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December 13, 2016
What would it take for Seattle to join the ranks of cities that never sleep, like Miami, New York or San Francisco?
The Downtown Seattle Association held a panel discussion at Blueacre Seafood last week to consider what makes a 24-hour downtown.
Seattle's downtown-area population is 70,000 and climbing, but night owls are hard-pressed to find dining and entertainment options after last call. Light rail service ends at 1 a.m., and good luck catching a bus.
This is a challenge for a city that promotes itself to tourists and employers as a major destination for arts, dining and culture.
The economic argument for offering round-the-clock music and dining extends beyond just the businesses that cater to the late-night crowd. Research suggests that 24-hour cities have lower office vacancy rates, and do better at attracting and retaining businesses than so-called 9-to-5 cities like Seattle.
Hugh Kelly, a real estate professor at New York University who studies 24-hour cities, has written that such markets have higher sales prices for office properties — and that advantage even extends to the suburbs of those cities.
The DSA panel focused on more immediate concerns for Seattle, such as what the explosion of delivery services like UberRush and Amazon's Prime Now is doing to local restaurants and retailers.
Liz Dunn, developer of Melrose Market and Chophouse Row on Capitol Hill, said businesses will need to “hit a higher bar” with the experience they offer customers.
“Restaurants and retailers need to be on their game,” she said. “It's going to take a more vital experience to get you out the door” to shop or dine instead of staying in.
She pointed to the Starbucks roastery on Pike Street — with its crowd-pleasing mix of retail, high-end coffee and dining — as an example of the type of curated retail that we can expect to grow.
There's still a bit of a chicken-or-egg problem when it comes to getting a late-night scene going.
Panelist Kate Becker, director of Seattle's Office of Film, Music and Special Events, said “there are always people who want to go out at night, but it's incumbent upon the entertainment industry to provide things that make people want to go out.”
Pamela Hinckley, chief executive of Tom Douglas Restaurants, said even when the company's restaurants offer late-night hours, customers don't always show up. The chain's Carlile Room, which sits across the street from the Paramount Theatre, does well after shows, but otherwise can be empty late at night.
The DSA's Don Blakeney said different groups such as City Arts magazine and Cornish College of the Arts are developing apps to help people track their nightlife options, “but we have to figure out how to do it better.”
Panelists agreed that ride services such as Lyft and Uber are making it easier to get around after hours, easing the concerns of late-night bar-goers or workers who don't want to be left stranded downtown.
Becker said King County Metro has been seeking public input on expanding late-night service.
Among the other problems many downtown business owners face is that rents are expensive, and many smaller arts and music venues are endangered by redevelopment.
Seattle Office of Economic Development offers support for small businesses, Becker said, adding that expensive cities like London have found they need to be more proactive to help keep small venues afloat.
Another piece of the nightlife puzzle is public safety.
Becker said the city works with businesses to ensure they operate safely, and police work to get chronic offenders off the street. Noise problems, she said, will remain a source of conflict between residents and businesses with late-night crowds.
“People are hungry for those late-night experiences,” the DSA's Blakeney said after the event. “We just need to have that critical mass.”
Jon Silver can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.