Downtown Seattle crime foments frustration and takes a toll on lives and business

Merchants say the gritty street scene is rapidly deteriorating

By By Rob Smith and Bill Conroy April 1, 2020

Business leaders are frustrated with continuing criminal activity downtown, describing Third Avenue in a letter to city officials as a “deeply rooted drug market.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Seattle magazine.

Merchants say the gritty street scene is rapidly deteriorating

Business leaders are frustrated with continuing criminal activity downtown, describing Third Avenue in a letter to city officials as a “deeply rooted drug market.”

If she had it to do over again, Lauren Ruiz would not be pursuing ownership of a Subway sandwich shop on Third Avenue in downtown Seattle.

Ruiz has managed the 500-square-foot store between Pike and University streets since 2016. She’s assaulted on an almost daily basis and has the bruises on her upper torso to prove it. Underneath the cash register, she keeps two cans of Mace and a large rubber mallet, which she has never used but brandishes for protection when she and her co-workers fear being attacked.

Drug dealers openly ply their trade inside the restaurant. Some even break out their scales to measure meth, heroin and cocaine. When Ruiz asks them to leave, many do so slowly, knowing that, even if caught, they’ll be back on the streets within a day or two.

“If I don’t stick my head out into the lobby, they’ll shoot up. It’s the same faces all day, every day,” Ruiz says. “It makes it hard to run a business. Our profit keeps going down and down and down. This used to be a $4,000 [a day] store. It’s now a $1,500 store.”

Angered and concerned by a January shootout near Third Avenue and Pine Street that left one woman dead and seven other innocent victims injured — including a 9-year-old boy — frustrated business leaders fired off a letter urging city officials to do something, anything, about  downtown’s worsening street scene, calling Third Avenue a “deeply rooted drug market” that has existed for decades. The city responded by briefly beefing up police presence along Third Avenue.

Business and civic leaders sent a similar letter last October, and the frustration is palpable. Shortly before the downtown Macy’s department store closed for good in February, astonished shoppers watched a man wearing a hoodie unabashedly enter the store and deploy a pair of bolt cutters to snip the wires securing several high-end purses. He then scooped up the merchandise and calmly walked out of the store.

Bartell Drugs also closed its downtown Third Avenue store adjacent to the Subway with months remaining on its lease because of mounting theft and concerns over the safety of employees and customers. Workers at one downtown building were greeted by security guards in the lobby one morning and were told that intruders had bypassed the security system, were riding the elevators and sleeping in the stairwell.

Downtown crime is up 30% the past three years, according to the Downtown Seattle Association, but even those numbers ignore a wide swath of criminal activity, says Rod Kauffman, president of the Building Owners and Managers Association Seattle King County, known as BOMA. The industry trade group represents more than 270 companies in King County that own or manage 65 million square feet of commercial real estate.

A recent BOMA survey of its members reveals building owners and managers are underreporting crime by a staggering 80%.

“There’s ample video evidence,” Kauffman says. “We’ve had the same perpetrators enter our members’ buildings downtown over and over again, even after being identified and arrested. They are brazenly back the next day.”

Two reports released last year prove as much. Both the “System Failure” report and its follow-up, “System Failure II,” lay the blame squarely at the feet of the Seattle City Attorney’s office. The second report — which was released last October — notes:

The Seattle City Attorney’s office declines to file charges in almost half of all nontraffic-related criminal cases that Seattle police refer for prosecution.

  •  The office takes on average six months to file cases when the suspect is not in custody.
  • Even after cases are filed, 42% result in no meaningful resolution after two years, with many still pending with outstanding bench warrants or dismissed because of lack of evidence.
  • Since February 2019, 87 of 100 prolific offenders have been booked more than 220 times. A dozen of those offenders have been booked five times.

The report concedes that the criminal justice system may not be the best solution for addressing issues that are often the root cause of criminal activity — such as mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness. Seattle is recognized as a national leader in offering programs to assist individuals struggling with behavioral disorders that can lead to repeat criminal offenses, but such programs alone can’t address those issues adequately absent a functioning criminal justice system.

Mayor Jenny Durkan said as much during a recent presentation at the Downtown Seattle Association’s annual meeting.

“We need to devote more resources and create more partnerships to deal with the mental health and addiction problems,” Durkan says. “We also need to invest in programs that help youth, provide needed social services and keep them away from gangs. Public safety requires a strong police presence, but also a strong, committed [community] effort to lift up families while also ensuring those who commit crimes are held accountable, and also get the training and other services necessary so they can reenter society. Those are significant challenges and we need to find the resources [to accomplish it].”

Building owners and managers are underreporting crime by 80%, a recent survey found. Still, crime is up 30% downtown over the past three years.

Business leaders, though, are tiring of talk and are increasingly demanding action at a time when Seattle is experiencing explosive economic growth. Some 328,000 jobs are located downtown, which accounts for 54% of the value of all commercial property in the city — with 17.5 million square feet of office space added since 2010 (including 4.5 million square feet completed last year). Almost 5,000 children live downtown, double the count 10 years ago. Tourism and convention business are at all-time highs.

Justin Goin, general manager of the Yard House Restaurant on Fourth Avenue between Pike and Pine streets, signed the most recent letter to city officials. While admitting that many large metros across the country endure similar problems, he urges leaders to study cities that manage to keep their streets safe.

That’s exactly what they did recently when they invited several Minneapolis officials to share their innovative approaches to improving public safety. The Minneapolis delegation discussed the importance of public-private partnerships, the involvement of the city attorney’s office and how “active probation supervision, social service referrals and problem-solving courts” can help alleviate the problem.

Goin, though, says he feels “powerless.” “The police force down here now is a temporary Band-Aid,” Goin says, referring to beefed-up patrols on Third Avenue. “Any lull we’ve seen in drug activity will come back once this show of force goes away.”

For Kauffman, the issue also comes down to more police officers on the street. He says private security costs for BOMA members have doubled and, in some cases, tripled.

“My fear is, a lot of our elected leaders think we can’t really address the crime issue until you address the drug and mental health issues, which are huge,” he says. “But crime needs to be addressed concurrently with other efforts, and I don’t see how our elected leaders are thinking that way. Our employees and tenants are afraid.”

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