After Real Change moved into Pioneer Square the other day, there was a party. And why wouldn't there be a celebration? After all, the move brought the street newspaper's growing operation to a neighborhood very much in need of dynamism.
But Real Change's colorful executive director, Tim Harris, had to throw the Monday (May 24) party himself. No matter what anyone else might have expected, the neighborhood, at least as represented by a community association, is anything but pleased.
Although it has retreated into a no-comment stance with the media, the Pioneer Square Community Association apparently would prefer to erect barricades. The group is seemingly going to exhaust every possible administrative avenue for stopping the move.
Over a number of months, the association and some residents have laid out a series of objections that play on Pioneer Square’s status as a historical district, the types of businesses allowed there, and a neighborhood plan that attempts to limit the introduction of new social-service providers. They have stressed a perception of unsafe conditions in their neighborhood, implying that Real Change's vendors will look like aggressive panhandlers, chronic inebriates, or some other form of business-killing characters.
The concerns are, by all appearances, genuine. According to Harris, two opponents of the move cried as they spoke at a hearing a while ago.
As anyone living in Seattle knows, many, perhaps most, Real Change vendors work hard enough that they become recognizable fixtures in the neighborhood. Often, a somewhat dicey street corner, for example 15th Avenue Northwest and Northwest Leary Way under the Ballard Bridge, becomes noticeably more comfortable, even friendly, if one or two vendors come in. Sometimes they replace (by what mechanism, I'm not sure) people who had previously sought spare change. Which do most neighborhoods prefer — panhanding by people whose signs proclaim their readiness to work for food, or people who are working and selling a good newspaper?
While Real Change's vendors are engaged in a commercial activity, of course, there’s no mistaking that they have struggled economically. They are often either homeless, on the verge of homelessness, or trying to get enough money to move out of a shelter. Real Change is a newspaper, a business operator, and a non-profit that helps people out of poverty.
Although the Pioneer Square Community Association makes much of the number of social service providers and their clients in the neighborhood, it's hard to put Real Change neatly into that category. At a press briefing on Wednesday (May 26), Mayor Mike McGinn said, "I think Pioneer Square has a legitimate concern about the number of . . . social services within the district, as opposed to other neighborhoods." He went on to say, however, that he didn't regard the paper as a social service provider, called it "successful" (which it certainly seems to be both in its growth and, often, in the improvements its vendors make in their lives), and expressed hope that Real Change and Pioneer Square will do well together.
As reasonable as the mayor sounded, it's not at all what the community association would like to hear. After the mayor took a look around Pioneer Square, the association's Pioneer Square Community Association’s interim executive director, Leslie G. Smith, got right to the point in a March 19 follow-up letter, focusing on the problems of a “saturation point” of social service agencies. She also pointed repeatedly to public perceptions about safety as a problem for economic development, complaining particularly about the effect of “line queuing” by clients of social service agencies.
"We feel it is imperative that service providers seek out other neighborhoods of Seattle that have not exceeded their ‘fair share’ of services," Smith wrote McGinn. As she went on to say, the organization, which claims to represent a cross-section of businesses and residents, hoped the mayor’s office would work with them "to provide assistance to Real Change to find other suitable offices outside the (historic) district."
In passing, Smith also complained that Real Change hadn't been willing to meet. She didn’t return phone calls for comment. But if one supposes that Smith's group wants to meet, as she told the mayor, to negotiate Real Change's absence from Pioneer Square, perhaps that explains Harris' statements expressing frustration with the opponents of the move.
"We have made every attempt to get in communication with them to talk about their concerns, early on," Harris said. He added, "They have never agreed to talk to us. They have never agreed to meet with us directly. But their bottom line is that they want us to go somewhere else."
For Real Change, the move to Pioneer Square is motivated by the desire to grow. And one of the key factors for Harris relates directly to one of the concerns raised by Pioneer Square. Real Change did have vendors waiting on the sidewalks of its Belltown office on Wednesday mornings to buy each week's new edition, Harris said.
"One of the great things about our new space is that we have effectively tripled the space we have for our vendors to be inside," said Harris, so they won't be waiting on sidewalks to buy papers at the new offices, 219 First Ave. S. He doesn't think that’s the real issue, though. In perhaps his harshest statement, the sometimes-profane Harris speaks merely of "scapegoating" of the poor.
Pioneer Square has many problems, as an excellent Seattle Weekly article recently described, including an often-cumbersome review process for changes in the historic district and the huge swings in traffic and parking created by the presence of two major sports stadiums. And, without the lively residential atmosphere of Capitol Hill, Ballard and some other neighborhoods, even business at the bars and restaurants tends to be heavily concentrated on weekends.
McGinn pointed to the effects of the sports traffic — good and bad — and noted that the city has a number of efforts to deal with Pioneer Square's funk, which goes back a couple mayoral administrations. Harris cited a personal experience trying to shop in the neighborhood a few weekends back. It was game day at one of the sports stadiums, and he found parking prices at retail-killing rates of up to $30.
In departing Belltown, Real Change devoted an entire issue to the old neighborhood, with warm, wide-ranging articles. On Wednesday (May 26), a brightly colored edition practically shouted its headline: "Hello Pioneer Square! Our new neighborhood."
If the street newspaper's move had changed Pioneer Square, it wasn't apparent late in the morning. Having for the moment forgotten about the dispute, I happened to get off a bus at First Avenue and Yesler Way. As I walked under the Pergola, the Square seemed a little more relaxed than usual, with only one person sitting quietly with a sign seeking money.
In the new edition, Harris wrote excitedly about the move, saying, "None of this could have happened without the love that the people of Seattle have shown." Unfortunately for those who want the neighborhood to move forward, the bear-hug greeting that the paper offered Pioneer Square will be met with an uncomfortable, determined back step by some of the neighbors.
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