May 5, 2023 - Business

Amazon workers' return could boost sluggish downtown recovery

Mobile device activity in select downtown areas compared to pre-pandemic levels
Data: University of Toronto; Chart: Alice Feng/Axios

Seattle's downtown activity remained far below pre-pandemic levels from December to February, according to an analysis of mobile device data.

Yes, but: Downtown businesses and civic boosters are hoping this week's return of Amazon employees to in-person work will help reverse the trend over time.

Why it matters: Downtowns became ghost towns during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic as people sought to "flatten the curve" by staying home.

  • Even as the pandemic ebbs, the era of remote and hybrid work it ushered in means fewer people visiting restaurants, bars and shops — which has had big implications for downtown economies.

Zoom in: Foot traffic in downtown Seattle from December to February was roughly half of what it was three years earlier, from late 2019 to early 2020.

  • That's according to anonymized mobile device connectivity data analyzed by researchers at the University of Toronto's School of Cities.
  • Seattle ranked 51st among the 63 cities analyzed when it came to how much its downtown has rebounded.

Of note: The university researchers essentially treated smartphones and other mobile devices as a proxy for their owners.

  • "Downtown" was defined as areas of a given city with the highest employment density.

Latest: Some downtown Seattle business owners say they've started to notice changes since May 1, the date Amazon began requiring most employees to come to the office at least three days per week.

  • Roz Edison, co-owner of Marination, told Axios that her location in Amazon's Doppler building at Sixth Avenue and Virginia Street saw a noticeable increase in customers Tuesday.
  • "The parking lot was full," Edison said, adding that the building garage "has been empty the past two years."

Happy hour business also was up this week at The Victor Tavern near the Amazon Spheres, Ethan Stowell, CEO of Ethan Stowell Restaurants, told Axios.

  • He called the return of Amazon employees "hugely important to downtown businesses."

Zoom out: Downtown activity has returned to — or even exceeded — pre-pandemic rates in a handful of U.S. cities, but most are still struggling to attract the foot traffic they once did, according to the University of Toronto analysis.

  • Salt Lake City (139%); Bakersfield, California (118%) and Fresno, California (115%) had among the country's highest post-pandemic downtown recovery rates as of February (the most recent data available), as measured by estimated foot traffic.
  • San Francisco (32%), St. Louis (38%) and Portland, Oregon (40%) had among the lowest.

What we're watching: Time will tell how much of this week's uptick in business was due to Amazon workers returning and how much was due to Seattle's recent bout of sunny weather, Stowell said.

  • Edison said she hopes to see a continued bump in business from Tuesdays through Thursdays, which she assumes will serve as many Amazon workers' in-office days.
  • Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, told Axios that as downtown begins filling up again, he thinks more companies may follow Amazon's lead in requiring workers to come back to the office.
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