If you could pick a spot in downtown Seattle where the gritty and the gilded collide — where destitution and desperation run hard up against the tourism and young money driving the city’s boom — it would be the southwest corner of Third Avenue and James Street.
There, the line of a well-heeled lunch crowd waiting for a table at the popular Il Corvo restaurant often blends with a less-fortunate queue — people experiencing homelessness, waiting to see if they’ll get into a shelter for the night.
You’d be pressed to find a scene more representative of the issues facing the tens of thousands of residents, commuting workers and tourists who crowd daily through the Chinatown International District, Pioneer Square, the business core and Belltown.
Everything is growing downtown — skyscrapers, tech companies, the cost of living, homelessness and 911 calls to police.
Managing those changes is what occupies Seattle’s leaders in every neighborhood, to one degree or another. But the challenge is most obvious downtown, where data compiled by The Seattle Times shows calls about quality-of-life concerns and low- and mid-level crimes have climbed along with job and population increases.
More people than ever live, work and visit the area, and there also are more 911 calls by the public about disturbances, assaults and robberies there, as well as thefts, threats and sex offenses (most of which are related to lewd behavior). Police data shows such calls grew more than 40% from 2010 to 2018 in the area, slightly outpacing downtown’s population increase and nearly twice the increase in police calls across the rest of Seattle.
Many of the people who spend time in the area vote, and interviews with commuters, business owners and politicos indicate some are taking their thoughts about downtown into account as they complete their ballots in the Aug. 6 primary.
All seven of the City Council’s district seats are up for grabs this year, with downtown part of District 7.
“It’s a classic tale of two cities,” said Don Blakeney, vice president at the Downtown Seattle Association. “It’s the best of times and the worst of times, and we have to look at both. We’re incredibly fortunate to have the economic engine we have here today but we also have issues that we need to lean into and address.”
Blakeney thinks downtown conditions will influence the election, though he’s not sure exactly how. The downtown-based Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, whose members include downtown power players, is plowing money into the races, spending independently in certain contests on candidates with somewhat more conservative public-safety stances.
For some voters, concerns about mental illness, addiction, homelessness and street crime run together.
West Seattle voter Jayma Cohn commutes by bus to her job at a downtown boutique and collects stories about upsetting things she sees, such as a man walking on Third Avenue in a hospital gown with his jeans down around his ankles.
“I look out the bus and I see a guy taking his pants down and then I get off the bus and glance down an alley and see a guy shooting up,” she said. “Those aren’t things I want to see.”
Yet City Hall watchers say voters across Seattle hardly ever mention downtown when candidates knock on their doors. Even those for whom public safety and homelessness are a priority talk about what’s happening in their own neighborhoods, the observers say.
Political consultant Sera Day, who’s working with several council hopefuls, is skeptical that hard-line candidates will sweep the council.
“You see people running on the extreme side, on the ‘Seattle is Dying’ line,” she said, referring to the controversial KOMO-TV show that showed street camping, drug use and disorder. “I would hope we don’t go to that extreme.”
And not all commuters see downtown the same way. Social worker Erica Wickoda, another West Seattle voter, said she isn’t alarmed by conditions around her Second Avenue bus stop.
Wickoda has experienced street harassment multiple times but mostly by people who looked like businessmen and “never by somebody I thought was houseless,” she said.
“Sometimes it’s eye opening to remember how many people are houseless. But I don’t view downtown as scary at all,” she added. “It’s just so sad. But by no means do I want them kicked out.”
Service providers and advocates acknowledge there are more people struggling on the street downtown. They also say homeless people are more often crime victims than perpetrators.
Population, jobs, crime calls on the rise
A Times review of community-generated 911 calls about behavior that would impact quality of life in four sections of downtown — the International District, Pioneer Square, the downtown commercial core and Belltown — showed an overall 41% increase from 2010 to 2018.
The 17 categories of calls included in the review, such as assaults, disturbances, burglaries, public intoxication, narcotics and thefts, increased 21% throughout the rest of the city during the same period, the analysis showed. Not all calls lead to charges, let alone police reports, and downtown is a relatively small area in which to track trends, but the data may indicate what members of the public are reacting to.
Police staffing declined while population in the four downtown neighborhoods increased 36% between 2010 and 2018, according to a Times analysis of state Office of Financial Management population estimates and numbers provided by the Seattle Police Department. By comparison, population in the rest of the city increased 19 percent, the data showed.
During the same period, the number of jobs in the four neighborhoods swelled 31%, according to Puget Sound Regional Council estimates shared by the Downtown Seattle Association. Including South Lake Union and other close-in neighborhoods, employment soared 44%.
Taken together, 911 calls made by the public to report crimes in the 17 categories reviewed by The Times climbed steadily from roughly 24,000 calls in 2010 to about 35,000 in 2017 and then dipped to about 34,000 last year. The recent decline was driven by sharp plunges in calls related to public intoxication and narcotics.
SPD has received fewer calls about intoxication since stepping up patrols around the King County courthouse, spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said.
Disturbance calls increased 52% and assault calls 60%, while theft calls ticked up 15% in the years studied.
“We seem to be maintaining, in most cases, despite the staffing issues we’re having,” SPD data analyst Mark Bridge said. “Things tend to even out.”
There’s a broad difference between an uptick in calls generated by the public and a decline in those initiated by officers.
Calls generated by officers slowly declined from about 11,000 to about 8,000 in 2014, then jumped to about 11,500 in 2015 and clocked in at about 8,600 last year.
There were 129 patrol officers assigned to West Precinct — which includes downtown — in 2010. Last year, there were 95, Bridge said. The department has been using overtime and leaning on special units to offset the drop, he said.
The relationship between the 911 call increases and the area’s growth isn’t straightforward, of course.
“Downtown is a unicorn in a lot of ways,” Bridge said. In addition to residents and workers, “There’s this interaction with folks coming to visit and folks coming to special events. It’s hard to account for all that.”
One thing is clear: The vast majority of downtown calls, in each of the eight years and across almost every category, came from the business core. Anyone who has walked or taken a bus downtown would recognize that’s where much of the open drug use occurs and where people experiencing homelessness are most visible. Both downtown and the Pioneer Square neighborhoods are home to a number of services and shelters.
Not surprisingly, the data shows crime calls are most prevalent in the summer months, with spikes in July and August most years. The most calls are made between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., with 6 p.m. the peak.
Police incident reports result from only some calls and are filed when officers determine a crime has occurred or a noncriminal issue should be addressed.
Incident reports related to shoplifting and trespass increased 99% and 133% from 2010 to 2018, respectively, according to a Times analysis, while incident reports related to non-domestic aggravated assault increased 126%. Those rates leaped ahead of population and job growth.
Street-robbery incident reports climbed 16% (217 to 252) between 2010 and 2018. Narcotics incident reports dropped 48% (858 to 448) even as downtown boomed.
A noontime stroll from Pike Place Market east to Third Avenue and then south along the transit corridor offers a glimpse of everything the city has to offer, good and bad.
There are new stores and restaurants. There are panhandlers, kids waiting for the bus and a woman asleep on a lumpy black garbage bag as a shop owner hoses down the sidewalk around her. There are crowds of workers and tourists — lots of them this time of year — walking past the McDonald’s at Third and Pine either not noticing, or ignoring, the open drug deals.
There’s Benaroya Hall, Seattle’s palace of the arts, and the glass, steel and concrete tower at 1201 Third Avenue, formerly known as the Washington Mutual Building, a reminder of darker financial times and the largest bank collapse in the country’s history. The tower looms over the bustle of new construction all around.
There’s the trash-strewn stairway leading to the University Street transit station, where a man without shoes lies motionless among the cigarette butts and detritus at the bottom of the stairwell. It takes a minute to ensure he’s breathing. A couple blocks later, there’s a line of people waiting to get into Biscuit Bitch, a trendy breakfast and lunch spot. Across the street, a man in torn pants and a dirty jacket rants at the bus stop.
Another block, and it’s Third Avenue and James and the lunch crowd waiting for Il Corvo and its “artisanal pasta dishes,” mingling with the line of people waiting to see if they’ll get into the shelter at the Morrison Hotel, across from the courthouse. Just up the hill is City Hall.
Among those waiting for lunch: Hillary Andrews, a resident of Oakland, Calif., and her friend Dan Berman, who lives and works in New York for a local news station. They offer some perspective to the idea Seattle has a problem with downtown crime and homelessness.
“We were getting an ice cream down by the market last night, and we asked the cashier why everything was closed,” Andrews said. “She told us, ‘Well, it’s not safe.’ My response was, ‘Have you ever been to Oakland? Have you seen San Francisco?’”
Added Berman, “Come to New York. This is nothing.”
That’s not how it seems to Le Huyen, the owner and proprietor of Third Avenue’s Flame Cafe, on the border of Pioneer Square. She says problems are outside her door every day. On this particular afternoon, there are three police cars out front, handling some issue in the shelter next door.
“There’s more now than ever,” she said. “Of course it will influence the way I vote.”
Dan Malone, the executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, said homelessness has grown. As a result, there are more chances for conflict and more chances for drug dealers and other predators to target people on the margins.
Moreover, he said some daytime centers that provided services have closed. People linger outside the shelters, sometimes because there is safety in numbers, sometimes because there’s just nowhere else to go.
Combine this with fewer police on patrol, a lack of facilities and help for those with mental and emotional problems, and the opportunities for criminal or bad behavior increase, Malone said.
“The behaviors I see the most are the open consumption of alcohol and drugs,” he said. “The sort of stuff that community policing and a police presence used to deter.” He said his staff has not seen any more assaults inside the shelters than before.
Outside the shelter on Third Avenue across from the courthouse, a small group of men and women crouched in a doorway, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and marijuana. Marc Ridley, a 64-year-old who’s been homeless for two years, said it’s not unusual for people to be assaulted or harassed by others along the street. Inside the shelter, he said, it’s mostly safe. “People get sick sometimes,” he said.
Next to Ridley is a skeletal man with a scraggly beard who mumbles his name, “Chad,” and talks in a barely audible monotone, never looking up from his cigarette. “It’s not too bad,” he said when asked about life downtown. “It’s OK. I’m hoping for a bed.”
Downtown boosters are trying to walk the line between selling the area as successful and highlighting its problems.
“At the macro level, downtown is largely safe. But there are compounding factors that lead to a small subset of people having a pretty big impact,” said Blakeney, of the Downtown Seattle Association, which lobbies City Hall on behalf of member companies and residents and which employs street ambassadors and cleaners.
He pointed to a controversial report commissioned by business groups that looked at a sample of 100 “prolific offenders.”
“It’s retail theft, people stealing things to feed a habit, then going and using drugs,” he said. “We have a system that doesn’t deal with people who have these unique challenges, who need a range of services and interventions.”
Downtown’s public-safety story is complex. Some blocks remain problematic, and the area’s issues grabbed widespread attention July 12 when three passersby were stabbed, allegedly by a 29-year-old man with a history of mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness.
Westlake Park, meanwhile, has been reclaimed with food trucks, pingpong tables and chess boards. Crime rates citywide are way down, compared to the 1980s and 1990s. Is the area less safe than before?
“That’s such a tough question to answer,” because a small number of high-profile incidents can change perceptions, said Bridge, the SPD analyst. “You have to look at both the reality and what people are saying.”
The Police Department does try to measure perception. In 2015, residents of the commercial core who took part in a Seattle University survey rated fear of crime in their neighborhood 48.1 out of 100. In 2016, they said 43.7, and in 2017, 47.9.
‘A big city now’
Police reports provide some hard data, but Seattle politics can be just as chaotic as the corner of Third and James.
Burly Dion Baker doesn’t intimidate easily, he said. But the West Seattle renter, who rides the bus through downtown to his retail job in South Lake Union, is concerned about the situation in the area.
“The problem has gotten worse,” the 52-year-old said. “More drugs, more crime … It’s so bad that, generally speaking, I used to go downtown to the movies and other events, but I really don’t anymore.”
Baker keeps a close eye on local politics, and he recently attended a City Council meeting just to listen. District 1 incumbent Lisa Herbold, who helped champion last year’s short-lived per-employee tax on large companies to address homelessness, “has been relatively sober as to the needs of our district,”said Baker, still pondering how to vote.
District 7’s candidates include downtown parent Michael George, Assistant City Attorney Andrew Lewis and former Interim Police Chief Jim Pugel.
The Chamber is mostly backing candidates who say Seattle would benefit from more police and not from a safe drug consumption site.
Sergio Garcia, a Seattle cop running for council in District 6, doesn’t think downtown street crime and disorder will decide his race. He expects the contest to be decided based on similar issues closer to home, in Fremont and Ballard.
When Garcia is knocking on doors, how many voters immediately bring up downtown safety and civility? “Zero,” he said.
During more in-depth conversations, “downtown does come up,” he said.
“Seattle is a big city now and we’re still taking a small-town approach to dealing with our issues, including crime,” Garcia said. “We need to realize that big cities have crime, they have traffic, they have issues. This isn’t all occurring because of homelessness.”
Jason Bennett, a consultant working with candidates in four races, says “public safety and crime mean different things to different candidates in different districts.” There are three incumbents running: Herbold, Kshama Sawant in District 3 and Debora Juarez in District 5.
“In some districts, the concern is property crime. In other districts, it’s gun violence,” Bennett said. “There’s not one vision that people have about crime in the city. It’s localized and based on the perception of the person talking about it.”
Bennett said he’s not sure anger over street conditions will dominate the election.
“Does the ‘Seattle is Dying’ sentiment pervade the election right now? I don’t know that it does,” he said. “I think there are loud voices that are amplifying that message 100%. But as candidates are going door to door … I think people are talking about affordability at a much higher rate than they’re talking about downtown crime.”