by Erica C. Barnett
(This article was originally published on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
Mayor Bruce Harrell gathered supporters in the Westlake Center plaza Wednesday morning to announce his latest downtown activation plan, officially titled “Downtown Is You.” But the press event was initially sidelined by a group of anti-sweeps protesters holding signs and chanting “stop the sweeps” and other slogans from a few feet away. After halting his prepared remarks, Harrell hopped down from the stage and attempted to get the protesters to be quiet, but he gave up and returned to the stage after several responded that they didn’t trust his offer to talk to them in a different venue.
“Westlake Center is a center for civic engagement,” he told the audience. “Unfortunately, that’s not civic engagement — that’s just yelling.”
“These [unsheltered] folks you see down here, they’re not strangers to me. I grew up on these streets,” Harrell continued. Gesturing toward the group of young activists, he added: “How dare anyone say I’m going to sweep anybody. I don’t see anyone over there I grew up with.”
Under Harrell, the city has dramatically increased the speed and frequency of encampment removals.
The seven-point downtown plan Harrell announced Wednesday does not directly address encampments. However, it does envision a downtown occupied by shoppers, sports fans, and residents of new high-rise apartment towers along a section of Third Avenue between Stewart and Union Streets, where drug users and unsheltered people frequently congregate. The proposed upzone includes the block that includes a McDonald’s and a check cashing outlet as well as the block anchored by Ross Dress for Less.
At a press briefing on Tuesday, mayoral adviser (and soon-to-be deputy mayor) Tim Burgess said “several” developments in the area were “ready to go” once a proposed upzone goes through. The proposal would increase the maximum height for new buildings from 170 feet to 440 (460 if new developments include child care or education facilities) on about five blocks that are adjacent to an area where 450-foot-high buildings are already allowed. The city’s land use database does not include any active permits for these blocks.
On Tuesday, Burgess said the proposed rezone reflects “a recognition that we need to make some dramatic changes in order to shift what’s been several decades now of problematic street uses and disorder.”
Harrell’s plan also includes legislation to allow a broader mix of uses on the ground floor of buildings (apartments or conference spaces instead of retail, for example) and throughout buildings themselves, in the form of “vertical residential neighborhoods within buildings” that allow residents to access everything they need, from child care to retail stores to pickleball courts, inside their buildings.
The idea is a nod to the fact that — Harrell’s back-to-work order and admonishments notwithstanding — many people have continued to work at least partly from home, leaving significant vacancies in downtown office buildings. “I don’t think this is a philosophical shift away from retail” serving downtown office workers, Office of Economic Development Director Markham McIntyre said Tuesday. “It’s embracing some flexibility and some new ideas and wanting to encourage a different mix on the ground floor area as the city continues to change.”
Another piece of legislation would make a half-block of Pike Street between First and Second Avenues pedestrian-only, connecting Pike Place Market Market to — well, one half-block of downtown that is directly adjacent to, but not part of, the market. (Asked whether the mayor would consider prohibiting car traffic in Pike Place Market — where pedestrians compete for space on the historic brick streets with exhaust-spewing cars — McIntyre said the city was still “talking to Pike Place Market … to figure out what that might look like,” but had no immediate plans to get rid of cars in the Market, a change pedestrian advocates have been demanding for decades.
Beyond those concrete legislative proposals, the plan consists mostly of expanded pilot projects (doubling the number of businesses participating in Seattle Restored, a pop-up project that fills empty storefronts), initiatives that are already underway (reopening City Hall Park, “more murals” downtown), and ideas that are still very much in the whiteboard stages. It also incorporates many aspirational ideas that would require significant additional funding, such as completing the downtown streetcar, putting a lid over I-5, and creating a new “arts district” from South Lake Union to Pioneer Square.
And, of course, it assumes a heavier police presence downtown — a mostly unspoken, but bedrock, element of the proposal. “Make Downtown Safe and Welcoming” is actually number one on the plan’s list of seven priorities, starting with arrests of people “distributing and selling illegal drugs” (and, presumably, using them — Harrell mentioned that a bill criminalizing drug possession and public use will likely pass in July). The safety plan also includes a number of initiatives to address addiction that Harrell announced in April, along with a plan to help private property owners remove graffiti — a particular burr under Harrell’s saddle.
Earlier this month, a federal judge issued an injunction barring the police from arresting people for tagging or graffiti, finding that Seattle’s broadly worded law “likely … violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments by being both vague and overbroad.” On Wednesday, I asked Harrell — who had just expounded on the difference, as he sees it, between “art” and “graffiti” (“One word: It’s unwanted”) — what he would do if the judge overturned the law.
“We have to have the ability to arrest people for unwanted graffiti, so if there’s precise language in the law that is unconstitutional, that is vague, that’s ambiguous, we have to fix it,” Harrell said. “If we lose the lawsuit, we go back to the drawing board and figure out what the deficiencies are in the law, and we fix it or remedy it.”
“This graffiti stuff just drives me nuts,” Harrell added.
Erica C. Barnett is a feminist, an urbanist, and an obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the quotidian inner workings of City Hall.
📸 Featured Image: Mayor Bruce Harrell announces his latest downtown activation plan to people gathered in the Westlake Center plaza on June 28, 2023. (Photo: Erica C. Barnett)
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