Downtown Seattle and the headquarters of Amazon during the COVID-19 pandemic. (GeekWire photo / Kurt Schlosser)
The plywood is falling off, restaurants that have survived add hours, and vehicle traffic in Seattle is growing from the ghost towns a year ago. With downtown, Belltown, and South Lake Union ready for tens of thousands of employees to return to their skyscrapers, cafes, and sidewalks, a handful of questions remain unanswered.
Has the pandemic changed Seattle’s central business district or will the deep sleep dissolve in the coming year? Will companies require workers to return to the office and will they need to be vaccinated? And is downtown ready to accept all – or even part – of the 350,000 workers who left 15 months ago?
The answer depends on who is asked.
In late March, Amazon released a statement confirming it was an office business and that commuter and cabin culture will resume in the fall – a crucial boost to the liveliness of downtown Seattle businesses affected by the pandemic were haunted. In the past year, brick and mortar retail jobs fell 65%, according to data from the Downtown Seattle Association.
Zillow, which had 2,700 office workers in a building on Second Avenue and Union Street prior to the pandemic, is taking a hybrid approach with some workers returning only intermittently.
And some companies say no, we won’t be back. Some are happy to terminate their leases and relocate their employees to full remote work, while others remain preoccupied with crime and homelessness. Seattle startup Ad Lightning, for example, canceled its lease in downtown Seattle last year and has no plans to return.
GeekWire Virtual Event on Wednesday: Compassion Seattle: Is This the Road to Homelessness Solution?
“What I have observed over the past five to ten years in particular is an attitude in Seattle that I would call ‘anti-business’ and ‘anti-job’, and which has certainly accelerated in recent years,” said Ad Lightning. Founder Scott Moore said on a recent GeekWire podcast. “And it’s unfortunate.”
GeekWire emailed a handful of tech company executives about their plans to return to the downtown Seattle office, and their mixed responses reflect the diverse approaches taken after working remotely for more than a year.
Jodi Ellias, vice president of marketing at Payscale, said the compensation research firm abandoned its Seattle office lease during the pandemic but will return to downtown with a smaller footprint and a plan that aims to mirror Zillow’s approach.
“Payscale plans to eventually … occupy a more collaborative workspace in the Seattle area that supports hybrid work scenarios,” she said. Payscale had 160 out of 600 employees in the downtown area, she said. The company does not yet have a fixed number of how many employees go to the office every day. No vaccines are required for staff to return.
Ellias said she’s looking forward to some office hours this summer for one big reason: She hasn’t met a single member of her 10-person team in person after being hired in May.
At the other end of the scale is Textio. The writing improvement services company will not base any of its 90 employees in downtown Seattle. Co-founder and CEO Kieran Snyder, who will speak about the Seattle homeless crisis at a GeekWire event on Wednesday, said Textio will not be bringing full-time employees back to downtown Seattle or downtown.
“We’re considering adding a touchdown room to team members who want to meet in person,” she said. “But we will be distributed first; More of our employees want flexibility than not.
“We don’t plan to have a single HQ with remote satellites.” As a result, she said, Textio will not require any vaccinations from its employees.
A lone bicycle commuter on a morning ride through Seattle on 2nd Avenue in front of Zillow’s offices. (GeekWire Photo / John Cook)
It remains unclear whether the departures of Textio and Ad Lightning from the city center are an exception for technology companies. However, representatives of large commercial real estate firms are certain that someone will want the extra space that the downsizing creates. Lisa Stewart, Seattle-based executive director of real estate giant JLL, said the notion that downtowns are dead is vastly exaggerated.
“The headlines were that all of the coastal cities that led the (boom) last cycle were going to collapse (because) they were all moving to different places,” she said in an online conference last week. “We always talked about it as the three Bs – everyone moves to Boise, Bend and Boseman.”
But the reality was very different. While some people have moved to these places, the actual movement data inundated the anecdotes.
Stewart said Seattle drew more people to the city in 2020 than it did in 2019. The numbers suggest Seattle likely benefited from the exodus from New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. And because the region has retained its wealth of talent in cloud computing, AI, and gaming, it will continue to attract tech companies, she said. “The more (talent) we have, the more we get,” she said.
Combating crime and homelessness
Representatives of the companies surveyed expressed concern about the homeless problem in the city center and what the city and companies can do to improve it. “We are very concerned and saddened by the growing homelessness crisis in Seattle,” said Lisa Chan, communications director for Seattle-based Amperity.
“More needs to be done to help those affected find more permanent shelter and psychological support,” she added. “We are aware that there is still a lot to be done to ensure public safety so that our team members can get into the city center safely and commute safely.”
With the pandemic declining on the horizon and commercial real estate recovering, the city remains a thorny problem: how will it clean up downtown and help restart one of the city’s main sources of taxation while also finding an acceptable solution to its homeless residents to find? the help you need?
Tents line a street in downtown Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / John Cook)
The totals defy deeply ingrained belief in downtown lawlessness. Downtown crime actually decreased in 2020, according to the Seattle Police Department’s Crime Dashboard (although it remains unclear whether the statistical decrease was simply due to fewer people being there to report illegal activity).
But urban crime analysts who track the gap between crime perceptions and reality know that the common visual indicators – tents, trash, hypodermic needles, sensational media coverage – linked a homeless crisis to a crime crisis. This led in part to the corporate-sponsored Compassion Seattle Initiative.
The initiative is a citywide vote to force the city to fund a range of services and housing for thousands of unprotected city residents. The city would also need to “keep parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces, and sidewalks and streets out of camps” once the mandatory housing, drug and mental health services are in place.
Initiative wants to force Seattle to finance homeless shelters and then clear camps
The initiative is currently in the signature collection phase. She must receive 33,000 valid signatures in the next three weeks to qualify for the election. And while the measure, backed by the association in the inner city, is supposed to dictate city policy regarding the homeless population, it is also supposed to tell businesses and residents that the city will be forced to do something to move the needle – albeit controversial is.
Some companies remain loyal to downtown Seattle and look forward to returning and being part of the revitalization process.
Karen Clark Cole, CEO of UX company Blink, said she had 80 employees downtown before the pandemic shutdown. That number fell to four employees at the height of the pandemic. But there are plans to bring them all back, albeit slowly. She estimated that 10% of the company’s workforce could be back in the office by September.
“We didn’t think about moving or downsizing our office,” she said. “[Blink] will gradually demand that people come to collaboration meetings, team meetings and customer meetings. “
In addition, the company plans to expand its workforce in the city center. “We grew (only about 4%) in 2021 and will continue to grow,” she said, adding that Blink must have everyone in the office vaccinated. “There will be more people assigned to the downtown Seattle office, but most people will work part-time so they won’t all be there at the same time.”
Blink and other tech companies are considering some form of what is known as the 3-2 business people model – three days in the office, two away.
F5, the network and application security company, is planning a similar approach to Blink. The company had more than 1,400 employees in its Fifth Avenue tower prior to the pandemic. Currently, fewer than 5% of these workers are in the building. But that will change, said spokesman Rob Grüning.
“When we surveyed our employees throughout the pandemic to get an idea of how they would like to work in the future, a significant majority expressed a desire for flexible schedules – the ability to interact and collaborate in the office and remotely if necessary to work I have to concentrate, ”he said.
“Some people will still be coming to the office full-time and others will be working remotely full-time, but a much larger percentage will do a mix of both,” he said, adding that F5 does not require vaccination of its workforce. The hybrid working model means the company has sublet six floors of its building but has no intention of leaving downtown Seattle, he said.
Amperity’s Chan said managers there are planning a 3-2 personnel model and mandatory vaccinations for the 115 Seattle-based workers. The customer data platform company will maintain the same downtown presence, Chan said.
Amperity has never considered moving, and managers are still seeing significant benefits in the Seattle business district. “Accessibility and central location, amenities and of course the energy,” she said.