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Downtown Seattle Gains Housing, Loses Jobs And Retail

Amy Radil

Jobs and retail sales are struggling in downtown Seattle, according to the latest report from the Downtown Seattle Association. But leaders point to new apartment construction, as well as growth in gaming and life sciences jobs, as reasons for hope.


Kate Joncas is president of the Downtown Seattle Association. She called the numbers in the business group's latest economic report "tough data" for neighborhoods downtown. Speaking before dozens of corporate leaders Thursday Joncas said while the Puget Sound region gained 60,000 jobs in the last decade, downtown Seattle lost 21,000 jobs. She said during those years shoppers have also favored local malls over downtown.

Joncas: "In retail, someone is definitely eating our pie. We've got much more competition than 10 years ago and we're not just talking online. Consider that between 2005 and 2009, taxable retail sales increased 86 percent at Northgate, 18 percent at [University] Village, increased 14 percent at Alderwood and decreased 3 percent in downtown Seattle."

But Joncas noted that several apartment projects are underway or in the works downtown where vacancy rates are lower than in the rest of Seattle or King County.

Young entrepreneurs like John Vechey told the crowd they were attracted to the vibrancy of downtown Seattle as a place to live and work. Vechey is co–founder of PopCap Games, which employs over 200 people in Belltown. He says one of the most difficult factors for downtown tenants is uncertainty over the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Vechey: "The viaduct tunnel construction stress — there's a huge amount of stress that I don't think people realize, is it happening, is it not, is it a tunnel, should I move to West Seattle? We actually advise employees right now, until it gets figured out what to do, don't look at West Seattle. That's a shame."

Mayor Mike McGinn told the gathering he is working on programs to make empty lots and storefronts more vibrant with temporary uses. One proposal before City Council would allow more parking on lots with stalled construction projects. In exchange, owners would dedicate space for food vendors, retail kiosks, or even sports courts. McGinn said he also supports changing city rules to allow more corporate signs and logos on buildings.

McGinn: "Signs on top of buildings — I think it's okay to say in Seattle that commerce happens here. So we're for that."

Downtown Seattle Association leaders put special attention on Pioneer Square and the International District. They say those places have the highest rate of retail vacancies downtown and need more market rate and affordable housing to become healthier neighborhoods.

I'm Amy Radil, KUOW News.

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