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What will happen to Seattle's empty office towers when COVID-19 ends?

By Katherine Khashimova Long, The Seattle Times on

Published in Home and Consumer News

SEATTLE - As many white-collar employers extend into next year the work-from-home policies they instituted in response to the coronavirus pandemic, a vast amount of vertical space in downtown Seattle is leased but empty.

The vacant space amounts to more than 700 football fields, by one estimate - acres of desks, with knickknacks and mementos that few but cleaning staff, maintenance crews and interior landscapers have seen for nigh on six months.

It's not clear when workers might begin trickling back into that space or what could become of it in the meantime. "If anyone tells you they know what's going to happen, they're fibbing," said Rod Kauffman, president of the local Building Owners and Managers Association.

But amid overarching uncertainty about how long work-from-home regimes could last, tenants are scrambling to find flexibility in their leases while building owners and developers are examining options to convert offices into space that can be used in other ways, such as biomedical research.

The colossal office shutdown has added to the economic pain of the pandemic for street-level businesses downtown, as the hundreds of thousands of workers who would otherwise have streamed every day into Seattle's downtown core remain at home. It's difficult to envision a vibrant downtown Seattle emerging from the pandemic, researchers and businesspeople say.

Seattle restaurateur Ethan Stowell's Italian eatery Tavolata, which already has locations in Belltown and on Capitol Hill, had been slated to open a branch in a brand-new office building downtown on Second Avenue and University Street that's been leased by Dropbox, Qualtrics and coworking group Spaces. Stowell had expected the "majority" of business to come from workers in nearby offices.

 

The sign is up, but the opening has been postponed indefinitely, Stowell said. Nearly all the workers who would have occupied the building's offices are still at home.

"There are no tenants," said Stowell. "We'd be opening for no one."

Demand for dense, city-center corporate campuses from giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google led to a decade of breakneck office development here. Occupied office space in Seattle has grown 34% since 2010, according to the Downtown Seattle Association.

Now, those towers sit hollow. Roughly 90% of the 47 million square feet of leased Seattle office space is currently vacated as a result of the pandemic, according to Kauffman. In Bellevue, that figure is little better, 85%.

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