The city of Seattle is trying to make the Third Avenue transit corridor, where an estimated 40,000 people arrive and depart downtown each day, safer to protect shoppers and others from a gauntlet of open-air drug deals, the homeless, the mentally ill and crowds of loitering street kids.
David Fenwick had just taken a photo of the Macy’s Christmas star with his iPhone and was sending it to friends in California when he was jumped, beaten, robbed and left lying in Pine Street by a group of youths.
The 69-year-old suffered a broken rib, a black eye and a concussion. Less visible was his shaken faith that downtown Seattle in the midst of the Christmas season — at 7:30 p.m. on a weekday — was safe.
“We hear about it happening in the Rainier Valley, but not on the main street of downtown Seattle,” Fenwick said.
There are other notable incidents of blatant crime in the heart of the city’s shopping district: A man was shot in broad daylight at Third and Pine in August 2007; another was robbed of his iPhone at gunpoint on Second Avenue in 2010.
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The 2007 shooting prompted the city to add police patrols to the Pike-Pine corridor downtown, Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said.
Now the city is taking on the Third Avenue transit corridor, where an estimated 40,000 people arrive and depart downtown each day, in some locations running a gantlet of open-air drug deals, the homeless, the mentally ill and crowds of loitering street kids.
The city commissioned a detailed study of the busy transit corridor in 2009. The report described Third Avenue as “uninviting, unattractive and generally a dreadful place to walk, shop or wait for a bus.” It concludes that the corridor must be improved if the downtown is to grow and continue to attract transit riders and tourists.
Mayor Mike McGinn plans to appoint a task force in January to improve the urban design, safety and security of Third Avenue. That group will include a host of Seattle department representatives including the police, as well as King County Metro, local businesses, community members, social-service providers and the Downtown Seattle Association.
The City Council also added more than $500,000 to the 2012 budget for street improvements, better lighting, bus shelters and more frequent cleaning.
The city says there’s more urgency now than ever to make improvements to the corridor. State budget cuts likely will mean more people on the streets needing drug- and mental-health treatment, more unsupervised felons and fewer resources to help them.
King County is also ending the Ride Free Zone in October after almost 40 years. It has allowed people to travel easily along Third Avenue between South Jackson Street and Battery Street, but police say it also has been a magnet for criminals who want to duck out of trouble and for vulnerable populations, including the homeless.
“We’ve got a lot to protect, particularly in the downtown core,” said Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith. “We need to take a coordinated, holistic approach to get ahead of the problems.”
Smith said the city’s approach to crime in Belltown over the past three months can be a model for addressing problems in the downtown core. In Belltown, he said, the city has enlisted the business community, social-service providers, city department leaders and the police to address issues in a more coordinated way.
The mayor’s staff is adamant that an increased police presence is not the answer. One result of their Belltown work was the finding that 54 individuals accounted for 2,700 arrests in the neighborhood.
Smith echoes a refrain repeated frequently by the mayor over the past six months: if the city could arrest its way out of the problem, it would have done so a long time ago.
But other advocates for a safer, more vibrant downtown say that an enhanced police presence is key. Jon Scholes, vice president for the Downtown Seattle Association, was one of many neighborhood business leaders who called on the city to increase police hiring in the 2012 budget. But with a city revenue shortfall of $25 million, no officers were added.
“Public safety is what we need to focus on first. We need a significant police presence to curtail the illegal activity and allow people to feel safe on their streets and sidewalks,” Scholes said.
City Councilman Tim Burgess says that both approaches are important and not mutually exclusive. He supports treatment for drug users, social services for the homeless and mentally ill, and more officers in areas of high street crime.
“We know that officer presence matters. We need to redeploy officers so they are more present in crime hot spots.” He noted that the redesign of Third Avenue calls for re-examining policing strategies along the corridor.
Physical changes such as more attractive bus shelters, more landscaping and better signage will help Third Avenue, Scholes said. He points to San Francisco and Portland as two cities that have remade their transit corridors into attractive, pedestrian-friendly streets.
Portland’s ambitious makeover, known as the Portland Mall, renovated or rebuilt 58 downtown blocks and intersections with high-end materials including granite, brick and wrought iron, added 45 new transit shelters, new bike lanes and public art. The price — $220 million — made it one of Portland’s largest public-works projects, said Mary Fetsch, spokeswoman for TriMet, the transit agency for the Portland metropolitan area.
Fetsch said the old bus shelters were dark and provided places to hide. The redesigned bus stops are open, well-lighted canopies with clear sightlines.
“You can see what’s happening on the street now.”
Third Avenue from Pioneer Square to Belltown encompasses about 20 blocks, but the council so far has appropriated just $350,000 for the street improvements and another $177,000 for additional cleaning.
“The city will need to invest much more to significantly improve the corridor and achieve something like what Portland has accomplished,” Scholes said. Still, he says, there’s a limit to what physical changes can do.
“More plantings, more lighting, more trees are great, but if we don’t deal with the drug dealing we haven’t improved the corridor.”
David Fenwick is still dealing with the aftermath of the attack at Fourth and Pine. He said his head is still swollen. He’s fighting depression and insomnia.
He has nothing but praise for the Seattle police officers who responded to a witness’s 911 call. The police detained three youths, but Fenwick was unable to make a positive identification.
“Basically, what I saw was a fist coming at my head,” he said.
He held on to his iPhone and lost only his shopping bag and the candy he had just bought for his grandchildren.
But he now wonders how to protect himself and whether he’ll ever feel safe again in the city where he’s lived for 45 years. He thinks an increased police presence would have helped.
“If there’d been a cop standing nearby, the kids probably wouldn’t have been inclined to do what they did.”
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.