Downtown Olympia has multiple personalities.
As the state capital and urban hub of Thurston County, the city is a center for government and commerce, culture and entertainment. In recent years, it’s also grown a grittier side.
The homeless and the criminal are blamed for driving people from downtown, forcing retailers to close and keeping police hopping.
With a relatively small core area of 27 square blocks, that leads to clashes of culture, class and crime. Plenty of community leaders are working on the problem, but it’s a complicated one to solve.
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The distinctions between downtown’s personalities are even clearer after sunset.
Theatergoers — most dressed nice enough for church as they sip cocktails and socialize — gather in the lobby of Harlequin Productions during intermission. Nearby, patrons chat in the classy lounge at Dillingers Cocktails and Kitchen.
Blocks away, live music seeps from the bars. People, some in shorts and tank tops, others with piercings and tattoos, congregate outside restaurants to smoke and chat.
The darker side of downtown is on display as well.
As two men walk down Fourth Avenue, one spots a pair of worn sneakers atop a garbage can. He wore that style of shoes when he left prison, he says.
Near Fourth Avenue and Franklin Street, a sleeping man in a T-shirt and shorts sits cross-legged against a wall tagged with anti-police graffiti. An hour later, a different man occupies the same spot.
Throughout downtown, transients throw their bedrolls out on sidewalks, in back alleys and at the artesian well. Dealing of heroin and other drugs is obvious. Angry or befuddled faces shout obscenities at people walking by.
The area has been rocked by once-unheard-of episodes of violence.
In an unprovoked late-night attack, a mentally ill transient stabbed a bar patron to death in December 2012. Seven months later, a daytime fight at Sylvester Park spilled onto the sidewalks of downtown and ended in a double stabbing.
Lesser but more prevalent crimes are the vehicle break-ins, thefts and vandalism that occupy police. So far this year, more than eight out of 10 arrests downtown have been for nuisance crimes such as public drinking and urination.
City officials, business leaders and social service providers are struggling to find solutions that will provide a thriving downtown for everyone.
They’ve launched several cleanup initiatives, but the long-term answer is like solving a puzzle with multiple moving pieces, often with mixed results.
Solving the riddle is critical if the heart of the city is to attract visitors like Ardean Anvik.
The Shelton resident lived in Olympia for 20 years when he worked for the state, and he occasionally visits the farmers market or The Olympia Center for senior activities.
Otherwise, he avoids the city because of “scary” people who walk the streets.
“If you want me to go downtown after dark, you’re going to have to get some of those people off the street,” Anvik said. “They don’t make me feel comfortable even during the daytime.”
Police say they have no accurate data on how many downtown crimes and incidents are related to transients.
Greater downtown Olympia is roughly bordered by water to the west and north, Eastside Street to the east, and Union Avenue to the south.
Police consider the stretch of Fourth Avenue between Adams and Franklin streets to be the city’s “hot spot” for loitering and crime. They also point to the corner of State Avenue and Washington Street near the Olympia Transit Center.
“These are the most problematic parts of downtown,” said Lt. Paul Lower, who leads the police department’s walking patrol.
Downtown Olympia has seen a 68 percent hike in arrests so far this year. The most notable trend, however, is the increase in what’s known as “calls for service.”
Such calls don’t mean a crime has taken place, but instead refer to someone calling 911, for example, or an officer alerting dispatchers about a potential crime.
The calls lead to criminal cases when police take action such as beginning an investigation, taking someone to a hospital for a mental evaluation or responding to an accident.
Since 2009, calls to police for help downtown have increased 50 percent, reaching 15,619 last year, the highest level in seven years. The most common calls are related to suspicious people or vehicles, trespassing or “mental problems.”
As of Sept. 12, calls for service in 2014 had nearly reached last year’s total, according to the department.
Police attribute some of the increase in calls to the city having more officers on the street. Plus, a single incident can prompt multiple callers. The number of criminal cases born from the calls has remained relatively consistent since 2009.
“We’ve done a lot of work with our neighborhoods about reporting,” police Chief Ronnie Roberts said. “We’ve really encouraged the community to call us.”
When it comes to violent crime, Olympia fares better than several Washington cities with a population under 50,000. In spite of some high-profile cases, the number of violent crimes — such as assault and robbery — in Olympia has remained relatively consistent since 2009.
According to FBI statistics, smaller cities such as Burien, Bremerton, Tukwila and SeaTac had more violent crimes than Olympia in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available.
However, Olympia continues to struggle against drug sales, particularly for heroin.
Demand for the drug — often selling for as little as $10 a day — is climbing, especially among 18-to-29-year-olds who at one time used prescription drugs. The drug can be a driving motivation for property crimes among addicts, and police routinely find discarded needles in downtown alleys where users shoot up heroin or methamphetamine, police say.
To push back on the drug problem, the City Council on April 15 created five “drug-free zones” downtown. The new ordinance increases penalties for selling drugs downtown and prohibits repeat offenders from returning to the zones.
Police have made two arrests for drug dealing under this new ordinance in addition to other arrests for possession and consumption.
The city recently got its first after-hours dropbox for anonymous disposal of used needles. The Thurston County Syringe Exchange Program installed the dropbox in May as part of an overall effort to stop the spread of diseases and to reduce litter.
So far this year, about 3,000 of the 450,000 needles collected by the program were deposited at the dropbox at 1000 Cherry St. More than 1 million needles were exchanged in 2013, according to the program.
HOMELESSNESS, IS IT REALLY UP?
Despite their high profile in Olympia, the number of homeless people in all of Thurston County has declined over the past five years, from 745 in 2009 to 599 in 2014, according to the Thurston County Point-in-Time Count.
However, one segment of the homeless — those not living in shelters but in places such as cars, parks, abandoned buildings and the streets — is up in Thurston County since 2009. Volunteers counted 263 such “unsheltered” homeless people in 2014.
The great majority of the county’s homeless people live in Olympia.
“That isn’t to say other parts of the county don’t have homeless people,” said Marcus Godby, who studied the local homeless population as part of his graduate studies at The Evergreen State College. “They have a different kind. They’re more mobile people who own their cars.”
Olympia attracts the homeless because it’s a hub of resources, according to the 2014 Thurston County homeless census. The city’s downtown contains about half of the county’s shelters, transitional housing units and social services, according to the census.
Olympia also appeals to the homeless because of its temperate climate, said Godby, who added that most of the city’s homeless are native to Thurston County or elsewhere in the state.
Locally, he said, trouble caused by the chronically homeless typically stems from drugs, alcohol or mental illness.
“They engage in what I call survival tactics, which oftentimes involves illegal activities,” said Godby, a Bucoda resident who has experienced bouts of homelessness himself.
“Trouble is inherently part of that lifestyle. It’s hard to live in that life and not have problems.”
Godby’s take on the homeless is backed up by a 2010 report from the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing at the University at Albany in New York.
The longer a person is unsheltered and chronically homeless, the more often that person engages in criminal behavior such as public intoxication, petty theft and trespassing, according to the report.
Among the chronically homeless, the people most likely to get arrested are those with mental illness, the report says.
The presence of transients can create an environment of lawlessness, according to the study, prompting residents to avoid parks that have a large number of homeless because they fear the transients control the spaces.
In Olympia, police say the walking patrol’s daily presence is making a difference in the perception of lawlessness caused by transients.
“The goal here is that we educate and modify behavior through presence and conversation, rather than enforcement,” said Police Chief Ronnie Roberts, noting the walking patrol’s ability to engage problems more effectively because the officers are on foot. “You can’t do that driving by at 25 mph.”
Mayor Stephen Buxbaum said every community with a downtown on an interstate corridor is struggling with crime and transients.
“We are learning how to be more strategic in how we’re deploying resources,” he said. “We’re much more sophisticated in how we build agreement around these issues.”
Many of the problems are beyond the city’s control, said Buxbaum. He blamed reductions in public safety revenue and social service programs from the state.
“When we see problems in our downtown, we need folks to realize the state of Washington has stopped investing in Main Street,” Buxbaum told The Olympian. “We have a combination of social and economic problems that we as a local municipality don’t have any direct control over.”
ARE HOMELESS THE REASON FOR THE CRIME?
On an evening in July, Sgt. Jason Watkins, patrolling downtown in an SUV, attracted stares from pedestrians as he passed by.
Watkins has a friendly rapport with some of downtown’s transients, but he knows to keep his guard up. Earlier that day, a 22-year-old transient was arrested for punching at least four people for no reason near Fourth Avenue and Franklin Street.
The man had walked along Fourth Avenue, punching the windows and walls of businesses, before officers found him sitting on a sidewalk in front of the State Theater. He hit two officers in the face during the arrest, according to police.
Watkins was a member of the walking patrol from 2005 to 2009. He sees some of the same transients today, doing the same things they were doing back then.
Most of the trouble downtown stems from transients who come to Olympia, stay a while and move on, Watkins said.
“They’ll tell you, ‘We’ve heard how good it is in Olympia: free meals, this and that,’” he said. “They have nobody to answer to.”
For some citizens, a bad experience with transients can create a lasting negative perception of downtown Olympia.
That was the case for Gerald Thompson and his wife, who went to a show at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts about four years ago.
When they left the theater, the Lacey couple were bombarded by obscenities from two men in the street who shouted at anyone who passed by. Thompson said the incident has kept him away from the arts center ever since.
Another time, they were leaving a favorite Italian restaurant when they encountered a large crowd on the sidewalk. The rough language and marijuana smoke made the Thompsons uncomfortable.
“There was no threat at all,” he said, “but we had to walk around them, and it was very awkward.”
As a retiree, the 72-year-old Thompson acknowledged those aspects of downtown might seem harmless to younger generations. Even though Thompson and his wife frequent the Olympia Farmers Market and walk along Percival Landing from time to time, much of downtown simply doesn’t appeal to him.
“It ought to be a really vibrant downtown area that attracts lots of people, whether they’re 21 or 72,” he said. “It’s far less attractive to the 50-plus crowd.”
THE WALKING PATROL
taken several steps in the past two years to address safety and cleanliness problems downtown.
In February 2013, the City Council voted to ban all camping on city property — including the steps of City Hall. Homeless camping became commonplace after the new building opened two years earlier.
The police department restored its walking patrol program in 2013 after voters approved a sales tax increase for public safety.
The patrol has three officers who focus on crimes and drug-related issues during the hours when most downtown businesses are open.
The officers patrol on foot from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week, allowing them to address issues more quickly than cruising in a squad car, police Lt. Paul Lower said.
The patrol deals mostly with property crimes such as vehicle break-ins, general theft and vandalism, Lower said. Officers also make many arrests for nuisance crimes such as public drinking and urination.
“Those are crimes that pester people or give that perception that there’s some lawlessness,” Lower said.
Nuisance crimes can lead to arrests for more serious crimes, such as narcotics possession, or for suspects wanted on warrants, he said. In July, for instance, the patrol made 12 arrests for suspected narcotics crimes, with 10 of the arrests stemming from nuisance crime enforcement, Lower said.
During the summer, police get more calls in the evening, so two officers are patrolling downtown from 5 to 9 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from mid-May to mid-October.
Plus, the evening bar crowd brings additional challenges – such as fighting and disorderly conduct, Chief Roberts said.
After hearing from downtown bar owners, the Parking and Business Improvement Area (PBIA) lobbied for the expanded walking patrol and, in May, the Olympia City Council allocated $40,000 toward the effort.
“The patrol is important to setting a tone downtown so that everyone feels comfortable here,” said Jeffrey Trinin, a PBIA board member and a longtime advocate for downtown businesses and safety.
Trinin said he would like to see the expanded patrol year-round, but called the summer expansion “a great start.”
Councilwoman Cheryl Selby is among city leaders who say the walking patrol needs funding for later shifts year-round.
Selby, who owns a business near the Olympia Farmers Market, said the patrol’s presence can help ease negative perceptions of downtown.
“How do we create a culture of civility?” Selby asked. “It’s going to take all of us. It’s everybody’s downtown.”
OTHER EFFORTS DOWNTOWN
The city’s Alcohol Impact Area took effect in February. It was intended to reduce litter and the presence of drunks in public by banning the sale of nine high-alcoholic drinks downtown.
To test the effectiveness of the effort, the city did a four-week “litter survey” for the area. It found fewer containers for the banned drinks, but an increase in non-banned drink containers. The city also reported no significant drop in arrests for drinking in public.
As a result, the city is petitioning the state Liquor Control Board to expand the list of banned beverages to 64 specific brands.
In April, the city gave the Downtown Ambassadors Program a $25,650 grant to expand its Clean Team, which cleans up litter, graffiti and other vandalism. In 2013, the program received $147,000 in funding from the city.
Adding a fourth member to the team allowed it to split into two groups instead of working as one group of three, as it was previously done for safety sake.
The expansion had an immediate effect, officials said.
For example, the team tackled 216 graffiti cases in May compared to 61 cases the month before. It also doubled the amount of trash collected — 127 bags in May compared to 62 bags in April.
Police also are seeing less vandalism downtown. Officers reported 141 cases in 2013 compared to 204 cases the year before.
Nearly $250,000 has been spent on the Artesian Commons, a 0.2-acre park that opened May 3 at the historic artesian well with a goal of creating a safe and welcoming place to gather.
However, the city’s newest park remains a primary gathering spot for street people — and is generating complaints about violence, vandalism and drug use.
In September, the Olympia City Council approved more money to install a basketball hoop and fencing at the park, with the idea that more recreational opportunities and more programming can help curb destructive behavior.
PREVENTING CRIME THROUGH DESIGN
To spruce up neglected properties downtown, the city has allocated $25,000 in grants for a program known as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design.
Planned improvements include installing alleyway lighting or removing enclosures that hide illegal activity from view.
The program targets “hot spots” in the 300 and 400 blocks of Fourth Avenue East, said Brian Wilson, the city’s downtown liaison. The idea, he said, is for volunteers to repaint some properties and create a more positive environment.
A new rainbow-themed mural in the 300 block of Fourth Avenue East is an example of the concept in action, Wilson said.
The mural was part of a volunteer effort to fix up a vacant building gutted by fire and to respond to a hate crime after a man was assaulted in April by another man yelling homophobic remarks.
The mural, painted in June by South Sound artist Vince Ryland, is across the street from Jake’s on Fourth, a gay nightclub. It states, “Respect and Love Olympia.”
Sarah Adams, owner of Psychic Sister, said at the time that downtown Olympia lacks such positive messages.
“So many people worked so hard to get this mural done in a tremendous spirit of volunteerism that is changing the culture of downtown,” Adams told The Olympian.
What happened next served as a metaphor for how difficult the fight will be to reclaim downtown.
Less than a month after completion, the mural was marred by an unknown vandal who scribbled on it the word “fags.”