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After Shooting, Seattle Grapples With Crime In High-End Downtown

“The Blade” has been Seattle’s main drug hookup for decadeslaw enforcement and neighborhood advocates agree.

Situated in the heart of Seattle’s Downtown District along Third Avenue and Pike and Pine streets, the area is a well-known open-air drug market. Despite periodic attempts to stymie the drug scene, crime has proved impenetrable, as dealers resiliently claimed ownership of this slice of Seattle.

According to the city of Seattle's crime statistics, the number of aggravated assaults reported in all neighborhoods increased by 633 to 2,698 incidents between 2015 and 2018. Robberies in the same time frame grew by 147 to 1,690, while burglaries are up 479 to 8,033.

In addition, Downtown Seattle Association President and CEO Jon Scholes points out that crimes against people in this area rose 30% in the last three years.

“The numbers are going in the wrong direction,” he said. “This requires a different set of strategies than what the city and county have pursued in the past.”

Overall, according to Seattle crime statistics, person crimes in the downtown neighborhoods of the commercial district, Pioneer Square, Belltown, the International District, South Lake Union, Harbor Island, SODO, Fremont, First Hill and Queen Anne rose 30% from 2015 to 2018. Person crimes include homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

Coincidentally, this section of the city is also home to some of the region’s most exclusive retail shopping, highest-valued tech companies and most expensive residential multifamily units. High above the city, high-paid people live and work, but on the streets, drug deals are made. For the most part, these two worlds co-exist. 

Stores like Arc' Teryzx and Louis Vuitton are the street-level retailers below office space that houses Amazon and Oracle. Apartments in this neighborhood cost between $2.5K to $3K a month for 850 SF and the average median income in the city is $76K for a single person.

But everything changed during the evening rush hour of Jan. 22, when a gang-related dispute ended with gunfire that killed one woman and injured six adults and one child.

A temporary moratorium suspends small business and nonprofit tenant evictions related to nonpayment of rent due to the expiration of lease terms during the moratorium.

The tragedy was no surprise to Robert Greene, a tech worker who lives on the 30th floor of a high-end apartment building with a bird’s-eye view of The Blade.

Before the enhanced police presence, which has been put in place since the shooting, Greene said he has regularly witnessed drug deals and that he and his husband have both been harassed on the street. 

Before moving downtown two years ago, the Houston native was warned to stay away from Seattle’s downtown.

“I heard that you should stay away from that area, and I did witness some crazy stuff,” he said. “Then, more incidents started happening to me, my partner, my friends and neighbors.”

The couple plans to stay in their current residence another year for financial reasons, then they are moving out of their expensive apartment. 

“We’d leave sooner if we could,” he said. 

Scholes advocates for a more concerted effort to shut down the Third Avenue drug trade. There are two sides of this problem, he said: a demand and a supply.

"We need to figure out who the individuals are at the center of this market and shut them down,” he said. “And for those who are vulnerable and are getting caught up in this, we need to get them treatment and diversion programs.” 

Scholes stresses that the drug problem in the heart of Seattle is not normal and is not comparable to other large U.S. cities. The DSA is engaging with criminologists from other parts of the country to design solutions. 

“You don’t see this in the middle of Chicago,” he said. “You don’t see this in New York City. Unfortunately, what we have here is pretty unique.”

Downtown Seattle near the site of the Jan. 22, 2020, shooting.

However, unless city leadership and the police force take strong action to eliminate the criminal activity then it will just continue “as usual” regardless of the investment, barrientosRYAN partner Kristin Ryan said.

“This takes a real leadership position that recognizes the harm to our city if we do not make Third Avenue into one of our great main thoroughfares of our downtown,” she said.

Seattle City Council member Andrew J. Lewis (District 7) agrees. He said he wants a 24-hour “community storefront” in this zone staffed by community service officers to send a message that violence won’t be tolerated. 

“It will also serve as a visible center for people seeking information, whether they are tourists experiencing Seattle for the first time, or residents who need help navigating our system of social services,” he said in a statement.

Council member Lisa Herbol (District 1) said that Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best released a post-shooting safety improvement plan with a downtown focus. The plan includes having mental health professionals in every precinct and six new community service officers stationed in every part of the city. There will also be a new Seattle Police Department response program focused on de-escalating gang violence and retaliation.

The new department, which will be called the Community Critical Incident Responders, will be staffed by those who are known to the community and have ties with it. These officers will have past experience living within the gang culture, being incarcerated or experiencing intergenerational trauma. The staff members will have grown up in the neighborhoods to which they will be responding.

Though the plan, which has yet to be implemented, seems promising, community members and stakeholders aren’t overly optimistic that anything will change.

“As long as there is a police presence here it will be fine,” Greene said. “But as soon as they leave, it will all go back to the way it’s been.”

For its part, DSA has been working on two initiatives that would beautify the area. The Third Avenue Vision plan proposes four future transportation options that convert Third Avenue into a two- or three-lane transit zone that optimizes bus volumes and increases ridership. It expands sidewalks, making room for both pedestrians and sidewalk cafés. It also includes improvements for parks and public spaces.  

The DSA is also spearheading the $40M Pike Pine Renaissance, which includes private investment that will improve lighting and facades. The idea is to give pedestrians a safe passageway from Capitol Hill through the city to the Pike Place Market and the waterfront, with improvements to transit and bicycle infrastructures. The renovation is underway and is set to continue through 2021. 

But developer Vibrant Cities' co-founder and CEO James Wong said Seattle still feels lawless.

“The police working on the streets feel powerless to arrest people to do their jobs,” he said. “Two police officers standing near the courthouse on Third Avenue told me they see drug deals, but it’s no use arresting them. They don’t want to waste taxpayers dollars by processing them and then putting them right back out on the street.”

Though the renovations and improvements will help beautify this space, Scholes said they won’t fix the drug problem.

“We have to get the safety issues right,” he said. “If we don’t deal with that and be more intentional, then there is a lot at stake.”

Wong said he’s not blaming the police, he’s blaming the system.

“The city is lacking discipline,” he said. “That’s how lawlessness happens. They know they aren’t going to get arrested, so they can do anything they want. Why are [the suspects in Seattle’s Jan. 22 shooting] getting arrested 47 times and not getting busted, while good, law-abiding citizens get prosecuted to the full extent of the law for a speeding ticket or parking wrong?”

Ryan said she agrees. An advocate of privately developed public spaces, Ryan said the effort to clean up criminal activities on Third Avenue will take more than beautification of the street.

“Creating public spaces that encourage positive activities definitely can go a long way to deterring negative activities because of the increased traffic and focus of people using the space [instead of just people walking by],” she said. “The transformation of Westlake Park is a prime example of this.”