Cultivating Safety in Belltown

A heightened interest.

In the wake of a shooting incident last Friday, Belltown's social media feeds have been buzzing with activity about "what should be done" and here at Rise Up we've been hearing directly from our BOAT members.

In light of all that, I want to talk a little about what's been happening in the past, and about how we could learn from the success of other neighborhoods to make a change.

Lessons from the past.

Almost exactly four years ago, the city launched an effort to shut down the open air drug markets along 3rd Avenue near Pike and Pine. They argued that there wouldn't be much "displacement" of the activity but, just a year and a half later, a follow up analysis by the Seattle Times told a different story.

It's always hard to pinpoint exactly what's driving specific crime at a specific time, but big-picture patterns are a often a little clearer. For those of you who've lived and worked and spent time in Belltown for decades, you probably don't need Seattle Times stories to tell you that hot-spots get pushed around from block to block as the years go by, not un-like a game of Whac-A-Mole.

Meanwhile, around the same time as the police crackdown, the City partnered with others to work on what was effectively the "long-term portion" of the plan to cut down on criminal activity. The idea was to put a whole bunch of city money into "activating" Westlake and Occidental parks with fun games and family activities.

Their stated goal was bring more activity to the parks, but the political reality was that activating the parks was seen as a way to keep criminal activity out of the park. I know this was the goal, because I was working at City Council when it happened.

What does this have to do with Belltown?

In 2016, they expanded the program to include Belltown and other neighborhoods. If you've ever seen the chess boards and games in the street near the dog park, that's what that's there for. It's there to try to push out criminal activity. And it's very clearly not working.

While some people have questioned the equity of displacing homeless and others from the parks, others have pointed to the benefits for everyone of having less crime in the parks, simply as a product of having more people hanging out there.

In Belltown, we don't have to solve that debate to know that the strategy hasn't been working either way, even though we spend tens of thousands of dollars every year on all that activation in Bell Street Park.

To be fair, the success of "activating the parks" in Westlake and Occidental likely has a lot to do with money. With as much as is being spent on Belltown (somewhere between $60 - 80k dollars per year) the amount spent on those other parks is at least five times that amount. But that money mostly comes from private donors in downtown, and Belltown isn't likely to see more money flowing in, anytime soon.

Where does that leave us?

The effort to activate Bell Street Park has been going on since they expanded the program, and for better or worse, it simply hasn't made any impact on public safety. Now that doesn't mean no one has benefited from those activities.

Undoubtedly, there are dozens of local residents who have enjoyed the activities, the art, and the music.

And occasionally those funds have helped pay for artists and musicians directly, which is never a bad thing. Local funding for artists is of course hard to come by.

But not everything about the activation has been positive.

Owing to ongoing criminal activity, the City Parks Department was forced to remove all the tables and chairs in the park. In a bit of a catch 22, this has made it even harder to activate the spaces in the way they'd originally hoped. At the same time, low income residents and those living outdoors were stripped of one of the few places they could afford to rest or gather.

But perhaps most importantly, the program just isn't having the impact on cultivating a safe public environment that the funds were originally intended to do. And last week's shooting is just the latest example of that strategy failure.

When funds are limited, we have to prioritize, and Belltown could instead try something new.

Luckily, we don't have to reinvent the wheel.

A better approach to public safety.

Three years ago, community activists in the Chinatown International District (CID) led a successful effort to get funding for a position called a Public Safety Coordinator. The coordinator was a full-time paid position whose main role was to serve as a liaison between law enforcement, local businesses, and communities on the street, and community organizations, all to improve public safety.

Specifically, this did NOT mean hiring a person whose job was just to call the cops more often. Instead, hiring a Public Safety Coordinator gave the community a person that everyone felt safe talking to, who could use that information to solve critical problems on a case-by-case basis. In short, when everyone communicated with each other, public safety improved. This program has been a success in the CID, and it could be a success in Belltown as well.

What can we do?

The effort to fund a public safety coordinator in the CID took a lot of work, and a long time, and in the end they ended up with about $75k dollars per year (and even then, only temporarily - eventually the neighborhood will take over). It is a testament to their energy and dedication (and to Councilmember Lorena González who led the effort for the City) that the community was able to secure new money for public safety.

Asking for new money would be no easier for Belltown, but we may not need to ask for new money. Instead, we could ask our City to re-purpose the existing money that they're currently spending on "activation" in Bell Street Park, and use that money to instead fund a public safety coordinator for Belltown.

Currently, about half the money for "activation" comes from the City, and the other half comes from the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA). Rise Up Belltown is still listening to our BOAT members, but one possibility would be to draft open letters to the City and DSA asking that they immediately re-purpose that money, to instead fund a public safety coordinator as soon as possible (even if only on a temporary basis) to get the program up and running in Belltown.

Have an opinion about the open letters? Let us know!

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