SB Profiles

Downtown’s ‘It’ Man

Jon Scholes is leading the effort to bring downtown Seattle back. It’s working

By Rob Smith December 12, 2023

Jon Scholes

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

For Jon Scholes, the state of downtown Seattle is deeply personal.

As a longtime resident, he’s keenly invested in downtown’s post-pandemic recovery. As president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, he’s inarguably the neighborhood’s most fervent advocate. He keeps close tabs on store openings, crime rates, transportation issues, and public policy decisions. And he’s not afraid to speak his mind.

Scholes openly criticized the City Council for its refusal to ban open-air drug use (the council recently shifted course), and led the effort to suspend the city’s business-and-occupation tax (the council has not done so).

“I don’t have a lot of patience, nor do I think the public does either, for the elected officials that are controlling the policy levers of local government and the purse strings,” says Scholes, who is one of the 106,000 people who lives downtown, a number that rises every year. “We need serious leadership, serious leaders, and a serious response.”

We saw the brand of the city get beat up pretty good in local media, national media, international to some degree, in the early days of Covid, and sometimes for good reason. There were some bad decisions made, and it was not a good look for our city.

We’ve got work to do, but we’re going in the right direction. There’s a lot of bright spots. We’re not just talking about the base that existed here prepandemic, but how do we build that base?

We’ve set some records this summer [with the Major League Baseball All-Star Game and Taylor Swift concerts]. When it’s all added up, we’ll outpace 2019 in many respects.

Those are critical, obviously, just for the amount of spending in hotels, small businesses, and restaurants. But they also invite a ton of people, and maybe that was their first time back after not being here for two years.

The power of social media helps spread a positive and accurate narrative.

Our hotel occupancies have been strong, and it’s been supported by really good leisure travel, as well as the comeback of meetings and events.

We’re investing and developing assets like the waterfront and making it lively, safe, welcoming, and a great place to work and be. That’s a competitive advantage we have.

We’ve seen a couple of companies that have planted their flag downtown and signed new leases. Unico and Colliers landed a big tenant. Moderna signed a deal. Those companies are looking at the amenity-rich environment downtown. That’s where we see opportunity.

We have to work on rebuilding ground-floor retail, which is so important to attracting local visitors who just want to come downtown and enjoy an urban environment and shop on a Saturday afternoon.

We’ve got work to do, no doubt, but we’ve seen more openings versus closings in the past six months: Mendocino Farms, Suit Supply, Ben Bridge.

Our response to homelessness and fentanyl haven’t really been materially adjusted just yet. We ought to be getting housing faster to the people we know are on the streets with a fentanyl addiction.

The future of Third Avenue is critically important. In a lot of ways, Third Avenue is universally loathed. It still needs to function as a transit street, but it needs to be a great and safe one, well-lit, with great retail, and a place that people want to linger.

Our hope is that the city and county commit to a joint-financing strategy, just like they’ve done in Denver and Minneapolis, to rebuild the street in a way that makes it great for folks who may live or work on Third. Denver is in the process of spending about $150 million to rebuild the 16th Street Mall, which is about what we think it would cost from Seattle Center down to the International District, to rebuild Third Avenue.

We’ve got some great concepts to work with. We’re not having to start with a blank slate. There a lot of good things happening to spruce up the streets and sidewalks.

(On Pike and Pine) we currently have tens of millions of dollars going into landscape and streetscape improvements, making the crosswalks more pedestrian-friendly, improving the landscaping, and making the bike lanes protected and permanent.

We’re constantly learning from our peers. You can be a small town and have done something really interesting and unique on a smaller scale that we could incorporate here. I think Vancouver, B.C., has always been a great model. I was in London in July, taking notes, looking around and absorbing everything they’re doing.

Every great downtown aspires to be a 24/7 city. That means there’s jobs in those hours providing economic opportunity.

We’re not moving fast enough to hire officers. The city needs to move with more urgency. We should approach this like a business would and try to recruit and retain great talent. We need officers for certain functions and social workers for others.

We have a long-term relationship with both (SPD Chief Adrian Diaz) and the command staff. We spend about $250,000 for additional bike and foot patrols.

But I think Seattle is pretty well-positioned post pandemic. I think for any city downtown to be successful, you need a good mix and balance of things going on and uses, and that’s what we’ve been striving for for several decades.

You know, our arts and cultural institutions are located downtown. Our sports stadiums are downtown. Major attractions like the aquarium are downtown. Those weren’t all foregone conclusions. They could have gone in different places. The aquarium was (originally) going to be in Ballard.

So, we’re not overly reliant on office space. As an example, about half the building square footage downtown is office, but in San Francisco, it’s about 74%. They don’t have the same concentration.

I don’t think Seattle needs some major reinvention within its downtown. We need a recommitment to the downtown from the city and other public agencies and the private sector. We really just need to recommit to it.

I think there are other downtowns that probably need to lean more toward being reinvented because they’re overly subscribed to one use. They might not have a lot of people that live there. It might just be a place you go to work. That’s not been the case in Seattle for quite some time.

There’s not a comparable city right now in North America as far as an urban waterfront [with the seawall makeover], which is going to be close to a billion dollars. There’s not another city that has that natural beauty of urban right up against nature. There’s not another downtown where you can look across and see more than one national park, the Olympics, Mount Rainier.

This is going to be a big invitation for people to come, not just in the region, obviously, but really across the country and across the world.

I think every great downtown and urban area aspires to be a 24/7 city. That means there’s jobs in those hours. That’s a good thing as far as providing economic opportunity, not just fun things for all of us to do in the middle of the night.

We’re a big events town now, with All-Star Week, the (upcoming) NHL Winter Classic, the World Cup. And then the number of flights that have been added, particularly international flights, coming into Sea-Tac. People that might land at 11 o’clock might want to go out to dinner. We’ve made a lot of progress, and we should aspire to that.

I don’t think we’re going to see a ton of conversion from office to residential downtown. But we still have a fair amount of housing capacity left. We might see partial conversions where the top floor becomes residential.

As you face adversity, whether it’s through a pandemic or other economic challenges, the greater density you have, I think the more resilient you are.

We think downtown should be a place for families and everybody to live. So, let’s put in the things that those folks are going to need and want.

Downtown being healthy means the whole city is being healthy.

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