Aug 8, 2023 - Business

Seattle's downtown recovery has continued to lag other metros

Downtown Seattle foot traffic recovery
Data: University of Toronto; Note: Seasons are March-May (spring), June-August (summer), September-November (fall) and December-February (winter); Visitors determined by counting unique mobile phones in ZIP codes with high employee density; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Foot traffic in downtown Seattle from March to May was at roughly 46% of pre-pandemic levels, making Seattle's downtown recovery one of the weakest among 63 cities analyzed by researchers at the University of Toronto.

Yes, but: Downtown boosters and businesses have noted a rise in foot traffic and credit card transactions since early May, when Amazon workers began returning to the office — a timeframe not fully covered by the University of Toronto analysis.

Why it matters: Downtowns are typically the beating economic heart of a city, funneling revenue into city coffers via tax revenue from businesses, residents and tourists alike, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Kavya Beheraj write.

The big picture: Several U.S. cities with diverse downtowns — meaning, a healthy mixture of office space, housing, attractions and so on — have nearly returned to, or even exceeded, their pre-pandemic foot traffic rates.

  • For instance, Salt Lake City and El Paso saw their downtown activity from March to May exceed 2019 levels, per the University of Toronto analysis, which is based on anonymized mobile phone activity (read about the researchers' methodology here.)
  • Seattle's recovery, meanwhile, placed it 55th of the 63 cities analyzed in the U.S. and Canada.

By the numbers: While Seattle has been among the cities that have been slower to recover than others, June seemed to mark a turning point, data from the Downtown Seattle Association suggests.

  • June saw the highest level of weekday worker foot traffic since the start of the pandemic, reaching 54% of June 2019 numbers, according to the DSA.
  • Nearly 3 million visitors were recorded downtown in June, 96% of the visitor total in June 2019 and the second-highest month for visitors since March 2020.
  • Hotel room demand in June surpassed 2019 levels.
  • Similar numbers from July and August are not yet available.

Zoom in: Seattle is one of many cities working to diversify its downtown, with rejuvenation plans focused partly on fostering a growing residential population.

  • Earlier this year, Mayor Bruce Harrell held a contest calling for proposals to convert unused downtown office space to housing.
  • City officials say they're studying the three winning proposals to identify policy changes that could make it easier to complete these types of office conversion projects in the future.
  • The mayor also has proposed allowing taller residential towers on key downtown blocks to boost the number of people living there.

What we're watching: Whether summer foot traffic numbers suggest that the return of Amazon workers — or some of City Hall's efforts — are making a lasting impact downtown.

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