A recent proposal by the Seattle City Council to clean up Third Avenue downtown and in Belltown represents another in a long line of efforts that have brought emphasis patrols, task forces, and storefront and lighting improvement steps. As the council envisions its new initiative in a statement of legislative intent, this effort focuses on the transit corridor on Third at Lenora and between Pike and Pine streets. The assault and robbery of a holiday shopper in the area has only emphasized the need for action.
So what are the components in play this time? How do they differ from past efforts? And can we learn from the past and create new strategies that may have seemed politically difficult then, but make sense now?
The current undertaking, in true Seattle style, creates a task force and several working groups. There will be at least 12 stakeholders from property owners on Third, and representatives from the Mayor's Office, City Council, and King County, which has major Metro Transit routes concentrated on Third. There will be a Government Working Group and a Private Sector Working Group. And lots and lots of meetings, so much so that one imagines we could get the drug dealers off the street for good if we just invited them to be stakeholders.
It remains to be seen if these groups will think any differently from past groups or if there will be many new faces. Obviously the Downtown Seattle Association and city government will play major roles in this effort. But a good sign is that everyone is going in with the intent of improving downtown.
We already know that there will be at least some resources devoted to street improvements. The City Council has committed $150,000 per year for street cleaning and maintenance, as well as $350,000 in one-time capital improvements. Still, this amount of money gets eaten up pretty fast in an urban corridor. And, importantly, it will only improve the look and feel of the street.
It won’t do anything for what is really the heart of the problem: the regional draw that is Seattle’s downtown illegal drug market.
Just like any other business in Seattle, the sellers and buyers of illegal drugs want to be downtown. Over a decade ago, I led an effort with the Seattle Police Department, the state Department of Corrections, juvenile probation officers, and social service providers to interview the people on the street in the Pike Place Market and Westlake areas at different hours of the day and different days of the week.
We conducted surveys asking what people were doing downtown, who they were, where they were from, and a number of other questions. Surprisingly, people were very open about talking to us about their activities —including the illegal ones. Not surprisingly, a number of the people we talked to were on active DOC supervision. And many were actively involved in drug dealing and prostitution.
The point is that downtown is a hotspot for everything. People also come from Olympia and Wenatchee to hang out. People get out of jail and decide they want to celebrate (which often lands them right back in jail). Women come to Seattle to escape violent boyfriends or husbands, to find shelter, and to get back on their feet. People come looking for work and fall on hard times without family for support and wind up homeless.
And yes, people come to Seattle because of our reputation for tolerance and for the services we provide. Add to this, the fraying safety net, mental illness, and drug addiction and you have a very complicated set of circumstances to deal with.
The other big factor in downtown's draw as a drug market is that many of the users live in the area. The area the council wants to clean up is actually in a Stay Out of Drug Area (SODA). SODA districts were established so judges could issue orders to stay out of the area for people convicted of crimes there. SODA Orders as they are known, are no longer given out by Superior Court judges. The main reason for this is that the people who would be on the receiving end of these orders either live, work, or receive services there.
People in Pioneer Square, Belltown, and the International District have long struggled with public safety problems due, in some part, to the high concentration of shelters and services in their neighborhoods. In Pioneer Square, the hope for the future is to bring in market and workforce housing to restore some balance to the neighborhood, which in turn would help bring in a more diverse mix of retail businesses. In Belltown, frustration with the inability of the police to solve the drug-dealing problem in the neighborhood may finally lead to discussing how larger policy issues in the human services realm are making it impossible for SPD to solve this problem.
State budget cuts and the current problems at the Seattle Police Department (SPD) add still another layer of difficulty for the task force.
Something like 15 years ago the city joined with the Department of Corrections (DOC) to address some of these issues at the street level. What came to be known as the Neighborhood Corrections Initiative (NCI) was born. This was a pilot project tried first in Seattle’s West Precinct downtown.
The NCI Teams are made up of Corrections and SPD officers. The idea was that SPD knew the streets, and the correction officers knew the people who were causing a lot of the problems. DOC officers also didn’t need probable cause or a search warrant to contact and search a parolee under DOC supervision. Watching these teams in action is a little like watching parents keep their kids out of trouble. There is a lot of talking and cajoling and explaining why certain behaviors are likely to lead to certain outcomes. Their number one goal is to help change destructive behavior on the street.
Everyone agrees that the NCI program has been a success and is a key tool needed for the Third Avenue Corridor strategy. The problem is that the state is looking to cut the program along with DOC’s Community Corrections Officers. The city has committed to requesting the legislature to keep the program this session, but it will be a challenge.
Another issue that has been difficult to talk about in past safety efforts is SPD’s role in enforcing truancy laws. Thirty years ago, skipping school and heading downtown was likely to lead to SPD stopping you and asking why you’re not in school. As a recipient of such questions, I know it was an effective deterrent. Shouldn’t we as a society tell kids to get back to school if they’re skipping and hanging out downtown?
I realize this can be complex, SPD doesn’t need the extra headache right now, and there are bound to be some misunderstandings. But simply agreeing that kids need to be in school can lead to a conversation where these problems are dealt with. Right now, we don’t even talk about it.
Finally, any solution to the Third Avenue Corridor issue requires stakeholders to tackle the issue of sustaining funding for the cleanliness and maintenance of the street and sidewalk infrastructure. This problem is not technically difficult, but rather, a problem of politics. The city Sign Ordinance needs to change to allow advertising on bus shelters and kiosks to pay for maintenance and streetscape improvements. Other cities generate millions per year in private money to do this work — places like London, Paris, New York, and San Francisco. Simply waiting for things to get out of hand and setting up a task force every few years to throw a couple hundred thousand at the need is not a long term solution. I have advocated for this change in the past, and now might be the time to achieve it.
And for those who think street-level advertising will blight our city, I simply say those other cities mentioned above don’t look too bad. It is also clear that downtown is a commercial hub for many businesses, legal and otherwise. Doing a little more legal business to help reduce the harmful impacts of the illegal businesses would serve us all well.
It’s enouraging that the city and county are coming together to work on these issues. But everyone must be willing to step outside their comfort zone and put new ideas on the table. We know these issues will always be with us, it’s the nature of cities and the human condition. But we can certainly be smarter in how we create a safe and welcoming environment for everyone. It would be a mistake, however, to lay all of these problems at the feet of SPD. Our downtown neighborhoods didn’t develop these issues overnight and it will require a hard look at our past and present city policies to unwind some of the mistakes that have got us here.