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Jon Talton

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

Category: Downtown and urban issues
October 21, 2013 at 11:29 AM

How downtown came back from recession

On Sunday, I wrote about how the recession hit downtown Seattle, using the lens of Fourth Avenue. Thanks to its existing strength with offices, hotels, retail and attractions such as Pike Place Market, downtown came through those bad times pretty well. The downturn hurt exurbia and much of suburbia much worse than it did successful downtowns. Center cities have been quicker to rebound, and Seattle has received a big boost from Amazon’s new headquarters in South Lake Union. Downtown residential continues to grow, too.

A deeper dig shows that ground still needs to be made up. Data from the Downtown Seattle Association show some of the center city’s losses and rebound from the Great Recession. In 2007, the area held 3,700 street-level retail and service businesses. By 2010, that had fallen to 3,453. This year, it has recovered to 3,655.

The Denny Triangle showed the most bounce, from 337 to 384. Capitol Hill, the International District, Pioneer Square, Uptown and the waterfront all show more businesses in 2013 compared with 2007.

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Comments | More in Downtown and urban issues | Topics: Downtown Seatt, Downtown Seattle Association

October 10, 2013 at 10:27 AM

The elephant in the mayoral debate: Downtown crime

I keep waiting for Mike McGinn and Ed Murray to seriously engage on the most critical economic issue facing Seattle: Crime in the central business district. An economic issue, Talton? Yes. Seattle is fortunate to have an incredibly dense downtown full of retail, restaurants and offices, along with world-class assets such as Pike Place Market, Benaroya Hall, the Seattle Art Museum and Pioneer Square. Unlike most American cities, Seattle still has two major department stores downtown, including the flagship Nordstrom.

According to the Downtown Seattle Association, downtown accounts for 41 percent of the city’s jobs in just 4 percent of its total land mass, a highly efficient and transit-friendly use of space. It generates one-third of all state and local tax revenues. And population has grown by 70 percent since 1990. Nearby, Amazon.com has created an urban technology campus that is recognized globally as a better way to site a headquarters than the car-dependent office “park.”

From corporate headquarters and offices with high-paying jobs, to innovation and tourism, downtown Seattle is a backbone of the region’s economy and should be recognized as essential to the city’s health. And yet, in a relatively safe city for its size, downtown has seen crime rise, particularly violent outbursts from vagrants that are warehoused there for the entire region.

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Comments | More in Downtown and urban issues | Topics: Downtown Seattle, Seattle mayor race

July 23, 2012 at 9:55 AM

The Target test in downtown Seattle

The urban Target store opening in downtown Seattle marks an important future direction for the chain. While suburban big boxes and shopping strips were devastated by the Great Recession, many central cores have been doing well. It’s also a vote of confidence in downtown Seattle.

There are risks to the scenario, as economists like to say. Population has grown as a percentage more downtown since 2005 than in Seattle, King County or Washington. Amazon.com’s headquarters, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Russell Investments and the South Lake Union biomedical cluster have all added to the confidence. Still, employment was badly hurt by the closing of Washington Mutual’s headquarters and the destruction of the ecosystem of vendors, law firms, CPAs, etc. that depended on it.

Taxable retail sales downtown plunged during the recession and failed to recover as they did elsewhere in the metro area and state, starting in 2009. Taxable sales in arts, entertainment, sports and accommodations also took a big hit and are losing market share (NBA arena, anyone?). The data are completely not up to date, but it’s clear downtown has challenges.

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Comments | More in Downtown and urban issues, Retail

April 4, 2012 at 9:40 AM

Economics of SODO arena make most sense

The Seattle Mariners objections to a new arena in SODO don’t add up when you consider that in downtown Phoenix the NBA Suns and MLB Diamondbacks play right across the street from each other, to use only one example from around the country. This sounds more like an attempt by a team run on the cheap to avoid competition from other professional sports.

Concerns from the Port of Seattle must be taken more seriously. The port is a backbone of the region’s well-paid blue-collar jobs. But I hope city and county officials use this as a starting point to address the port’s concerns than allow another Seattle Commons-like loss to happen.

The economics of the proposed arena are strong. It would be centrally located, able to use existing infrastructure, further boost the region’s downtown and benefit from connections to Link light rail and Sounder trains. A greenfield arena in the suburbs would only add traffic congestion to residential areas, potentially destroy needed open space and lack transit options for fans. The externalities — the largely unmeasured hidden costs — of a totally car-dependent new arena are huge.

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Comments | More in Downtown and urban issues, Ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Seattle Mariners, Sports business

February 16, 2012 at 8:22 AM

Amazon’s Denny Triangle deal: A real blockbuster

Amazon’s agreement to buy three blocks in the Denny Triangle and build three towers, each with 1 million square feet of office space, is a project any city would envy at any time. Coming while the general economy is still struggling to heal from the Great Recession — a bust that vaporized Washington Mutual, one of downtown Seattle’s most important corporate headquarters — it’s breathtaking.

To be sure, if every major plan ever noodled over, permitted or announced actually happened, many American skylines would look like New York or Chicago. One could almost say that about the grand plans for the Denny Triangle that went “poof” with the collapse four years ago.

Still, this is not a speculative project. It’s backed by a headquarters company that has already filled up its expansive new urban campus adjacent to downtown in South Lake Union. Amazon has the capital and the need to make this real. It’s a tremendous vote of confidence in Seattle, a sign of how much real headquarters of big companies matter (as opposed to “suitcase headquarters” with few jobs) and an urban-reset project in a walkable, transit-oriented area.

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Comments | More in Amazon.com, Downtown and urban issues, Real estate

July 15, 2011 at 10:20 AM

Looking beyond downtown Seattle, ‘free’ parking isn’t really free

Downtown Seattle has the dubious distinction of having the sixth costliest garage parking among cities in the United States, according to reporting by the Seattle Times’ Susan Gilmore. It’s a competitive issue to be taken seriously, especially if it hurts downtown businesses. On the other hand, garages charge what the market will bear and Seattle has a dense downtown with plenty of attractions and assets. (And one doesn’t have to own a car here).

But even “free” out in the suburbs isn’t really free. The externalities, such as environmental damage and climate-altering emissions, of big surface parking lots, wide streets, extensive car use, etc. aren’t priced in to conventional studies or public policies. Much of this is an artifact of a moment in history when energy was very cheap and debt low. Not for nothing are many suburbs suffering worse from the recession and its aftermath than center cities.

Beyond that, “free” parking, is heavily subsidized, although these costs are largely hidden from drivers. Donald Shoup, professor of urban planning at UCLA, analyzes the costs and consequences of this in his book, The High Cost of Free Parking. Tyler Cohen has written about it for the New York Times.

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Comments | More in Downtown and urban issues, Energy, Oil prices, Sustainability

June 24, 2011 at 10:15 AM

Charlotte and Seattle, tales of two cities

Some 100 business and civic leaders from Charlotte, host of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, have been in Seattle this week as part of the Charlotte Chamber’s annual inter-city visit. The chamber there has been doing these gigs for more than 50 years to learn best practices from other cities. According to the Charlotte Business Journal, “Potential areas of interest for the Charlotte contingent include Seattle’s renowned library system (a particularly relevant topic, given the recent struggles here), signature downtown projects (the historic Pioneer Square District and the Pike Place Market), economic development, transportation and the arts.”

I was business editor and columnist at the Charlotte Observer for nearly five years, ending in 2000. When I got there, it seemed like Hooterville with a couple of giant skyscrapers. By the time I left, it was the nation’s second largest banking center with a gleaming, Oz-like skyline. It has been battered by the Great Recession, losing one of its two precious money center banks. Fiscal troubles have ravaged its schools and library system. Still, it can claim the only modern light-rail system in the South and an amazing amount of affluence thanks to being home to Bank of America and Duke Energy.

Two cities could not be more different. Although Charlotte is more populous (731,524 vs. 608,660), Seattle seems like the bigger city, partly because Seattle is denser and Charlotte is sprawled out and car-dependent. So lessons for Charlotte? Continuous reinvention and economic diversity (don’t be dependent on the banks), stewardship and non-profit strength, seek global business and love your downtown. The Queen City, as Charlotte styles itself (ironic, given our former monicker), is not going to get Bill Gates or Bill Boeing or world-class software, bio-tech and world health clusters. It won’t get a port. The suburban University of North Carolina at Charlotte is no UW.

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Comments | More in Aerospace/Boeing, Deficit, Downtown and urban issues, Eurozone, Federal debt/deficit, Labor unions, Microsoft, Urban issues

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.

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

September 27, 2010 at 10:31 AM

South Lake Union as powerful economic engine

If you missed it, check out this article (with map) by the Seattle Times’ Eric Pryne on the transformation of South Lake Union. For all the controversy among locals, the combination of Paul Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate, Amazon.com and the biotech sector show off some of the key strengths of the Seattle economy.

A wealthy steward who could invest anywhere — and get plenty of incentives from cities and suburbs anywhere — but chooses to do so in the heart of his hometown. A major corporate headquarters that could locate out on a freeway but chooses the dense, creative landscape of the city. The diverse bio cluster that also thrives in the city. Other companies including Group Health add to the high-wage jobs there. It’s a powerful combination, and one that most cities don’t have.

I remember getting a call from a journalist in Phoenix because Allen had bought a defunct building in a suburb; would Allen “do there what he had done in Seattle?” I doubted it because the Phoenix area lacks the economic assets to fill a South Lake Union-like development. It has an Amazon warehouse, to be sure. But it lacks the talent, the companies and the education level to operate at Seattle’s level, even though it is a larger city and metro.

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Comments | More in Amazon.com, Biotech, Downtown and urban issues

June 8, 2010 at 9:20 AM

If City Hall blunders, here’s the sky bridge to nowhere

So let me get this straight: In the worst environment for retailers, particularly department stores, in decades, City Hall wants to add a burden on the Macy’s store that is already, at least by appearances, struggling.

As the Seattle Times’ Emily Heffter reports, the city has jacked up the fee for the sky bridge connected the former Bon Marche to its parking garage from $300 to $31,185 a year, and on a timeline (two years) that implies higher fees will come in the future. Store officials are deciding whether the money is worth it.

I’m all for walkability and New Urbanism, but downtown Seattle is hardly Minneapolis, with miles of warren-like tunnels and sky bridges that keep people off the streets (for good reason, given the Minnesota winter). Instead, downtown is a critical economic and civic asset facing unprecedented competition from the suburbs, particularly Bellevue. It is also caught in a historic retail downturn that hit just as the center city was losing thousands of well-paid headquarters jobs. Macy’s masters in Cincinnati are certainly not pleasantly disposed to downtown stores.

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