It was all smiles a few years ago when Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels cut the ceremonial ribbon. The city had just poured $9 million into the Ave Project to increase economic activity and revitalize University Way Northeast (also known as the Ave), one of the city's more well-known streets.
But life in the aftermath of the project, completed in summer 2003, is both better and worse, according to people who live and work in the University District.
"Some of what they did was fine," said Matt Fox, president of the University District Community Council. "We at the community council were longtime supporters of the project, but we always said it wouldn't solve all our problems."
'Taking over the block'
The problem now is crime, and it's starting to dull some of the sheen the city worked so hard to create.
"We really feel the need to put the word out there so that the police and the city know we have a particular problem," said Theresa Lord Hugel, executive director of the Greater University Chamber of Commerce.
At her urging, chamber members met with representatives from the Mayor's Office, the City Council's Public Safety Committee chairperson Nick Licata and Seattle Police on Aug.10 to discuss possible solutions. Another public meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Sept.15, at University Heights Center, 5031 University Way N.E.
"I knew the problem was bad," Hugel said, "but what I realized at the first meeting was that things were much worse than I originally thought. People are being intimidated, threatened and harassed. Gang members have told merchants that they are taking over the block."
According to most, the majority of the crime is occurring in the 4700 block of University Way. There, they say, clusters of "thugs" peddle heroin and rock cocaine from shiny, new bus shelters, swaggering about the sidewalks and stirring up trouble. It's enough to make some people avoid the Ave altogether.
"You won't catch me walking down the Ave at night," longtime U-District resident Larry Smith said. "My brother went to the University of Washington and used to spend a lot of time in the area, but he won't even go down there anymore because he knows what's going on. I saw one kid about a week ago getting the (expletive) beat out of him in broad daylight, right on the sidewalk."
Pete Pesco, of Mail Etc., near the heart of the problem area, said he's well aware of what's going on outside his front window.
"There are crowds of kids out there, hanging around and dealing drugs. We've had to go out and ask them to move away from the front of the store. Some businesses have received threats, but we haven't had anyone be confrontational with us yet," he said, adding that one of his neighbors recently had a window broken.
Some merchants acknowledged the problem, but weren't willing to be interviewed for fear of being targeted by gangs.
More sophisticated crime
Most, including police, agree that illegal drugs are the catalyst for the trouble on the Ave, but cracking down on them isn't as simple as it sounds. One difficulty, according to Hugel, is that these particular drug operations are sophisticated.
"If you watch them, you'll see that they have runners and scouts positioned throughout the neighborhood," she said. "They have signals and cell phones and pagers to communicate with one another. This isn't hippie, trippy stuff like you'd see in the '60s."
Sgt. Robert Benson, of the Seattle Police Department's North Precinct, agrees. He said dealers on the Ave know what they're doing.
"The narcotics activity in the area is well-organized," Benson said. "But we're doing everything we can to improve the problem."
That includes increasing patrols. Benson said emphasis had been placed on the area in the weeks following the meeting and that several arrests had been made as a result.
Recently, plain-clothes officers, foot-patrol officers and officers on bicycles and horseback were patrolling the area at different times. Additionally, five to 10 officers from the North Precinct regularly patrol an area that includes the U-District, but Benson said they couldn't focus exclusively on the Ave because they are also responsible for other areas.
Pesco said he's noticed a difference since the increase in police presence. "The cops have been doing a great job of bringing in more officers," he said. "Everything they've done has helped immensely."
A few blocks south of Pesco's store, things are much calmer. "This end of the Ave is pretty quiet most of the time, at least as far as crime goes," said Chris Weimer, owner of Magus Books. "We'll see some panhandling or, occasionally, someone selling some pot, but it's nothing like it is at the other end of the Ave. Up there, I'll see gangs of 12 to 20 kids just standing around. Things really seem to be going downhill [there]."
A changing Ave climate
Kian Pornour, owner of Wooly Mammoth Inc., said the problem must be viewed from a larger perspective.
"There's a scale of comparison," he said. "The Ave used to be safer; the demographics used to be different. Now you see more rental properties in the area, and things are more rundown."
Because of that decline, the city began to invest in the area, the culmination of which was the Ave Project. But because of inadequate funding, police presence in the U-District has continued to diminish, and the subsequent increase in crime is threatening to offset the myriad improvements.
"There used to be regular foot patrols and more community policing," Pornour said. "Officers were checking in every day, and there was a sense of unity among the community. Now there's not a continuous presence; [the police] simply don't have the resources. Things have turned around in the last few weeks, but whether or not this can be sustained is very questionable."
Some complained that even when police were visible, they weren't making much of an impact.
"Instead of just being around and being a presence in the community, they're busting people for jaywalking," Fox said. "Every so often they come in with this enforcement attitude, which is good, but a lot of what they end up enforcing is ticky-tack things."
Fox said the emphasis should be on more serious crimes. "We have some real public-safety issues. I don't think the people selling crack are quaking in their boots because the police just busted a skinny, vegan kid for crossing the street against the light."
Benson said he understood the criticism, but that the problem is more complicated than people realize.
"There are laws that prevent us from just walking up to people and searching them for drugs. Police officers stand out, and obviously criminals aren't likely to do anything wrong right in front of us. I know jaywalking is a tender issue because so many people do it, but we have to enforce what we see. I do encourage officers to use a lot of discretion when it comes to those types of crimes."
The other issue, Benson said, is that the drug activity, if pushed away from the Ave, will inevitably migrate elsewhere.
"Unfortunately, policing is like squeezing a water balloon. If you squeeze one end, the water is displaced and goes somewhere else, which is what we've seen on the Ave. These problems used to occur on the 4500 block [of University Way], and now they've just moved up the street."
Still, Hugel is confident that a solution will be found: "This has certainly been a lesson in patience, but we're all going to put our heads together and work it out."
Next issue: How the Ave Project has improved the U-District's image.