downtown, an area of multiple neighborhoods stretching from Lower Queen Anne to the International District and Pioneer Square and from South Lake Union to First Hill and the Central Waterfront.

An attractive and strong city center doesn't flourish on its own.  It takes determined work and a constant focus on things that matter, like the attractiveness of the pedestrian environment, crime and street disorder, quick and efficient transportation options, and strong businesses. (Continue after the jump for a list of key steps to maintaining an attractive and strong downtown . . .)

Even with the good news reported earlier this week on the front page of The Seattle Times that more retailers are rumored to be planning new stores downtown, we must remained focused and resolute.

Recognizing the vital importance of our downtown to the economic stability and strength of the entire city and, frankly, the entire Puget Sound region, here are some important steps (in no particular order) we must take to keep this economic engine running strong.

Complete both the Mercer East (under construction now) and the Mercer West corridor projects.  This key east-west transportation link connects the Interbay, Uptown, Belltown, South Lake Union and Denny Triangle neighborhoods at the north end of downtown.  It will provide access to the north portal of the new SR 99 tunnel, lessen the impact of freight traffic on the new surface Alaskan Way along the central waterfront and improve walking and biking access along the whole corridor. Perhaps most importantly, when finished the Mercer corridor project will provide three new east-west crossings of Aurora Avenue between Denny Way and Mercer Street. 

Fix Third Avenue from Belltown to Pioneer Square.  This important downtown street is the spine of our transit system; it will become even more important when Link light rail begins service to the University of Washington stadium area in 2016 and all busses that use the transit tunnel move up to street level.  Today, Third Avenue is unattractive, perceived by many as unsafe, and littered with empty storefrontsIt desperately needs a facelift. It should be converted into a restricted "complete street" that serves only transit, pedestrians, bicycles, and delivery and emergency vehicles all day.  Sidewalks could be expanded and streetscape improvements installed, such as hanging flower baskets and other "green" enhancements, public art, wayfinder signage, and additional lighting.

Pay attention to the Pike-Pine corridor from the Convention Center to the Pike Place Market.  The eight blocks between the Convention Center and the Market on Pike and Pine Streets swarms with pedestrians every day, especially in the high tourism season.  More people walk in this area than any other place in the city. The Pike Place Market is the most visited place in Seattle with an estimated 10 million visitors each year.  The downtown Pike-Pine corridor serves as Seattle's front door.  It's the corridor conventioneers use to get to the retail stores and the Market.  This important eight-block stretch needs a better pedestrian experience through traffic calming, improved lighting, and constant cleaning. 

Complete the Bell Street Park in Belltown.  The Bell Street Park concept holds a lot of promise and could be our on-street version of New York's High Line. But it will only be successful if we pay attention to the details in a meticulous manner.  (Construction of the Bell Street Park should begin by the end of this year with opening scheduled for spring next year.)

Think boldly about the future of the Central Waterfront.  The removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct will transform our central waterfront and adjacent areas and allow for creation of a 26-block grand waterfront that honors our dependence on maritime and industrial manufacturing and reconnects the city with Elliott Bay.  It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create wonderful public open spaces, pedestrian promenades, sweeping vistas and connections to the downtown core, the Pike Place Market, and the stadiums.  Planning is underway now, led by James Corner, the designer of New York's High Line.  It's a big undertaking, but one Seattle is ready for and fully capable of completing. 

Connect the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcar lines through downtown.  The South Lake Union streetcar is a booming success.  Construction will begin later this year or early in 2012 on the First Hill line from Pioneer Square to Broadway on Capitol Hill, a project fully funded by Sound Transit.  These lines should be connected through downtown, allowing for easy movement throughout the city's central core from the region's largest transportation hub: King Street Station.  The downtown connector line will be a major boost for Pioneer Square because it could provide a direct connection to the Pike Place Market.

Complete the CenturyLink Field North Lot mixed-use development project.  A major section of the north parking lot at CenturyLink Field will become the site of a large development project designed to bring more jobs and market-rate housing to Pioneer Square.  This project is extremely important to the future viability of Pioneer Square; it's the anchor project many residents and small business owners believe will spark a permanent revitalization.  Groundbreaking is set for late September.  There have been reports of disagreements over parking that may derail this project; we can't allow that to happen.  

Share Seattle's story with the world through the new Tourism Improvement Area.  The City Council will vote in late September to create a special Tourism Improvement Area at the request of Seattle's major hotels.  The legislation will allow hotels with 60 or more rooms to collect a $2 per day "tourism promotion fee" on paid rooms.  The fee, projected at nearly $6 million in 2012, will be paid to the City and used by Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau to promote leisure travel to Seattle.  Since state and City funds for tourism promotion have vanished during the economic slowdown, this is a proactive step designed to promote Seattle as a great destination for vacations.  Estimates indicate that spending $6 million in tourism marketing and promotion will in turn produce an economic impact of $34.3 million, plus $3.42 million in local and state tax revenue.

Support our art, music and cultural venues.  Seattle's art and music scene is thriving.  Whether it's SAM or the Sculpture Park, ACT or the Pacific Science Center, Jazz Alley or the Rep, our art, music and cultural venues are essential components of city living.  Not often recognized as an important element of our overall economy, this sector employs approximately 34,000 individuals in the Puget Sound region.  When considering where to live or where to site a new business, quality-of-life issues like the availability of art and music experiences are often at the top of the list.  Seattle's 1% for the arts program, implemented during very tough economic times in the early 1970s, our independent Arts Commission and its share of the City's admissions tax, and our Office of Film + Music and Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs are essential and highly visible expressions by the city government that recognize the value of the arts.  It's important that we maintain these investments, especially because of their impact on our downtown neighborhoods.

Open a downtown public elementary school.  As the number of people living in downtown neighborhoods increases, we would be smart to invest in a public elementary school in this area, perhaps at the north end in Belltown or the southern edge of South Lake Union.  (See the population growth statistics at the end of this post, including the surge in families living downtown.) The City should work closely with the Seattle School District to advance this idea.  Keeping families in the center city should be a major focus of effort and opening a new elementary school would be a strong signal our of our desire to do so. 

Stop crime and street disorder.  As chair of the Council's public safety committee, I repeatedly hear complaints about crime and disorder.  Nearly 500 people gathered last Sunday afternoon in Chinatown to call attention to street crime in their neighborhood.  Residents and small business owners in Belltown send a steady stream of complaints to Council members and the Mayor asking why drug dealers are allowed to sell heroin and cocaine with near impunity near their homes and shops.  Pioneer Square residents are angry, too.  Their bitterness and frustration was palpable at a recent community meeting attended by three Council members; they fear more businesses will leave the area because of the blatant crime and disorder that is driving customers away.   Proactive, strategic interventions are clearly necessary, starting with an increased presence of uniformed police officers

If we complete these steps we have a good chance of improving the attractiveness and strength of the center of Seattle. 

If you have any lingering doubts about the importance or the power of our downtown neighborhoods, review the statistics I gleaned from the Downtown Seattle Association and the Metropolitan Improvement District:

  • Downtown is home to half of the city’s jobs; approximately 222,000 for 2010.
  • Downtown is responsible for 40% of the city’s sales tax collections.
  • Downtown accounts for 20 percent of the city’s total property value.
  • 58,000 people live Downtown, an increase of 10,000 people since 2000.
  • Downtown makes up just 5% of the city’s land mass, but was responsible for 25% of the city’s population growth between 2000 and 2010.  The fastest growing demographic groups are: those with advanced academic degrees – master’s degrees and doctorates; people age 55 and older; children between the ages of 10 and 14; and Hispanics.
  • Downtown’s residential population is more racially diverse than the city, county, and nation as a whole.
  • The number of families living Downtown has increased by more than 30 percent in the past 10 years and that number is expected to grow 7.6 percent in the next five years. Families currently comprise approximately 17 percent of Downtown households.