Redoing Pacific Place as offices is only the start to a downtown comeback

I’ll be blue imagining Pacific Place converted from an urban retail center to offices, but I’m a sentimental kind of guy. I’m also told most guys don’t like shopping, but that was never me.

After arriving here in 2007, I was wowed by the array of downtown shopping — the kind that had been eliminated from most American cities from the late 1950s on by suburban malls — and especially the flagship Nordstrom connected to Pacific Place by a skybridge.

I spent hours there shopping at its many stores, taking in a movie at the AMC multiplex theater, eating at Johnny Rockets (don’t judge).

Yet Pacific Place is likely on the way out as a retail center, according to a recent story by my colleagues Paul Roberts and Heidi Groover.

Hudson Pacific Properties of Los Angeles has filed for permits with the city to convert most of the center to offices. The filings also state that the developer is contemplating “adding 1 to 3 towers on top of the existing structure, potentially residential, office and/or hotel.”

According to the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce, which first reported the project, Hudson Pacific is the “prospective buyer” of Pacific Place. Washington, DC-based Madison Marquette is still the owner.

More than downtown stores wowed me about Seattle. Most of all, I was impressed by the city’s unusual talent for reinvention. Pacific Place exemplified that.

Downtown was in decline in the early 1990s, following the 1992 closing of premier department store Frederick & Nelson. Within two years, the high-end I. Magnin department store shut down across the street.

according to an article on HistoryLink, “Nearby buildings that once housed small businesses … stood vacant, covered in graffiti and sheltering a growing homeless population. Crime soared, city tax revenues slumped.”

This reinvention involved a complicated series of redevelopments: Frederick’s was turned into the flagship Nordstrom, the old smaller Nordstrom converted to mixed-use, Pine Street reopened to vehicles, and Pacific Place was constructed across from the new Nordy’s. Mayor Norm Rice, the City Council, developer Matt Griffin and partners, along with other civic leaders made it happen. included was a controversial underground parking garagepaid for by the city.

In August 1998, the new Nordstrom opened, followed two months later by Pacific Place. Both were big successes.

According to HistoryLink, “Griffin points out that while the local notables did eventually make money on the Pacific Place deal, their willingness to invest in the mid-1990s was a huge act of faith and love for their city. … They would not have taken this risk if Seattle wasn’t their hometown.”

Along with Benaroya Hall and the Washington State Convention Center, Pacific Place was critical to downtown’s renaissance.

Now downtown is in trouble again, especially from the pandemic, but also from rising crime and neglect by the City Council.

According to the Downtown Seattle Association’s Recovery Scorecardoffice workers on May 1 were at 33% of the equivalent week in 2019. This cohort is critical to retail with employees shopping during lunch or coming and going from work.

Just before the pandemic hit, downtown retail was facing challenges, highlighted by the closing of Macy’s and Bed Bath & Beyond. The core was “over-stored” and losing customers to University Village and Bellevue. Pacific Place had lost Williams-Sonoma, Barnes & Noble, Victoria’s Secret, Coach, Restoration Hardware and Barneys.

Now, Amazon’s penetration of retail shopping has increased dramatically because of the pandemic.

And even though workers are slow to return to the office, demand remains for more office space. Hence the plan for Pacific Place.

The optimistic view is it will take a while for people to come back. It’s a chicken and egg thing. But the key is to make downtown fun and attractive. Our leading edge is the entertainment industry.

That’s broadly speaking, not only Benaroya Hall, Jazz Alley and the Seattle Art Museum, but also Pike Place Market, sports and tourists. Completion of light rail to the Eastside will bring Bellevue residents here.

Or that’s the hope.

In 2000, Edward L. Glaeser, Jed Kolko and Albert Saiz wrote a piece for the Harvard Institute of Economic Research. It was entitled Consumer Cities. The yeast was that places with plenty of amenities and density were positioned to flourish compared with cities in the 20th century that depended on manufacturing.

They argued that “the future of cities increasingly depends on whether cities are attractive places for consumers to live. … If cities are to remain strong, they must attract workers on the basis of quality of life as well as on the basis of higher wages. It seems clear that some cities are managing to be successful consumer ports, but that many will not.”

That may be the future of downtown Seattle.

As for retail, the ambition is to compete by offering a top-notch street-level experience, not by offering the best mall. And we need to be thinking about how we geographically stretch the street-level retail core experience to Rainier Square and Pioneer Square.

For all this, construction of the First Avenue streetcar is essential. so is reclaiming Third Avenuewhich was worst hit by crime, looting and organized shoplifting (the latter also contributing to Macy’s and Bed Bath & Beyond’s closing).

People must feel safe downtown. So Mayor Bruce Harrell’s emphasis on addressing crime is even more important to a new reinvention than whatever the future of Pacific Place.

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