From Pandemic to Prosperity: Downtowns Reimagined

On September 29, PSRC was joined by 150 participants for its 2023 Transit-Oriented Development event. This year’s event focused on the recovery of downtowns and communities from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and the effort to reimagine and revitalize downtowns and other transit-oriented places. The event consisted of a hybrid remote/in-person morning session of speakers and an afternoon set of walking tours around downtown Seattle.

Reimagining downtown Seattle

Markham McIntyre, Director of Office of Economic Development at the City of Seattle, opened with the importance of downtown for not only Seattle, but also the region’s and state’s economic development. Markham established a core theme of the event with an emphasis on people. People make downtowns and downtowns run on people.

The director talked about Seattle’s efforts to capture people’s energy, including making downtown more fun with efforts like pickleball and basketball on public streets. He presented data and news on how there is a 50% return to office rate, over 100,000 residents in downtown Seattle, a large upzone on 3rd Avenue, a proposed $8.6 million for downtown activation in the Mayor’s budget, and coming installations of more public art. He highlighted future and past major milestones for downtown’s recovery, like major upcoming events, the memorial stadium redevelopment project, incoming aquarium expansion and waterfront redevelopment, and the opening of the Seattle Convention Center expansion.

What the data tells us about the pandemic’s effect

Dr. Brian Lee, PSRC, introduced a panel of academics armed with data on what’s happened in and around downtowns. Dr. Karen Chapple of the University of Toronto opened the panel with downtowns’ history of bounce backs, whether it be from fire or other disasters. Even in today’s climate, she showed data that indicates that employment density is critical, that downtowns continued high prices show demand, and that Europe’s downtowns have rebounded and are performing better than pre-pandemic figures. Europe’s downtowns function more as cultural centers rather than employment monocultures. The professor argued for the diversification of downtown economies and land uses, away from the single use office districts typical of American downtowns.

Dr. Tracy Hadden Loh of Brookings Metro reminded participants that downtowns aren’t the sole economic centers of a local economy, showing maps of other strong neighborhood activity centers outside of central downtowns. Nevertheless, even with that activity, downtowns continue to be the epicenter of employment. Dr. Hadden Loh reinforced Dr. Chapple’s data on the importance of employment density with data that shows that increased employment density is correlated with increased productivity. Lastly, Hadden Loh showed that only 23% of trips were for commuting, emphasizing that transit needs to serve trips other than downtown commuting.

Land use chart of activity centers from Brookings.


Dr. Cynthia Chen of the University of Washington presented data expanding on how trips were being made and for what purposes. Specifically, she demonstrated how those working from home or telecommuters travel. People working from home make fewer trips, but a greater percentage of those were non-mandatory trips like shopping and recreation. These trips were simpler than those made by commuters, meaning that they made more trips that started at one location, went to another, and then returned to the first location as opposed to a complicated chain of trips. Telecommuters also travel less than commuters, traveling only an average of 13 miles per day compared to 18.6 miles for commuters. Their travel is also more clustered around home. In addition, trips made by telecommuters were more spread out across the day rather than concentrated in morning and afternoon peak periods.

A local perspective on downtowns

Moderated by ULI Northwest Executive Director Andrea Newton, community leaders and professionals spoke on how they saw the pandemic and recovery on the ground. The day’s theme of getting people downtown was emphasized as the panel discussed efforts to transport, connect, and engage people.

Michelle Allison, General Manager of King County Metro Transit, discussed the work to keep people moving on buses and the need to adjust to new movement patterns with the number of home-based workers in the region. Lyle Bicknell, Principal Urban Planner at Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development, talked about making downtown a place where people want to be rather than the place where people need to be. Bothell Mayor Mason Thompson emphasized that people go where there is joy and community. His city’s efforts pedestrianized a block of downtown and opened up required parking for street dining. Brendan Nelson, prominent Tacoma community leader and Director of Community Engagement Outreach of Peace Lutheran Church Tacoma, discussed the need to engage with community members and a community effort, in the face of gentrification, to save the Hilltop neighborhood’s retail core of small businesses with an organized “crawl” to promote local patronage.

2023 TOD event panelists speaking on changes to downtowns following the pandemic.
A panel of local voices discussing change during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the topic of change, the panel emphasized the need to not take no for an answer. Change is possible without catalyst events such as the pandemic. Mayor Thompson emphasized that people are the solution that needed change is looking for, and Seattle’s Lyle Bicknell looked forward to a potential highway lid of I-5 and more diverse uses and activities downtown. Michelle Allison hoped to see improved transportation infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians, as both also take the bus. Brendan Nelson emphasized that with all this change, community should be listened to as they have their ears to the ground.

Representative Julia Reed on the importance of downtowns

After the panels, Washington State Representative Julia Reed of the 36th district joined the event for lunch and expressed her love for downtown Seattle. Reed emphasized that people define downtown, that downtown is a space for people rather than cars. She went further to suggest that the cure to loneliness we see so prevalent today is in downtowns. Like previous presenters, she advocated for diverse uses beyond office and shopping.

Representative Reed concluded her remarks with an example of Westbank’s major development effort in First Hill on land that once belonged to the Archdiocese of Seattle. The deal is expected to result in four high rises that will potentially include 1,300 housing units and meet the Archdiocese’s sustainability goals. Partnerships with faith groups and other non-profit landowners are important tools to address the critical challenge of providing affordable housing in expensive markets.

House Representative Julia Reed (right) with Robin Koskey, PSRC's Director of Government Relations and Communications (left).
Washington State Representative Julia Reed of the 36th District (right) with Robin Koskey, PSRC's Director of Government Relations and Communications.

A Pike Pine Renaissance

In the afternoon, Pike Pine Renaissance walking tour attendees were welcomed into several public spaces inside and outside of private office and residential towers. This included 2+U, Cedar Hall, and the Rainier Square Tower.

2023 TOD event walking tour participants visting Cedar Hall.
The Pike Pine walking tour visits Cedar Hall.

Architects from ZGF spoke about their work on the Pike Pine Streetscape and Bike Improvements that will connect Capitol Hill and the waterfront with bike lanes, reimagined pedestrian facilities, and public art. Kirk Hovenkotter of Commute Seattle spoke to attendees about their 2022 Seattle Commute Survey Results, which strongly emphasize Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday as the days were people are returning to the office. Attendees also learned about the Third Ave Vision, which seeks to revitalize the street by shifting some bus traffic to 2nd Avenue and 4th Avenue, expanding sidewalks, allowing for street activation like street cafes, new street furniture, and planting trees.

A vision to rebuild the King County Campus

Another set of attendees toured the Civic Center area of downtown Seattle, looking at several new and upcoming development projects and the potential for a major overhaul of the King County Civic Campus. The tour included the newly renovated and expanded Federal Reserve building, the Bosa development site adjacent to Seattle City Hall, and the site for The Net.

2023 TOD event walking tour participants vising the Federal Reserve Building.
The Civic Campus walking tour visits the historic Federal Reserve building.

The Martin Selig Real Estate company restored the historic Federal Reserve Building and rebuilt it with seven additional stories. The building, once home to a branch of the Federal Reserve Bank complete with massive vaults and the FBI, now houses 200,000 square feet of office space and the old vaults have been converted into unique meeting spaces. The Net is a planned 36-story office and retail development at Third and Marion, the former site of a two-story food court building. The long-considered Bosa development project, on city property at Third and Cherry above the Pioneer Square light rail station, is planned to be a 57-story tower with 422 condominiums and a half-acre public plaza.

The tour group also considered the potential changes to the King County Courthouse, the vacant Administration Building, and the county jail. The Administration Building site is being considered for a future light rail station, making it a prime opportunity for transit-oriented development. Combined with reuse of the jail site and redevelopment of the adjacent Bosa site, the three blocks could see a major transformation of Downtown Seattle and be a key anchor to two light rail stations. Ideally, these developments would create the ability to restore historic features of the King County courthouse, including the majestic entrance on the south side of the building. The common entrance today is the building’s side entrance on Third Avenue and the “main” entrance is used as a service area.

Resources and going forward

A big thank you from PSRC to the speakers and attendees that made this event a success. The TOD event was just a microcosm of a core theme of the day, bringing people together and into downtown to help revitalize the critical transit-oriented center that is downtown. Events of a much greater scale are coming to the region’s downtowns, such as the 2026 FIFA World Cup, but a take-away from the day is that a diversity of uses like housing and pickleball also bring people into downtowns. Major opportunities to reimagine downtown land uses are also coming, with the central Puget Sound region's municipalities and counties completing their 2024 comprehensive plan updates. Local plan updates provide community members with an opportunity to let their leaders know how the region's downtowns should grow and evolve.

More information about the event, such as a video recording of the morning session, panelist presentations, and other resources, can be found on the event webpage, From Pandemic to Prosperity: Downtowns Reimagined.

Please contact Shaun Kuo for inquiries, suggestions, and comments about the TOD event and PSRC’s newsletter, Talkin' TOD, including ideas for future stories.