Rantz: Downtown Seattle is on life support, but media, politicians turn a blind eye to root causes

Jun 25, 2024, 5:55 PM

downtown Seattle dying...

Homeless gather around a McDonald's located on Third Avenue in Seattle's downtown. (Photo: Jason Rantz, KTTH)

(Photo: Jason Rantz, KTTH)

Despite protestations by progressives that conservatives are overstating the despair of downtown Seattle, the neighborhood is dying, but on life support. Walk downtown and you’ll see a neighborhood that is quickly returning to the hellscape it became during COVID-19. Too bad neither the media, nor the people in charge, seem willing to admit the truth about what’s happening as the downtown Seattle real estate market collapses.

Last week, reports in The Seattle Times painted grim pictures of the commercial and residential real estate market in downtown Seattle. One article pointed to astonishingly low price tags for previously pricey commercial buildings, including the near-empty Pacific Place Mall and the Downtown Hilton. A second article noted the price of homes downtown is trending lower than the costs citywide

The articles give some thoughts on why the value is so low. But neither tell you the truth: Homelessness, drug use and crime are the main culprits. None of these issues get so much as a mention. If we’re going to keep our heads buried in the sand, why would anyone think the situation will improve?

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Is COVID-19 to blame for real estate market collapsing in downtown Seattle?

The recent sale of the downtown Seattle Hilton is a glaring indicator of the city’s post-pandemic struggles.

The once-thriving hotel sold for 15% less than what it was purchased for in 2016. This isn’t just about one hotel; it’s a broader sign of the city’s faltering recovery. Pacific Place Mall was sold for $66.75 million in May, far below the $271 million it fetched when it was last sold in 2014. Office buildings remain half-empty as remote work becomes the norm, draining the downtown area of its usual bustling energy. Businesses that relied on office workers and tourists are struggling to stay afloat. 

In The Seattle Times’ piece, Paul Roberts argued the downtown Seattle crisis is a result of the pandemic’s economic impact. 

Meanwhile, downtown Seattle home prices have taken a nosedive, now cheaper than the citywide average for the first time in nearly a decade. Downtown housing was once a hot commodity thanks to its walkability to work, retail and entertainment. The soaring prices reflected the high demand. That’s no longer the case.

In The Seattle Times, Gene Balk borrows a familiar argument: This stark shift underscores the lingering impact of the pandemic.

Neither article is telling the public the truth about the crisis. Downtown Seattle is dying because of the congruence of homelessness, drugs and crime, not a non-existent lingering COVID-19 effect.

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Downtown Seattle is dying because of homelessness, drugs and crime 

Out-of-control homelessness, fueled by drug addiction and a leading contributor to the rise in crime, is keeping people away from downtown Seattle. It’s a key reason why the downtown Seattle real estate market, both commercial and residential, is imploding.

Commercial real estate is selling at deep discounts because the spaces are empty. Whether it’s a mall that has few operating stores, boarded-up restaurants and clothing stores or empty hotel rooms, if you don’t have foot traffic and visitors, the land loses its value. Why are these spaces empty? It’s not safe to shop in the area with homeless criminals, it’s not appetizing to eat a meal next to a passed-out fentanyl addict who soiled himself and no one wants to visit a downtown core that’s become such a blight.

The same is true of housing in downtown Seattle. What is the value of a high walkability score if you’re too scared to walk places after dark? What is the benefit of a downtown high-rise condo if the intense smell of urine wafts into your living room when you open your balcony door?

Similarly, businesses have allowed their workforce to continue to work remotely. It’s hard to keep employees if they’re not safe during their morning and afternoon commutes out of downtown Seattle.

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Seattle leaders continue to ignore the crisis for other progressive policies that will fail

The sale prices of the Hilton and Pacific Place Mall, the empty offices and hotel rooms and cheaper housing should be a sobering moment for local leaders. If it is, you wouldn’t be able to tell.

While Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell once focused on the downtown core after a series of high-profile gun violence, Third Street, between Pike and Pine, has returned to its previous unsafe, unsanitary conditions. Homeless addicts are strewn about and it’s not a safe place for locals or tourists. Harrell’s office allowed it to return to this sad, sorry state.

Harrell’s office has been an impediment to progress. Not even a considerably more business-friendly and moderate city council can make up for it. Rather than do what’s necessary and lead, Harrell instead delegates much of the work to his trusted staff members like Deputy Mayor Tim Burgess. But they’re not doing his office any favors; when they fail — and they have failed — Harrell gets and deserves the blame. What’s the latest plan? Turning the empty offices into housing. 

Harrell’s plan to convert empty office spaces into housing is a desperate move that barely scratches the surface of the city’s deeper issues. This feel-good initiative ignores the root problems that drove people away in the first place. Conversions won’t magically make the area safer or more attractive for people to visit. It’s a band-aid solution from a leadership more focused on optics than real change. And we’re supposed to go without a neighborhood that is an economic powerhouse? Amazon in South Lake Union isn’t the answer — they’re moving staff to Bellevue.

We could just clean up downtown and enforce the law. But that takes political willpower and bucking the progressive agenda. Harrell’s office has been too focused on progressive policies than practical solutions to attract businesses and residents back. If Seattle doesn’t address its core issues — safety, homelessness and economic revitalization — it risks a prolonged downturn; one that can become permanent.

Listen to “The Jason Rantz Show” on weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow Jason on X, formerly known as TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

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Rantz: Downtown Seattle is on life support, but media, politicians turn a blind eye to root causes