Sean Turner was on his phone in the lobby of a downtown Seattle hotel last year when a woman slapped his iPad off a table, then took his AirPods case. The reason: She wanted money, and Turner told her he didn’t have any.
“That’s not really something you have to deal with in other cities I’ve visited,” said Turner, the co-founder and CTO of Swiftly, a Seattle retail software provider valued at more than $1 billion.
Swiftly had already jettisoned its downtown offices early in the pandemic and moved to smaller digs in the nearby First Hill neighborhood. The company’s 150 employees now work almost exclusively remote. When its teams need to meet face-to-face, Turner said, the company rents space at WeWork.
Ongoing concerns about safety and the rise of remote work are two trends keeping tech workers from returning to downtown Seattle in anything resembling pre-pandemic numbers. More than 30 months after COVID-19 emptied office towers, it’s still unclear whether employees are coming back — and if downtown Seattle should reimagine itself without them.
The pandemic reshaped downtown centers across the country. Some have bounced back even stronger than before, while others are struggling.
Worker foot traffic in downtown Seattle last month was less than 40% of that in October 2019, and the percentage has dropped since August, according to data from the Downtown Seattle Association.
As companies settle into hybrid work, future office demand remains “a big question,” Kidder Mathews wrote in a recent report, adding that the Seattle office market continues to see high vacancy.
“A new threat has taken hold of leasing activity with WFH becoming firmly embedded in company culture throughout the area,” Broderick Group said in its third quarter report.
Many companies are ditching their downtown space or downsizing substantially. Security and networking giant F5 previously had all 515,518 square feet in the F5 Tower, but is now subleasing six floors and redesigned its offices to accommodate hybrid work.
“Our office occupancy is significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels,” said Rob Gruening, F5’s senior director of corporate communications.
Some tech leaders say ongoing crime is also hurting downtown Seattle’s image as an attractive hub for tech companies.
“Seattle Crime Keeps Tech Workers Away as Police Move in,” read a Bloomberg headline in April.
Shootings are up by 20% in downtown this year compared to 2021. Last year violent crime rose 20% across the city.
Amazon earlier this year told around 1,800 employees at a downtown Seattle office they could work at an alternative location due to crime. The company, which has more than 50,000 corporate employees in Seattle, also closed a downtown Amazon Go store in August — the space is now advertised for lease — and one of its engineers was hit on the head with a baseball bat while walking in Belltown.
In a survey of 700 registered voters commissioned by the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce this fall, 70% said they feel less safe in the city than they did two years ago, compared to 73% in another survey conducted in March. Just 28% of respondents said they’d feel safe visiting downtown Seattle at night.
“Seattle is in crisis in a whole bunch of different areas,” said Heather Redman, managing partner at Seattle venture capital firm Flying Fish Partners. “I can’t think of a city where I feel less safe.”
Redman, who has lived in downtown Seattle for more than a decade and previously chaired the Greater Seattle Chamber, said violence has worsened to the point where authorities should consider bringing in the U.S. National Guard to bolster the ranks of an understaffed Seattle Police Department.
However, increased police activity and other actions have helped improve recent conditions in downtown, residents told the Seattle Times.
Greg Gottesman, managing director of Pioneer Square Labs, said the area has felt safer. PSL was burglarized during the pandemic, but Gottesman remains optimistic.
“I do think there’s safety in numbers,” he said. “As more people come back to work and there’s more activity, I think it’ll get better.”
While some companies are giving up their leases, others are growing their downtown footprint or opening new offices.
Remitly, a digital remittance company that went public last year, recently expanded its office. Seattle startups such as Stackline and Tasso inked new leases. Delivery giant DoorDash just opened a new engineering center.
Orchard Workspace, a co-working space operator run by real estate giant JLL, last month opened a new 35,000 square-foot location at Westlake Tower across two floors previously occupied by WeWork. It is seeing “overwhelming demand” since opening in early October.
“We acknowledge there is still room to improve the perception of public safety in the downtown core, but we are encouraged by the progress we’ve seen over the course of 2022 and will help to progress the conversation,” said Tyler Hall, a manager with Unico, which owns the property where Orchard is leasing space.
But the recent surge in tech company layoffs and hiring slowdowns may curb new office growth, at least in the near future.
Regardless, Redman said downtown Seattle can’t rely on tech companies to remain relevant. She believes hybrid work is here to stay and office space will remain empty. Downtown needs to be reimagined, she said, and focus needs to move away from trying to convince workers to come back.
“We’re fighting the last war instead of looking to the future,” she said. “We need to double down on making downtown a really great place to live as opposed to making it a place where we fill up every office space.”
Urban expert Richard Florida has a similar take. During a keynote speech at Downtown Seattle Association’s annual luncheon earlier this year, Florida argued that a modern urban downtown should be about community and connectivity more than only about working.
He said downtown needs to work on the amenities found in other neighborhoods where people linger such as parks and open spaces mixed with retail. The future of downtown is to make it a place where people stay, he said, and not a place where people only work.
“Seattle is perfectly placed to make this change,” he said.
Speaking at the GeekWire Summit last month, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell noted that downtown won’t look the same as before.
“I’m trying to encourage employers to get folks back, develop the energy and synergy that we need,” Harrell said. “But the fact of the matter is, there will never be the good ‘ol days where everyone’s downtown working.”
Harrell said he’s trying to figure out how to incentivize people to be downtown in the new age of hybrid work.
“I cannot mandate people to come downtown unless there’s something to drive them there,” the mayor said, adding that he’s concerned about the tax revenue loss due to remote work.
Harrell met with a group of tech executives earlier this year to discuss the state of downtown Seattle. Faisal Masud, CEO of Seattle e-commerce startup Fabric, said he was encouraged by the meeting and some of the mayor’s efforts to improve safety.
“He’s not messing around,” Masul said. “He’s actually doing good work. I feel like he’s executing on what he said.”
But it may not be enough to attract tech companies to stay downtown or relocate to the area. Take Fabric, for example. The startup planned to move from nearby Bellevue into Seattle, but now it doesn’t have a permanent office and works out of a co-working space.
Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association, called on the city council to reinvigorate downtown’s restaurant and arts scenes.
“They’re going to downsize, and they have a lot of options,” Schutzler said of downtown’s tech companies. “They’re not leaving tomorrow. It’s not hollowed out now. But give it five years and it’s going to look pretty bad.”
It remains to be seen how downtown Seattle will continue to evolve, with or without tech companies and workers.
“We are absolutely on the right track here,” said Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association. “But we’re still at a fragile point.”