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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

May 10, 2011 at 10:15 AM

Claim a (cautious) victory for downtown Seattle retail

I was interested in the interview of leasing agent Maria Royer by the Seattle Times’ Amy Martinez. Royer focuses on the Pike-Pine corridor in downtown Seattle and lately has brought in AllSaints, H&M and Forever 21.

The fact that Seattle even has a star leasing agent successfully working one part of a vibrant downtown is remarkable. The fact that downtown Seattle retail survived and bounced back from the Great Recession is testimony to how special this city is, and what an asset it has in downtown. This is not to be smug — “downtown is never done,” as someone said — but most American cities would kill for the downtown retail Seattle residents take for granted.

Downtown retail started dying in the late 1950s in most American cities as cheap gas, suburbanization and the shopping mall displaced traditional central business districts. Cities that entirely lost their downtown shopping districts have found it incredibly difficult to restore them, even with the downtown renaissance that began in the late 1980s. For example, downtown Dallas has added thousands of new residents and brought some large office tenants back from the suburbs, but it struggles on the retail front aside from the flagship Neiman Marcus store. Seattle is very fortunate that it never reached this tipping point.

The Great Recession posed the greatest threat to retailers nationwide since the Depression (especially hitting suburban malls and shopping strips). Even in Seattle, empty storefronts popped up on First Avenue, and Coldwater Creek closed at the prominent spot of Fifth and Pine. The downdraft was made much more severe by the collapse of Washington Mutual and loss of thousands of well-paid headquarters employees downtown. This is healing now, with the bulwarks of the retail district still standing and more added. The fact that a store as upscale as AllSaints would come here is not just evidence of an affluent metro, but an attractive downtown.

Seattle is one of the few American metros that can offer such choice in living, including a live-work-play downtown. It’s a boon to tourism. More, it’s critical to the energetic density that breeds collaboration and creativity, and attracts young talent. It can’t be taken for granted. Retail continues to face serious challenges. But for now, downtown Seattle can claim real success.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

What’s a Skype, you ask?

A noun meaning “paid too much”

Hope the call goes through

Comments | More in Downtown and urban issues, Recovery, Retail

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