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Councils react to letter from businesses, locals calling for action on public safety in downtown Seattle

Oct 7, 2021, 1:19 PM | Updated: Oct 8, 2021, 1:38 pm
downtown Seattle...
Pedestrians cross the street in Seattle, near Pike Place Market. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)
(Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Open air drug use worse than ever. Trash, needles, and charred foils used to smoke a variety of drugs strewn all over sidewalks. Feces and urine in alleyways and other public spaces. Constant shoplifting with zero consequences. Businesses that face constant busted windows and shell out thousands of dollars for private security because there are not enough cops, and staff terrified to even come to downtown.

All of that and more is a threat to the recovery of downtown Seattle, unless the City and County Council take immediate action to address public safety and unmet needs of those living on the streets, according to the Downtown Seattle Association and dozens of local businesses and residents who signed a letter sent to the councils Thursday.

Despite promises from mayor, downtown Seattle restaurant owner says area is still unsafe

“The concentration of economic activity in downtown generates millions of dollars in annual city, county and state tax revenue that is critical to sustaining services and expanding infrastructure in our region,” the letter reads.

“The pandemic has had an outsized impact on the 12 neighborhoods that comprise downtown Seattle, resulting in more than 500 permanent small business closures, the cancellation of 90 conventions, and a 65% decrease in earned income in 2020-21 for arts and cultural organizations,” it continued, pointing to heavy economic hits also suffered by the hospitality, arts, and service sectors.

“While progress has been made over the summer, it’s not enough and it won’t last without specific action to address public safety, homelessness and drugs,” the letter states.

“The current realities on the streets of downtown Seattle — and the lack of a clear and well-resourced strategy to address the mental health and substance use crisis and ensure safety and security for all — is a front-and-center threat to recovery and the lives of people in need. If this crisis is not adequately addressed, it will harm job creation, recruitment and retention,  further delay reopenings, devastate our arts and culture sector and ultimately put Seattle’s very future at great risk,” the letter continues, calling on the councils to take specific actions right away to address the problems, with compassion.

Those signing the letter include Cherry Street Coffee, Vulcan, Amazon and the city’s new hockey team, the Kraken, among dozens of others, including Lou Bond, who is general manager of the Melbourne Building at Third and Pike, which houses Walgreens.

“The current state [of downtown Seattle] is deplorable. It’s just gut wrenching, the level of despair and apathy on the sidewalks, on our alleys, on the streets of Seattle. It’s the worst that I’ve ever seen,” Bond said.

He describes an all too familiar scene that many who signed the letter say appears to have become the acceptable norm in Seattle – which they say is unacceptable and unsustainable.

“Open air drug use, right in every door area right along every sidewalk. You’ve got people in distress and in crisis, yelling, screaming, you’ve got people walking around without clothes on at times, you’ve got needles on the sidewalk tinfoil that’s been used a gazillion times for smoking, the various kinds of drugs that they’re smoking,” Bond explained.

“You’ve got people walking into any kind of retail store and grabbing whatever they can and walking right out without any consequences or regard. We’re seeing violence and violent behavior everywhere now. Our retailer Walgreens had four more windows broken out over the last three weeks. It’s repeated over, and over, and over and it’s unsustainable,” he added.

Bond, and many of the businesses who signed the letter, say the reduction in the number of Seattle police officers on the force, and an overall lack of resources and strategic planning for behavioral health and homelessness has left them no choice but to shell out more dollars to protect staff, customers, and their buildings.

“We have hired our own lobby [staff] because of people trying to get into the building and do their drugs in the stairwells, on the floors, break into tenants’ offices. We’ve had to maintain a presence in the lobby all the time. So I’ve had to add another staff person and increase all of our folks’ hours just to maintain coverage,” Bond said.

“Our retailer Walgreens had just regular security,” he added. “It got so bad over the last 18 months that they then had to hire off-duty police officers or armed security, and that has helped but it’s a tremendous expense and they’re still finding ongoing drug use, even in the store.”

For Marques Warren, the owner of Downtown Spirits at Denny and Dexter, staff safety has been a big concern.

“Some of the impacts that have most been pressing for us have been the safety and security of our employees both while they’re at work here on the premises, and to and from work as they’re taking the buses, light rail, walking, or otherwise commuting to downtown Seattle,” he explained.

“We had people on a daily basis, multiple times a day, coming in shoplifting, threatening our employees and/or physically assaulting them in limited instances,” he added.

One particular incident stands out.

“A gentleman who came in — he seemed to be unwell and our staff asked him politely to leave. As he left, he picked up a piece of concrete, came back in and threw it at one of our employees, picked up another piece of concrete and continued down 7th Avenue, attempting to bash in all of our windows. From there, he continued down 7th Avenue through the Amazon campus and assaulted several other people who were working or walking through the area,” he recalled.

Warren says it’s all nothing new, but with what he sees as inaction by the city combined with not enough police and so many remote workers, he believes the economic recovery is at risk, because if people do not feel safe coming downtown to work or play, they won’t, and right now he does not believe the Seattle City Council cares about public safety.

“I think that everyone recognizes the importance of public safety but I don’t think that they are doing their job, quite frankly, I think they need to come to the table and provide real solutions, engage with stakeholders, and move forward because I think everyone’s sick of it,” Warren said.

Both men say they know of so many others who feel the same but that not enough people are civilly engaged and are not making their voices heard.

“I think that each one of us, as community members, as neighborhood people, we need to step up and start making our voices count and participate in the solution and not just stand on the sidelines. More of us have to step in,” Bond said.

“It’s a shame that they aren’t more engaged because it really shows a lack of compassion and consideration for the people that do need mental health services and housing and jobs, where people feel that ignoring this problem is a solution that it’s not,” Warren added.

The DSA and business owners ask city and county leaders for five specific actions:

  1. That the City Council adopt the entirety of the Mayor’s public safety and housing investments in the proposed 2022 budget to increase police staffing, build new housing and shelter, expand the Health One program and increase the number of Community Service Officers.
  2. That the City Council and County County fully fund implementation of the recommendations of the 2019 High Barrier Work Group, which was jointly convened  to address individuals with significant and repeated interactions with the criminal legal and emergency response systems.
  3. That the City Council establish a safety and security grant program to offset the significant additional security-related expenses being incurred by small businesses, retailers and arts and cultural venues due to reduced SPD staffing and increased response times.
  4. That the City Council and County Council jointly fund and establish an initiative to substantially reduce organized retail crime in downtown Seattle and eliminate established fencing enterprises by investing in additional investigative, prosecutorial and reporting resources. In developing such an initiative, local leaders should review the program recently announced in San Francisco.
  5. That the City Council and County Council jointly support the development and funding for a downtown homelessness response strategy led by the Regional Homelessness Authority (RHA) to provide necessary emergency and permanent housing, outreach, treatment and ongoing care to the unsheltered population downtown.

Several councilmembers issued individual statements responding to the letter.

Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, District 7 — Pioneer Square to Magnolia:

“I want to express my gratitude to these leaders for coming forward with thoughtful recommendations to address the public safety crisis in Downtown Seattle. There is significant overlap between the Council’s 2021 budget priorities and the goals of this letter, including a fully-funded police hiring class and investment in the innovative JustCARE program. This fall, we need to look toward building on those investments in the 2022 budget, and these items deserve our full consideration.”

Seattle City Councilmember Dan Strauss:

“My Council colleagues & I will be proposing a large and strategic increase in behavioral health crisis response beyond what the mayor has proposed to create an emergency crisis response for the entire city – including downtown.

“With the King County Regional Homelessness Authority beginning their intensive work in our city’s core in the near-term, I am confident that we will see a meaningful change downtown.

“At the same time, until we have people working downtown I am unsure how successful retail businesses will be, because downtown economic activity relies on people working in offices as the city core lacks residential towers.”

Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, chair of the Public Safety Committee:

“I can confirm that I will be looking to support funding to expand the CSO program, Health One, a Victim Compensation fund, and funding to support a SPD’s 2022 hiring plan that – in a best case recruitment scenario – would result in a sworn force of 1,230.”

King County Councilmember and Budget Chair Jeanne Kohl-Welles:

“I am fully aware of the major safety and security issues facing the downtown community, but I appreciate and respect the Downtown Seattle Association for coming together and making their urgent requests to both the King County Council and the Seattle City Council.  Certainly, I think we all understand that the City has the main jurisdiction on this, but I remain committed to doing everything in the County Council’s power to be a productive partner.  My legislation related to City Hall Park—an epicenter up until recently for many of the activities and crises the DSA outlines—is moving through the Council now, and is intended for the County to ultimately acquire and oversee the rehabilitation and future security on this property adjacent to our Courthouse.

“As chair of the County’s Budget and Fiscal Management Committee, I stewarded funding into the most recently approved County 8th Covid supplemental budget for the outreach and services that specifically and successfully focused on housing those individuals who had been living in City Hall Park.  However, that is just one example of nearly $75 million the County has allocated to homelessness and housing in downtown Seattle this biennium, of which over $67 million was approved just recently, so much of that is poised to land in the community in the months ahead.

“The Executive recently transmitted the County’s mid-biennial omnibus budget which includes the restoration of $17 million to the MIDD (Mental Illness and Drug Dependency) fund as well as resources for a loss recovery fund that provides financial supports for harmed parties in felonies.  As the Council begins deliberations on that budget this month, I will continue to use every tool at our disposal to improve the untenable conditions so many are facing downtown.”

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here

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Councils react to letter from businesses, locals calling for action on public safety in downtown Seattle