Downtown Seattle Continues to Blossom, but What’s Next?

The Downtown Seattle Association took a victory lap at its annual meeting, but keynote speaker Bruce Katz says there are a few things Seattle must now do.
 
 

Downtown Seattle is core to the Greater Seattle region, one of the fastest-growing in the country. So when the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) has its annual breakfast meeting, as it did on Wednesday, the ballroom is packed and interest is high.

As every year for the past half decade, the meeting began with a celebration of Seattle accolades, such as the fastest-growing city in the nation and the second coolest. Then there are the numbers. According to the DSA’s 2018 Economic Report, since 2010, Seattle’s population is up 20 percent, sales from physical retail stores are up more than 34 percent, jobs are up 30 percent and arts, entertainment and food service revenues are up 50 percent. Downtown restaurants and bars have blossomed and now account for 17,000 jobs, up 24 percent in the past five years. Where Seattle once had seven Fortune 500 tech companies, it now has 31.

And the city shows signs of continued strong growth. The expanded Washington State Convention Center will not only create new jobs and attract more tourists, it will also lead to $38 million in additional affordable housing in Freeway Park and on Pike and Pine streets.

Seattle’s waterfront is in for a $688 million redevelopment. And if all goes well, Seattle Center will receive a big boost from the remodeling of its arena to help attract professional ice hockey and basketball teams.

Seattle has also made huge strides in transit ridership, experiencing 19 million rides in 2016, up from 11.5 million the year before. Tens of thousands of additional bus service hours have been added in Seattle, along with tens of miles of bike routes. Only 25 percent of commuters drive alone.

But the city has more than a few challenges to tackle. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan showed growing comfort and confidence in her new role when she warned that while Seattle is doing well today, “We have an obligation to look 20 and 30 years into the future to see that [Seattle] is going to be the city we want to build.” That would be a city that’s inclusive and that effectively addresses such issues as affordability and homelessness. “We tax ourselves again and again,” she said, “because we know these problems are our problems, our challenges.”

Keynote speaker Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution and author of The New Localism argued that in addressing social issues, cities like Seattle must wean themselves from dependence on a federal government that is increasingly turning into “a health insurance company with an army.” That reality has pushed power down from the nation state to cities, where, Katz says, “Problem solving is bottom up, network driven, interdisciplinary.”

In areas such as affordable housing, tax reform has made low-income-housing tax credits less attractive so “financial institutions may not invest as much.” Katz says Seattle needs a “gap fund” from philanthropic organizations to help cover that loss of value.

He says Seattle should follow the model of European cities that have created new institutions to invest in housing. “You need entities operating across disciplines and dedicating that to funding and financing solutions for the 21st century,” he says. “I don’t think you’ve figured out how to aggregate wealth. You need a paradigmatic shift to unlock large amounts, and you need a leadership group that understands that.”

While the Seattle-based land-stewardship organization Forterra has come up with a well-regarded model for funding affordable housing, for example, it needs 10 times the $10 million it has raised, says Katz.

“The culture of collaboration backed by capital does not exist here. You have a lot of task forces and policy ideas, but you don’t have the organizations that exist elsewhere. You need to try things that are uncomfortable.”

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