Belltown: Is this as good as it gets?

Belltown's history over the past 25 years suggested vitality, density, and the kind of success needed for the state's growth management plans to succeed. Now, it may be at a tipping point, in the wrong direction.
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The Queen City Grill in Belltown helped spark neighborhood vitality

Belltown's history over the past 25 years suggested vitality, density, and the kind of success needed for the state's growth management plans to succeed. Now, it may be at a tipping point, in the wrong direction.

The fate and future of Seattle's Belltown neighborhood have provoked a lot of concern lately. The violence and street activity has mobilized the neighborhood. Recently, more than 300 people came together to express their concerns to Seattle Police and city leaders. It was somewhat ironic that Mayor McGinn — an advocate for the town hall format — did not attend.

Those who did attend demanded action from the city and a more visible police presence in the neighborhood. The mayor and the Seattle Police Department have responded by saying they will add police resources to the neighborhood during busy weekend nights.

But the police are not the only answer to Belltown'ꀙs problems. To better understand the challenges facing this unique mixed-use neighborhood, some history is needed.

Prior to the 1970s most of the area, then called the Denny Regrade, was zoned general commercial with some designated manufacturing along the waterfront. In 1985, the city of Seattle adopted a package of zoning changes and policies including a new designation called "downtown mixed residential" (DMR) to establish housing as the primary use for the area.

It was an area not unlike South Lake Union today, in which the city wanted to steer private investment and create a dense urban living environment. Additionally, investments were made early on for low income and affordable housing, beginning with the Pike Place Public Market and then north into Belltown, to make sure economic diversity was preserved in the growing neighborhood.

Sensing the coming economic development, entrepreneurs began investing. My own experience in Belltown started when Peter Lamb, then part-owner of Il Bistro, joined Steve Good and opened the Queen City Grill at First and Blanchard. I was busing tables at Il Bistro and was recruited to help open the Queen City. It was 1987, and the zoning changes adopted in 1985 were beginning to have an effect. In the next five to 10 years, the neighborhood would change dramatically.

In 1987, the street was kind of barren when compared to today. There were few establishments in the area, most notably the Frontier Room next door, where Nina poured strong drinks — a service for which we were very thankful.

The main problems for our business were the street population and the Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB). We routinely had to throw out drunken people hassling our customers. The convenience store across the street did a bustling business in fortified wine and the WSLCB almost drove us out of business because of their denial and delay of our liquor license application — but that's another story.

Soon, the Watertown opened down the street, Casa U-Betcha opened across from us, and restaurants started opening their doors throughout the neighborhood. Belltown was fast getting a reputation as a place to get a great meal and have a good time. People wanted to move there, and thanks to policies that encouraged it, density followed.

The trend would bring the Flying Fish, Cascadia, El Gaucho, the Crocodile, and countless other restaurants, bars, and live music venues. Peter Lamb is still a presence in the neighborhood with Branzino, as are the originals from the Queen City. And thankfully the Croc is still a neighborhood institution. Unfortunately, the Frontier Room doesn't have the edge it once had when Nina tended the bar.

While Belltown is in many ways an urban success story, there are still many challenges ahead. The zoning changes of the 1980s have provided the opportunities for dense urban living, which in turn created demand for businesses that have generated wealth and created jobs.

But some key ingredients are still missing — there is a shortage of neighborhood amenities such as park space, not because government didn't think of it, but because government and the neighbors were nervous about who would use the space. A basketball court and some public art went up in the mid-'80s in a little pocket park, which attracted an open air drinking crowd and is now a dog park. There is not a full-fledged community center to support the growing number of residents.

Amenities like parks and community centers, benches on the street, and active public spaces are essential, and we have to have more effective ways to manage their use. Failing to create public spaces because we are afraid the "wrong people" will use them is not an option.

The success of the state's Growth Management Act, which protects our rural and scenic landscapes from sprawl, depends on us getting it right in all of our densely developed urban neighborhoods, Belltown included.

Depending on who you talk to, the problems either started with people moving into Belltown from the suburbs and other parts of the city or the explosion of nightclubs and bars in the neighborhood. This, and a tougher street scene, has set the stage for the battles over the long-term vision of Belltown.

There is a great diversity of people who make their home in Belltown. It is a mix of young people, empty-nesters, and low-income people. Their visions for their neighborhood matter. And they differ widely in their opinions of what the neighborhood is and what it should be in the future.

Belltown has a diversity of day- and night-time businesses that give it flavor and energy. They too differ in their opinions about their vision for the neighborhood. A common view, however, is that they don't think their customers should be accosted while visiting their shop, studio, restaurant, or nightclub.

Every summer crime spikes around the city, and Belltown is no exception. I have been through many of these cycles and usually SPD and the mayor have the same response. They shift personnel from specialty units like SWAT and anti-crime teams (ACT) and call it a new project, program, or emphasis. Truth be told, the shift in resources is a response to the cyclical and seasonal nature of crime.

But there is a larger issue that everyone in Belltown needs to debate and discuss. Namely, what kind of neighborhood do they want Belltown to be? Everyone needs to be at the table for this discussion: the clubs, restaurants, day-time businesses, human service providers, and residents. To simply depend on the seasonal SPD response is to fail to come to grips with long-term solutions.

The question ought to be: how can we create a balance in the neighborhood that provides for economic success for the various types of businesses in the district and a safe and welcoming environment for the visitors and residents that sustain them?

The question may be common sense and simple, but the solutions are difficult. Here's my take on what needs to be done.

First, the Belltown Business Association (BBA) and the Belltown Community Council need to get together with the restaurant owners and the Seattle Nightlife and Music Association (SNMA) to talk about their goals for the neighborhood. The SNMA must agree that the city needs the authority to shut down problem venues, and the other businesses and residents, in turn, must promise not to oppose every new liquor license out of hand. And they should join forces to put pressure on City Hall to provide dependable police staffing levels that result in a consistent visible and active presence in the neighborhood.

The area is reaching a point where restaurants will begin relocating to other neighborhoods where their customers don't face the same challenges as Belltown. One of the original Belltown institutions, Flying Fish, is already leaving for South Lake Union.

I believe the area is reaching a point where restaurants will begin relocating to other neighborhoods where their customers don't face the same challenges as Belltown. One of the original Belltown institutions, Flying Fish, is already leaving for South Lake Union.

How many more restaurants will relocate so their customers don't have to run the gauntlet of street disorder? This will ultimately hurt the bars and clubs as well — Umberto's leaving Pioneer Square in 1999 is a good example of what can happen. And the departure of Elliott Bay Books has left the Pioneer Square neighborhood looking for answers.

Second, efforts to professionalize the bar and nightclub industry must be prioritized and should be supported. I know it's hard for some residents to buy into the mayor's program of support for nightlife, but a little support helps gain credibility and a seat at the table. The owners of these businesses care about the neighborhood, too, and have invested their future in these businesses.

The Responsible Hospitality Institute has a lot of experience in developing these programs and they have developed a "best practices" approach. I have worked with them in the past and they are an excellent resource.

Pioneer Square, our first downtown neighborhood, is tackling its significant and similar economic and street-life issues by participation in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Main Street Program, a community-driven, comprehensive strategy used to revitalize downtown and neighborhood business districts throughout the United States. Maybe Belltown ought to consider it.

And finally, the message needs to be sent by everyone involved that violent and intimidating behavior will not be tolerated and the police will be given the tools and backing of elected officials to enforce the law. The dealers and thugs believe they have the upper hand — it's why they do what they do in plain view on Second and Blanchard and throughout Belltown, Westlake, Pioneer Square, and many other neighborhoods around the city. And it has to stop.

Instead of the BBA, Community Council, and SNMA fighting each other, they should join together and say "enough is enough." After that fateful Mardi Gras in Pioneer Square it was not just the day-time businesses and residents that suffered. Many nightclubs and bars went out of business. It can happen in Belltown, too.

As I mentioned, restaurants — already having a tough time — could look for opportunities to relocate to other neighborhoods. As business people, they also worry about the reputation of Belltown and the impact on their customer base. And if those businesses leave, we will likely reach a tipping point where all the work and vision that helped create Belltown could be lost. It's in everyone'ꀙs interest to work together to preserve and enhance a neighborhood we have all worked so hard to create.

More cops will help, but a larger vision is needed.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.