Crime Central: Can Belltown Make a Comeback?

Can this downtown Seattle neighborhood bounce back from a serious crime wave?
Belltown booster Pastor Tim Gaydos

When Tim Gaydos takes visitors on a walking tour of Belltown, where he lives with his wife and two small children, he’s always a half-step ahead at a pace that can leave an out-of-shape companion gasping. As you catch your breath at a crosswalk while waiting for the light to change, he speaks in language drawn from his work as pastor of the Belltown Mars Hill Church: if not quite preachy, certainly with spiritual overtones. Gesturing to the hipster clubs, upscale bistros and hole-in-the-wall boutiques that are the backbone of Belltown street life, he says, “We need to build a civilization that would glorify God. Cities are the pinnacle of that.”

Gaydos’ enthusiasm for Belltown is great; he exhorts his followers to get involved, to “serve the city,” as he puts it. He’s taken up the mantle of leadership for the Belltown Business Association. Just like other businesses, he worries about his church’s cash flow. No money, no ministry. More important for Gaydos, he can’t expect his flock “to engage in the very fabric and life of our city,” as he wrote on his blog, if they’re too scared to go out of doors. And in the last few years, Belltown residents have had plenty of reasons to stay inside.

The main problem, Belltown residents say, is public safety, or to put it in Seattle-speak, the neighborhood isn’t very walkable right now, particularly at night. In 2005, Seattle police counted 3,199 crimes on the Belltown beats. By 2009 (the latest numbers available), the total number of crimes had risen to 3,447, about 9 percent more than four years earlier. In both years, roughly three-quarters of the crimes were thefts. Many of the criminals are repeat offenders. Police say 54 individuals account for more than 2,700 recent arrests and police contacts in Belltown. Collectively, the 54 have 877 convictions, including murder.

In the last several months, assaults in Belltown have grabbed headlines. In March 2011, Trinh Cam Le, the owner of the now-closed V-Bar Noodle Bar and Lounge, fired a 9-millimeter gun in the air to stop a fight. The lounge had a long history of trouble, and its liquor license had been suspended. On August 3, 2011, Matt Hale, a 68-year-old concierge who’s lived in Belltown since 1982, was savagely beaten by five men as he walked home from work. He spent nearly a month in the hospital. A number of Belltown residents later turned out for a rally to support Hale, and local restaurants donated money to help him in his recovery.

Many Belltown residents have learned to cope with the grim reality of urban life, even as boosters extol the virtues of urban living, such as good restaurants—the brand-new Coterie Room, Local 360, and Shiro’s, to name just a few—a few steps from home. Apparently, the sales pitches have worked: The population of the three census tracts that roughly cover Belltown rose from 9,256 in 2000 to 13,919 in 2010.

But the raw numbers haven’t yet translated into a “vibrant” neighborhood, in part because of the crime. “There’s just certain streets people don’t want to walk on,” says Marcus Charles, a partner in several small businesses in Belltown, including the Local 360 Cafe and Bar on First Avenue. When he walks the neighborhood, he avoids the west side of Second Avenue, where, he says, drug dealing is rampant. He blames the failure of his restaurant’s grocery spinoff, Local 360 Mercantile, in part on people’s fear of walking after dark in front of the store, which faced Bell Street. Charles looks at the cage-like barriers on some of the older buildings and wonders if Belltown’s high-rises may become urban fortresses, with residents parking their cars in underground garages and darting to the elevators, too frightened to venture out to the street. He looks south at the city’s old quarter, which is having its own troubles with public safety. “If the city government doesn’t want us to go the way of Pioneer Square,” he says, referring to that neighborhood’s reputation as a crime center, “we need to create a walking culture, so people will come out of their gated towers.”

The city has had plans to improve the people friendliness of Belltown since at least the 1990s. One obstacle is the area’s lack of green space. Currently, there are only two parks in Belltown—one is a tiny, 0.2-acre P-Patch; the other, just 0.3 acre in size, is for dogs.

A larger park for humans has been on the drawing board since 1998, but funding wasn’t available until 2009. And given the high cost of land downtown, the city won’t be able to lay out a standard park with green lawns, baseball fields and picnic tables. Instead, it will convert four blocks of Bell Street between First and Fifth avenues from a wide two-lane arterial to a narrow boulevard with more trees, places to sit, fountains and play areas. Groundbreaking has been delayed several times, and some Belltown residents have doubts about the design. But Seattle Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith says the project will break ground this spring, with completion by the end of the year. “We are getting going,” he says. “I’m feeling confident.”

Smith promises that another long-delayed project, the Belltown Community Center, will come to fruition at about the same time as the new park. Back in 1999, $2 million was approved for a community center, but the city has had trouble finding a location. At this point, planners have identified a spot on Fifth Avenue, but Carolyn Geise, a Belltown architect and activist who has worked on the project since its inception, doesn’t like it. “It’s at the edge of Belltown, not the center, the heart,” she says, but at this point, she’d be happy just to see something move forward. The long wait has taken a toll on her patience, and she left an advisory committee in the spring of 2011. “I’m the old guard. But there’s a lot of new people coming in.”

And efforts to combat the crime problem in the neighborhood have been getting a boost from Mayor Mike McGinn. He’s formed the so-called “Neighborhood Action Team Seattle,” an interdepartmental task force charged with finding ways of making Belltown safer and more livable. Deputy Mayor Smith says actions have ranged from installing brighter, LED bulbs in streetlights to new options for getting drug addicts off the street and into treatment. “We’re bringing the entire city family together to make a difference,” he says. “We can’t just tell the police to fix it.”

But fighting crime in Belltown suffered a setback in late 2011, when the state Liquor Control Board (LCB) delayed consideration of a measure allowing Seattle bars to close later. City officials want to let Belltown nightclubs stay open until 4 a.m. or later, hoping that drunken patrons will stumble home as the night progresses, instead of all at once at 2 a.m., when they’re more likely to brawl. Why the delay by the LCB? The state has to deal with the aftermath of the Initiative 1183 liquor privatization measure before taking up Seattle’s request. It’s unclear when the request will be on the LCB’s agenda.

Even if crime in Belltown eases, and a new park and community center open this year, a more fundamental issue may be emerging. At least half of Belltown’s residents are younger than 45 years old. Many are the 20-something members of what economist Richard Florida calls “the creative class”—highly educated, forward-thinking men and women attracted by the new urbanity of Belltown. The problem is their restlessness: They’re moving on after a few years, driven by career ambitions or a yearning for a house and backyard in which to raise a family.

“There’s more dogs in my building than kids,” Geise says, suggesting that few young people are interested in putting down roots in Belltown. Tim Gaydos agrees. “Belltown is made up of people who aren’t from Seattle,” he says. “People treat the neighborhood a little more like a hotel than a home.” That handicaps Belltown’s political clout, because too few people have a stake in the neighborhood’s future.

To combat the transience of Belltown life, Gaydos preaches a gospel of investment—not of money, but of time. He frames his argument in religious terms, asking people to “redeem their time” in Belltown by performing good works. “Move all the way in,” he says, to achieve a sense of ownership, which will pay off in a better, more settled city. “I’m very invested in the life of this community,” he says. “I think Belltown is the neighborhood gem of Seattle.”

 

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