Seattle’s Third Avenue: Raw and Suffering

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A walk in Seattle’s downtown along Third Avenue between Union and Pike is an abrupt confrontation with a daily struggle for survival on a city street in crisis. It is, has been for months, a civic desert of boarded-up commerce.

Along one side, drug dealers, selling to addicts desperate for their next fix – to find it, to fund it. On the other, businesses desperate to stay alive are under threat not only from a pandemic, but from the crime, trash, and drugs despoiling the sidewalks outside their windows.

Maria Coassin came to America, the Pacific Northwest and Seattle from a small town in the Friuli region of Italy, bringing gelato and Italian pastries to the northeast corner of Third and Union.  She opened Gelatiamo 25 years ago on a street never, as she tells, “the highlight of anyone’s trip downtown, but with Benaroya Hall and Wild Ginger opening I hoped for things to get better. And they did, for a little while.”

But then came the end of traffic parked on Third, a street now dedicated to transit only, followed by the slow but steady rise of open drug dealing on the street and the shoplifting, addiction, and theft it spawned.  And then COVD-19 — all of it driving Gelatiamo to a breaking point.  Every day, Maria says, is almost existential. “I cannot afford to lose everything I poured into my business. I struggle every day to keep going. Eight months of boarded up windows last year. Two broken ones in a two-week period at the end of this past December. Shootings, drug dealing, crime, theft, random acts of violence…. all in a day’s work. It is heartbreaking. “

Covid shut down Gelatiamo for almost three months and now her gelato and pastry shop is open for limited hours Thursday through Sunday. Business is down 70 percent. Coassin is behind on rent, carrying total losses near $1 million since Covid came down, she reports. Only the persistent sale of pastries, of Maria’s special cakes, “are saving us.”  Customers are afraid and employees are reluctant to come downtown. She herself is often afraid to walk out in the street.  “We are,” she laments, “left alone.”

Across the street, Rick Yoder’s Wild Ginger, an iconic Asian-style restaurant, is finally open again after 20 months. It was shut down by Covid and by the same crime, loitering and garbage on the sidewalks.  Yoder says he’s not seen anything like it in the 22 years since Wild Ginger moved up from Western Avenue; every other shop moving north from his location, from T-Max, Steak and Shake and a Starbucks, is boarded up, shut down, driven away less by Covid than by the trash, theft, drug-dealing and addiction that’s taken over the street.  “It is,” Yoder says, “incredibly devastating.” 

Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, is blunt, lamenting that; city government simply abandoned its charter responsibility to keep our downtown streets safe.  Scholes calls it an “abdication of municipal responsibility.  It’s been left to the shop owner or the security guard, the retail clerk, to pick up the mess, to literally put themselves in harm’s way – they are the ones on the front lines.”   For the DSA, what’s taken hold is an illegal bazaar of retail crime, drugs, reports of sex-trafficking – all of it highly organized and often on municipal property.  He calls Third Avenue “a publicly sanctioned, illegal bazaar in the middle of Seattle.”

None of it is a mystery to Yoder.  When traffic left the street, when the City Attorney and Council decriminalized petty crimes like shoplifting, when policing came under fire, when officer retirements and departures cut the number of officers, the underworld took advantage.   Drug dealers moved in on the street, and the bitter cycle of addiction, narcotics sales, and theft to support the next fix, took over.  It soon became what Scholes calls a crime “free-for-all.”

So why did Yoder reopen Wild Ginger downtown again? “I’m not going to knuckle under to crime outside, the fencing, the dealing, so we reduced our business model – limited the menu, cut back staff and hours.” He’s hired security guards and plans on staying open until his customers slowly come back. With this caveat: “It’s not going to happen until Mayor Bruce Harrell and the City Council get on it.”  

Maria Coassin is also not giving in or closing, even though for her, unlike a Starbucks or McDonald’s or T-Max with multiple outlets, Third and Union is her only retail shop, though she also supplies gelato to restaurants and supermarkets.   “I have to keep on – there is no choice.  My job is to make gelato,” she says, “not to run the city.  I need the city to enforce the laws, to stop the constant invasion of public spaces.”

There are signs in recent days that Mayor Harrell and SPD are “getting on it.”  Just a few days ago emphasis patrols, some on foot, others on bicycles, started monitoring the street.  For Wild Ginger and Gelatiamo, for those shops still boarded up, there’s renewed hope that it’s not too little, too late. The caution, confirmed to us by SPD, is that there are still too few officers to do more than a short-term focus on the Third Avenue crisis. They confirm that SPD is working directly with the Harrell administration on a longer-term strategy, including building back recruitment.  There’s no overnight fix. 

Seattle Times columnist Jon Talton set the challenge in a recent column, writing that he’ll be watching “to see if Third can make a comeback.  It’s a marker for all of downtown and public safety citywide.”  Scholes of the DSA says he’s encouraged by talks with the new city government, but cautions that it’s time “to show the public we can make a difference, show them something they can see with their eyes – they will judge the progress or lack of it by what they see, or don’t see.”   

Mike James
Mike James
Mike James was a long-time anchor newscaster at KING TV.

26 COMMENTS

    • Yeah, one thing that drives me crazy is there just isn’t a bigger story in the Puget Sound area. This sort of blight is effecting all of Seattle’s business districts, all of Tacoma’s business districts and most of the ones in between. Small business is being pushed into utter ruin.

      At this point, it’s fix it or the business districts die. It’s not about blame or political postering, it’s more like a favorite Aunt with cancer. If immediate medical attention isn’t sought out, it’s all over but the crying.

      • YES EXACTLY. I live in udistrict/ravenna and was just going to UW Roosevelt for an appointment earlier today and broken car window glass everywhere all along the sidewalks and the old Hardwicks had all windows broken in/inside was trashed. [I know open businesses have this too]. any building that is vacant for 2 minutes is quickly trashed, occupied and often burnt down [still upset over the Seven Gables theater].

        Also UDist is completely ignored historically more than any other part of the city. The permanent residents are the only ones that care – or try to – but the majority student areas they don’t care, don’t vote, etc. Rob Johnson screwed us over and worse ever since.

  1. Still remember the flack that KOMO took for their “Seattle is Dying” piece more than a year ago. If you look it is also bad at the bottom of Queen Anne , Ballard and other numerous areas of town AND NOTHING GETS DONE . Drug addiction needs to be criminalized other wise it will never end. Or we need to set up a tenderloin area where the city buys all the businesses and property owners out and limit drug usage in that area. These are people who can’t /won’t cope with life i.e. Lost Souls – we need to let them go……….

  2. Good call-out of a problem that blot’s Seattle’s reputation for enlightened, forward-looking change. But Third Avenue is not a new problem. I came to Seattle in mid-1985 and lived for several months in the Westin. From there, I gravitated toward the market and its nearby restaurants. I recall having been asked by my new business associates how I liked Seattle and compared it with Washington, DC from which I had come. They were shocked at my comment about the streets being dirty and peopled by scroungers and hangers-about. They, coming from Bellevue, The Highlands, Broadmoor and the like saw “downtown Seattle” as Fifth Avenue and Nordstroms, through rose-tinted glasses as it were. They didn’t walk around 3rd and Pike or Pine. Four years later, I moved from Medina to Market Place North, glad to be back downtown. But I was shocked by the degradation of the neighborhood in those few years. And now, as Mike James reports, it is orders of magnitude worse.

    The message is that trouble-spots need to be looked at objectively, factually, and nipped in the bud before allowed to metastasize. Firm, not harsh, treatment is called for early. The Third Ave condition now critical rooted itself forty years ago; wishful empathy and lack of resolve on the part of city government allowed its cancerous growth to eat away at the reputation and joy of a vibrant Seattle. And now the social and economic costs of restoration are multiples of what it would have cost to police, provide counselling and treatment back in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

    • I take this a degree further. How about those n the street? No one chooses a career in drugs, prostitution, mental illness. As you say, we abandoned the chance to be something long ago and now that the problem appears monumental, we seem to be choosing aggressive confrontation as a solution. If there is any change, it won’t last. I’ve lived in too many cities not to know you need to remember you’re dealing with people, not a separate species.

  3. Maybe one solution would be to relax the requirement for storefront retail on Third Avenue, thus helping shops on Second and Fourth. Seattle has required too much streetfront retail as a condition for new buildings. Let them convert to office uses, which would cut down the loitering and the shoplifting, and be easier to make secure. For now we have a sterile standoff: police don’t like sidewalk duty and the city tells retailers they need to hire more private security, which most cannot afford. Next, bring back some auto lanes in between rush hours and after 6 pm. Another positive step would be to revamp/upgrade/professionalize the downtown ambassadors, funded by the Metropolitan Improvement District.

  4. My experience was similar to Fletch Waller- I came from Chicago by way of several other cities in the late 80s and have always seen Seattle as a particularly run down city. I see reputation for the “enlightened thinking” as self-importance. The decidedly uncivl lawlessness and blight have been present since its inception.

  5. This week a neighbor was awaken at 3:00 AM to a man ringing their doorbell and after being confronted asked for a drink of water. After the obvious NO the wife posted her regret that she didn’t help and stated ‘It could of been Jesus’. This thinking is the ‘Wishful Empathy’ mentioned by a previous responder.
    IF we want a city that is overrun by vagrants and criminals, adhere to that position.

  6. Thankyou for this piece, more please! This quote from Marc Dones of the new Regional Homelessness Authority, (on Crosscut) encapsulates the situation:

    “There is no end to homelessness without the incorporation of lived experience. … There is no end to homelessness without a racial justice approach,” said Dones. “I respect and understand that in this community, homelessness has been a fight. That’s not my style. While we sort of politic around this, people die outside. That’s not what I came here to do.”

    Never is it mentioned that entire business districts (and the businesses within them) are dying, and that it will take years and millions of dollars to resurrect them because of the impact of Seattle’s focus on the needs and rights of the homeless over any other rights and needs. “Lived experience” is a phrase that automatically confers outsized legitimacy— but which is applied curiously only to one half of the equation. The “lived experience” of the businesses that provide jobs, taxes and a reason to locate here is ignored.

    Never is there acknowledgement of the long term outcome ensured by these policies. If no one can be removed from the streets unless they are guaranteed a free place to live, and if, as has happened, Seattle is put on the map as the place to go for free housing, temperate climate and essentially legalized drugs, there will be no end of new clients who must be housed at taxpayer expense. Accountability and limits need to be built into housing strategies or they will never succeed.

    • Those few 3rd Avenue blocks are more a crime scene that a homelessness encampment, but in some places, of course, there’s overlap. What I never see discussed here, though it’s a tactic in other cities, is the establishment of an interim camping space (on unused government property) that is safe, including toilet facilities and access to assistance. The policy now, seemingly, is to simply allow camping about anywhere in parks or downtown streets until actual housing options become available, a policy that keeps some parks and sidewalks close to unusable – and breeds lawlessness as well.

      Better to have alternatives that give both assistance to those in need, and clear sidewalks and park areas for public use again. In short, compassion at both ends.

      • Could you mention another city that did that, for an example? Seems to me something like that would be very implementation-dependent. In context, we’re talking about moving 3rd Ave campers in there, I guess along with Green Lake campers, and everyone else? Wide open? Police presence? City liability?

        What I see here goes back to Ed Murray’s attempt to clear “the Jungle” and other encampments in 2016. Half a decade later, that spectacle continues to be at the roots of public opinion that will keep the tents in place at the discretion of “lived experience” etc. To whatever extent Harrell may have any realistic plan to get the situation cleaned up without the drama, that’s what we need – however long it takes.

        • Sacramento and Denver have tried the safe encampment approach – Boston as well to some extent. Not sure how it’s worked out. Tacoma had envisioned a big tent approach to provide safe and serviced encampment space, but money was the problem – there’s no cheap way to find, fund, and staff alternative approaches.

      • Thank you! I have never understood why we do not have identified camping areas with security and facilities. And restriction to those areas. With the realestate market ceaselessly racheting up prices, and a state that lives on sales taxes and municipals on real estate taxes no one has a real incentive for affordable housing….but at least folks who prefer non shelters and cannot afford housing would have a safe alternative. As it is it is unsafe for all.

        • The ”Boise decision” from the Ninth Circuit enabled much of the “camp anywhere;” unless the City can provide adequate accommodations. And what are adequate? Hopefully someday the Supreme Court will review. But I think it earlier denied review.

          • “Boise” is so often misinterpreted — the 9th Circuit said you cannot criminalize homelessness, but you can certainly clear blocked sidewalks/storefronts, etc. and public parks. Somehow Seattle and others have assumed it means no available housing, no removal.

            From the opinion: “Our holding is a narrow one… we in no way dictate to the City that it must provide sufficient shelter for the homeless, or allow anyone who wishes to sit, lie, or sleep on the streets . . . at any time and at any place….Even where shelter is unavailable, an ordinance prohibiting sitting, lying, or sleeping outside at particular times or in particular locations might well be constitutionally permissible. See Jones, 444 F.3d at 1123. So, too, might an ordinance barring the obstruction of public rights of way or the erection of certain structures.”

            What cities must do when housing is unavailable is create alternative spaces – big tents, warehouses, etc. – with services, toilets, and enough supervision to assure safety.

  7. If you haven’t walked 3rd Ave recently, you should. It’s shocking and scary. Drug dealers and drug users own the block between Pike and Pine. This needs to be shut down. Allowing it to continue is a total failure by our city leadership.

  8. I lived along 3rd Avenue in (lower) Belltown about 25 years ago. Amazingly, despite gentrification, nothing has changed along 3rd Ave.
    Plus ca change…..

  9. Lessons should be learned from the city’s decline during, and eventual renewal after, the dual crises of the early 2000’s – the dotcom bust and post-9/11 bust. Many businesses similarly went under, the vacancy rate increased, and crime increased. How did the renewal happen – was it all Amazon? City leaders should look back at that period and analyze what decisions helped the city come back to be stronger than it ever was.

  10. These are all great comments and I agree wholeheartedly….since when is it fine for the criminal element to take over our streets such that flourishing shops and restaurants have to pack up and leave, tourists don’t come, and our citizens that previously enjoyed coming downtown for the cultural and culinary offerings no longer want to set foot in the area? Safety for the majority shouldn’t be sacrificed for the individuals who are hanging out on the streets, selling goods they’ve just stolen from Target or any of the other nearby businesses (with the tags still on them!!), doing drugs deals, engaging in gun violence, etc. I would think that the police should be able to escort these people to a place deemed appropriate by the city, whether it be a shelter, a mental health clinic, or even jail if they are seen engaged in criminal activity. It shouldn’t be allowed to flourish and expand as it certainly has during the pandemic!!

  11. I would like to see the city open more permanent police stations on 3rd in these problem areas. I feel like having a permanent presence in these problem areas would be a good deterrent.

  12. We live in South Snohomish County. When our kids were young in the 80’s I’d pile them into the car many Saturday mornings for adventure in the big city… a trip to the Market, small shops, and a fresh pastry. These days downtown is not for kids. It reminds me of blighted New Jersey neighborhoods. The city gave away its big heart to the mentally ill, addicts, and criminals who now live feral without resources or incentives. City Hall wrings its hands as workers lower their eyes praying to thread the gauntlet without injury or nausea. Bless those shops and cafes that are making a brave stand. I hope it won’t be their last.

  13. Let’s see what we can learn from other communities that don’t have this problem.

    Take Singapore, for example. What are they doing that we’re not?

    Well, for one thing, they don’t tolerate drug use nor trafficking.

    Singapore punishes criminals; they don’t make excuses for them.

    Seattle is suffering because we’ve let a far-left clique define the narrative. Under their watch ‘Diversity, Equity, Inclusion’ has become synonymous with ‘Deviancy, Mediocrity, Anarchy’.

    It’s OK to ‘Let your freak flag fly’, but the right to swing your fist ends where the other fellow’s nose begins. For any community to work, you need one common rule book, but multiple sets of rules, and the one you follow is based on your race or socioeconomic status.

    ‘Social Justice’ ™ doesn’t mean letting anyone do what they damn well please because it’s ‘woke’. Until we balance ‘freedom’ with ‘personal responsibility’, this will continue.

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