Rainier Beach Businesses Attempt to Thwart Crime With Beautified Storefronts

by Cliff Cawthon

On Thursday night, under the towering Rose Street Cafe Apartment building housing several of Rainier Beach’s small immigrant businesses, dozens gathered inside a recently refurbished one to celebrate the success of the Storefront Improvement Project.

The Sunset Cafe played host to the celebration of  he local business beautification and renovation project, one of five environmental ‘interventions’ under the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) approach attached to The Rainier Beach: A Beautiful Safe Place for Youth (ABSPY) initiative.

ABSPY is a community-led violence prevention effort that takes a ‘holistic’ approach to youth victimization and crime. The initiative has five complementary programs focused on five so-called crime “hot-spots” in the Rainier Beach  neighborhood.

The Sunset Cafe itself was a beneficiary of the Storefront Improvement Project , which gives small business owners support to beautify and re-organize their business as a way to address some of the environmental causes of crime. At the event, the main organizations leading this effort were present: Southeast Effective Development (SEED), the Seattle Neighborhood Group, and the Rainier Beach Action Coalition.

Barb Biondo, the Program Manager for ABSPY with the Seattle Neighborhood Group, explained what the  cafe’s face-lift had to do with fighting crime and supporting youth: “We looked at the crime data but we also looked at the places where crime is occurring and [asked], ‘what is it about this place that is supporting that behavior where people are being harmed and victimized and how is it used?”

In addition to beautifying storefronts and the physical environment, the ABSPY program has four other components: business community outreach, organizing a campus safety team, the ‘safe passage’ program, and youth and neighborhood engagement, which is co-sponsored and organized with the Rainier Beach Action Coalition. The combination of these components attempt to address concerns around crime and neglected youth in Rainier Beach.

“It’s all about perception, it’s not about how things [actually] are in a neighborhood, it’s what people see,” says David Sauvion of the Rainier Beach Action Coalition, a neighborhood improvement group.

When asked about the effectiveness of beautification projects in crime reduction, he said it was a complicated issue and that the storefront improvements and larger ABSPY initiative, “is about people feeling better about their neighborhood, people taking ownership…[this] doesn’t address gun violence or other issues.”

Initially funded through a federal crime prevention grant, ABSPY is currently financed  through the city’s Human Services department. Lance Randall, SEED’s Director of Economic Development walked the room through some of the improvements that had also been made to Union Store, Bilisbee Market and Tienda Mi Pueblito.

Aesthetic enhancements to the local businesses included new paint jobs, sign replacements, graffiti cleanups, and replacing window bars with security film to create a more inviting feel. In one instance, with Bilisbee Market, partner organizations and contractors helped renovating the roof.

A Seattle Police Department representative also attended the presentation – Monica Osborn, the Admin for the Operations Department for  SPD’s South Precinct and a member of the community policing team.

Speaking to the Emerald just hours after the Seattle Police Monitor concluded SPD had achieved initial compliance with provisions of the nearly 5 year old Consent Decree between the Department of Justice and the city, she said SPD’s role will continue to be about engagement with local business owners and residents.

“We’re going to be out in the community, engaging with businesses and we’re going to be working with Barb…and if [businesses] want to sign up for the new trespass program that’s a big part of this project.”  In addition to supporting businesses in terms of enforcement, Osborn also mentioned that this was a trust-building opportunity between the police and the community.

Responding to a question about whether efforts  such as ABSPY spurred gentrification and displacement in the area, Biondo said, “We worked with the property owner to sign an agreement, we don’t want the business owner to suffer any negative consequences…[they’ve] agreed not to raise their rent for two years.”

She went on to express her hopes that this would enable small business owners to be able to preserve the community and Randall framed it as business owners being “able to be their own developers”.

Randall echoed Sauvion’s earlier comments saying, “when you make the place look better, it goes a long way because people say that’s a place I want to be.”

As the initiative trucks ahead, future renovations include locations along Rainier Avenue and Henderson St.

More information on the initiative can be found here.

Cliff Cawthon is a Seattle-based writer originally from New York’s queen city, Buffalo. Clifford has been civically engaged since he was a teenager in Buffalo and his advocacy work taking him to places as far away as Cuba.  He’s also an alumnus of the University of Manchester, in the UK, where he graduated with an M.A. in Human Rights and Political Science.