With downtown Seattle 'a hollow shell,' businesses in need of holiday goodwill

In the holiday classic “A Christmas Carol,” the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Ebenezer Scrooge glimpses of a happier time—a fitting analogy for today.

Cut to downtown Seattle's Christmas past: the streets are alive with holiday cheer as thousands watch the tree lighting in Westlake Plaza. A young girl sits on her dad’s shoulders for a better view. The shops are bustling, the Macy’s iconic holiday star is aglow, and a choir sings as fireworks fill the night’s sky.

But slowly the scene fades and we are back in Christmas present.

Downtown Seattle is much different this year. Holiday decorations have given way to plywood and once busy streets remain nearly empty. A homeless man is asleep in the alcove of a GAP store, or what used to be. The Fugees “Killing Me Softly” blares from the loudspeakers in Westlake Park.

“We have a downtown that really is just a hollow shell of itself,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said this week—a blunt assessment of the city’s reality during the pandemic.

But coronavirus has only intensified crises that already existed. With few people coming downtown for business or pleasure, many of those that remain are in the throes of a mental health crisis, drug addiction, homelessness, or all of the above.

Some businesses that boarded up after vandalism and looting on May 30 still sit behind plywood. At least 140 street-level storefronts have closed for good this year, according to the Downtown Seattle Association.

“It’s more than just taking the boards down,” Durkan said. “We’ve got to build the vitality behind those boards.”

But removing the boards is at least a start, especially during the holidays.

“Nobody wants to see the plywood and graffiti, so we need to work together to bring that down. Property owners are committed to that,” said Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association. “For downtown and neighborhood businesses to get back on their feet, it’s got to feel welcoming, look great, feel safe.”

Scholes said while many of the normal holiday festivities will be impossible during the pandemic, some remain. The tree at Westlake Plaza is up and the lighting will broadcast live on TV. A new Macy’s holiday star is in place and Pike Place Market is open. Many restaurants are offering takeout or outdoor dining in line with COVID-19 mandates.

While he understands that some may be reticent to come downtown, Scholes said businesses are in desperate need of some holiday goodwill. If not, it may be the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come that is scariest of all.

“This has just been a devastating time,” Scholes said. “Probably the toughest time our small business community has faced in our city in nearly 100 years. If we want all of these great arts and cultural institutions and small businesses to be there on the other side, we need to be there for them today."