Councilmember Tom Rasmussen stepped out of McDonald’s onto the corner of Third Avenue and Pine Street and smiled. “This is a great street,” he said. On the sidewalk around him, the heart of the city pulsed with life: a young man with a backward-turned baseball cap and baggy jeans sauntered through the crosswalk; a plump woman pushed an empty cart; a pack of pedestrians waited for a light; a stream of buses rushed by; a small flock of pigeons, avoiding the feet of passersby, patrolled the gum-speckled sidewalk for crumbs. It was a Thursday morning, just after 8 a.m.
Rasmussen stared south down Third.
“Look at the facades,” he said, pointing several stories up to the stonework that graces the buildings. He turned 180 degrees.
“And Macy’s,” he said. To showcase the architecture at night, lighting could illuminate building exteriors from Macy’s to Benaroya Hall, two blocks south, he suggested.
“Think how pretty it would be.”
Pretty: It’s not a word usually associated with downtown’s Third Avenue. Whether in person, print or online, people tend to describe the single block of Third that runs from Pine to Pike with more damning descriptors: a cesspool, an embarrassment, dirty, drug-ridden, scary, dangerous.
A councilmember since 2003, Rasmussen has heard these and worse from citizens and government officials. Third’s stigma can change, he said, if people work together. To that end, Rasmussen has a plan: replace the near-collective cynicism about Third Avenue with a communal sense of appreciation.
Rasmussen’s quest to turn the area’s haters into its champions is the driving force behind an urban revitalization plan called the Third Avenue Transit Corridor Initiative.
Put forth by the council in November 2011 by five councilmembers including Rasmussen, the initiative requests Mayor Mike McGinn institute a task force “to improve the functionality, urban design, safety and security” of Third Avenue downtown. City and county departments such as the Seattle Police Department (spd), Seattle Department of Transportation (sdot), Department of Planning and Development (dpd) and Metro would all pitch in to achieve this goal, municipal fairy godmothers removing the cinders from a road that Rasmussen sees as beautiful. The city council budgeted $350,000 for capital improvements along the roadway, which city officials expect will be matched by a $2 million grant that is currently pending approval from the federal government.
The full task force has met three times. It will submit its final Third Avenue Initiative work plan to the council’s transportation committee on Tuesday, July 24.
The initiative will also address how “tourism, economic development and social equity” will fare with the elimination of the Ride Free Area (rfa). The rfa will end September 29, when Metro will institute a pay-as-you-enter system on all buses downtown, even those in the transit tunnel.
Caught on tape
The area’s reputation as a dangerous place is not unfounded. It was a violent incident in the tunnel, which partially runs under Third, that turned his attention to the roadway, Rasmussen said.
In January 2010, a 15-year-old female was punched in the face and kicked in the head by another 15-year-old female at Westlake Station. While the underage teens tussled, moving from the platform to the tunnel roadway and back to the platform, three security guards watched — and didn’t intervene. An overhead camera captured the altercation; the video went viral. (The perpetrator was sentenced to 15 to 36 weeks in juvenile detention for second-degree assault.)
Recalling the video, Rasmussen said it was “awful” no one tried to help the teen, so he decided to act. He said he worked with Metro to reorient signage in the tunnel to better indicate red emergency phones. But addressing safety concerns aboveground on Third, he said, proved more complicated.
“What makes it so challenging is that practically every department, every agency in the state has some responsibility for this small area,” he said. “There’s really no one person accountable for Third Avenue.”
By design, the initiative doesn’t have a point person. Rasmussen said that’s to ensure all interested parties are accountable for getting the work done. To help, Rasmussen suggested that perhaps efforts could be coordinated by the Metropolitan Improvement District. Founded by the Downtown Seattle Association, the squad of yellow-jacketed bikers provides hospitality to tourists and collects what the association calls “market analysis.”
Even so, Rasmussen said, as the council’s transportation committee chair, he feels responsible for the effort. Since it’s easier to polish the image of a roadway if you can see the dirt up close, Rasmussen said he walks to City Hall along Third several times a week, to get a critical look at life on the road.
And on that recent Thursday morning, carrying a coffee cup from McDonald’s, Rasmussen headed to work. He didn’t have to travel far to see Third Avenue in action.
Hookahs, sirens and endless cycles
Rasmussen walked less than 50 feet along the east side of Third before he stopped in front of a tobacco and cigar store where a grizzled white man leaned against the store’s window. He said the council has received complaints that drug dealers often hang out there on the sidewalk.
Rasmussen gestured toward the store’s display window with his coffee cup: Hookahs and glass bongs sat gleaming on a series of shelves. What do they expect, he said, when there’s drug paraphernalia right there?
His words were nearly drowned out by the wail of a siren, as an ambulance zoomed north on Third. In the throng of people waiting for buses, some covered their ears. Rasmussen turned to look, then again addressed safety.
One challenge the initiative sets for the task force is to implement “effective means of policing the corridor and ensuring public safety,” specifically at such “hotspots” as Third and Lenora and Third between Pike and Pine.
Rasmussen talked about officers and policing, while behind him along Third, a motorcycle cop stopped a pedestrian. Dressed in oversized clothing, the middle-aged black man scowled as the officer spoke to him and wrote out a ticket. A pair of officers on foot patrol walked over to assist. The first officer handed the ticket to the pedestrian who picked up his oversized backpack from the sidewalk and stomped north up Third.
His offense? He had jaywalked in front of the ambulance, causing it to slow down.
It was a minor infraction, to be sure, and not the sort that causes people to think poorly of the block. The spot’s bad rap instead derives from a perception that illegal activity and violence reign supreme. But does perception line up with reality?
Crime statistics from the Seattle Police Department show that for the first three months of this year, in the area stretching from Second to Sixth avenues and Pine to Cherry streets, there were between seven and 10 robberies each month. Anywhere from 11 to 14 assaults occurred during the same time period, while larcenies/thefts ranged from a low of 80 to a high of 95 in February.
Statistics for the spring haven’t been released. But in place of numbers, there are personal stories.
In mid-June Seattle resident David Grech witnessed one man slash another with a knife at a bus stop near Third and Pine, across from McDonald’s. While he praised the response of police and paramedics, Grech sent an email to councilmembers that asked, “Why do you continue to allow the criminal activities to go on” near the fast food restaurant?
On average, Rasmussen said, the council receives an email a month from someone who has observed violence in the area. More effective law enforcement could help curb violence and crime.
Police department officials appear to agree. On July 10, Captain Jim Dermody announced plans to increase the police presence from now until Labor Day in four West Precinct “hot spots.” One of the locations: Third between Pine and Union streets.
The monthly cycle of emails to the city council underscores another, more nebulous cycle: the oft-repeated call to clean up Third, which usually follows a report of serious violence.
After a daylight shooting in August 2007, the Seattle Times reported that the city invested half a million dollars to fund an “emphasis patrol” of eight officers to combat crime in the region. That same year, then Mayor Greg Nickels, Metro and the Downtown Seattle Association negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding (mou), or collective agreement, to seek short-term improvements in public safety, trash collection and urban design.
The Department of Planning and development also completed a design study July 2009 to create recommendations for bus shelters, sidewalk improvements, landscaping, public art and more. A dpd spokesperson said those recommendations were only partially implemented, due to lack of finances.
The Third Avenue Initiative notes, almost as an afterthought, the Nickels-led mou was never executed. Rasmussen said he’ll investigate what portions can be revitalized.
Continuing his stroll down Third, Rasmussen navigated the early morning pedestrian traffic. He stopped for the light at Third and Pike, then stepped in front of Ross, the department store. Where the previous block had been full of people and tension, on this block, the sidewalk was nearly empty of people — and the atmosphere transformed.
Rasmussen reached the corner of Third and Union, and, as he faced west to admire the new Ferris wheel on the waterfront, an unkempt man with matted hair approached him. The man uttered a stream of unintelligible words as he passed inches from the councilmember, who seemed unfazed.
Before undertaking the tour, amid the hurly-burly of the McDonald’s breakfast rush, Rasmussen had said, “One of the biggest weakness in our human services efforts is I don’t think that we have effective outreach.”
But with many human services agencies stretched financially that may be a tough sell.
Rasmussen said he’s spoken to homeless youth and has seen mentally ill people in and around Third. If people could reach them, engage them, help them find housing and services, perhaps that might change the area’s perception.
But is the call to “clean up” Third merely a euphemism for a desire to push homeless, mentally ill and addicted people out of sight?
Rasmussen said his plan is to help people, not erase them: “That’s the last thing we want to have is a sanitized, suburban city.”
The area in front of Benaroya Hall looked anything but sanitized: A plastic cup rolled on the sidewalk, crushed cigarette butts dotted the concrete and the pages of a discarded free weekly paper curled in the breeze of a passing bus.
Standing at the bus stop along with other mid-morning urbanites, Rasmussen said part of the initiative will focus on cleaning up trash. Back in front of McDonald’s he’d said the city has already hired a company to power-wash gum from the sidewalks. He said that an improved system of trash removal is also in place.
When the 7 bus arrived, Rasmussen hopped on board. Surprisingly, at 8:30 a.m., the tail end of rush hour, the bus carried fewer than 10 passengers.
Determining how empty or full buses will be after September 29, when free downtown bus service ends, is a guessing game. But Rasmussen voiced a prediction about the demise of rfa: “It will impact people more than they anticipate.”
Even though the rfa encapsulates a nearly 130-block swath of downtown, Rasmussen said its imminent elimination plays into the initiative because Third Avenue is the county’s busiest transit corridor. Metro officials estimate that almost 44,000 boardings occur each weekday along Third from Battery to Jackson.
The legislative document that announced the initiative states that with most bus riders tapping orca cards for fare payment — by Metro estimates, close to 60 percent of those who board each weekday — bus boarding happens more quickly than it did in 2009 when the card became available to all riders. The document continues: “However, with the high level of regional and local buses working their way through downtown, Metro and sdot planners still have concerns about delays when the rfa ceases.”
Then there are the human service providers who’ve established offices or residential facilities within or close by rfa borders. The county determined in February that 86 social service agencies and/or residences called the area home. Riding free buses along Third provides easy access to most of those facilities — at least for the next two and a half months.
From then on, all metro buses will have a one-zone, non-rush hour fare of $2.25.
The loss of the rfa and its impacts on all riders will be part of the work plan the city will present to the council’s transportation committee on July 24. Much like the council received emails citing violence on Third, Rasmussen said he expects the council will hear from commuters voicing unhappiness about the end of the RFA.
The bus rolled to a stop before the Morrison, a building that houses disabled homeless adults. Rasmussen stepped off.
Making his way to City Hall, Rasmussen said he has high hopes for the upcoming work plan. It will coordinate the efforts of a team of agencies and disciplines who’ll work to remake Third. Increased lighting, more efficient trash service, perhaps advertising on bus shelters will create what he termed a better “streetscape.”
Rasmussen’s words at the end of his Third Avenue tour harkened back to other things he said earlier, inside McDonald’s. There, he’d mentioned that when he first spoke to people about cleaning Third, some government officials rolled their eyes in a “Here we go again” manner.
It’s the wrong attitude, he said.
“I don’t think that it’s acceptable for public officials just to shrug [their shoulders] or roll their eyes and say, ‘We’ve been through this before,’” he said. “I think we have to try.”