City leaders and business owners are fighting an image of lawlessness in downtown Olympia — and some blame the homeless.
Business owners say downtown’s problems not only deter customers, but also discourage people from living there.
In addition to more police on the streets, many believe more downtown residents will lead to the kind of economic activity that keeps businesses buzzing past 6 p.m. and replaces loiterers with shoppers.
For better or worse, business and housing are intertwined, and one sector’s success benefits the other.
David Scherer Water loves downtown.
He’s lived in an apartment at Fifth Avenue and Washington Street since 2000. Back then, his son was 5 and rode his tricycle in the neighborhood.
Downtown isn’t all “gloom and doom,” Scherer Water said, but undesirable behavior on the streets has tested his sense of security.
“If I had a 5-year-old now, I don’t think I would have the same ease I did 14 years ago,” he said.
The solution to reviving downtown, he said, is to boost its population.
“People care about where they live,” said Scherer Water, who helps run a property management company that handles several properties downtown. “If you’re coming just to shop, visit, party and leave, you’re going to go and assume somebody else is going to clean up your mess.”
Others agree that more housing would change the city’s center for the better.
The thinking goes like this: If more people live downtown, then more people will take responsibility for the area, leading to activity that attracts shoppers and businesses and drives away anti-social behavior.
“More people within your downtown core will create more opportunities,” said David Schaffert, top executive at the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce.
Of Olympia’s 48,000 residents, an estimated 1,920 live downtown, according to the city. Their housing — 1,557 units — represents a small slice of the city’s 22,120 households.
At least 81 percent of downtown’s housing units are subsidized or considered low-income, and about 9 percent are liveaboard units on boats in the city’s marinas, according to a 2013 report in the Thurston County Regional Consolidated Plan.
Market-rate housing accounts for about 10 percent of downtown’s units.
Overall, downtown’s residential vacancy rate is falling — to 3.9 percent last year from a five-year high of about 6.5 percent in 2012, according to the Thurston County Economic Development Council.
One of the city’s long-term goals is to increase market-value housing downtown and get an economic boost from residents. Ideally, the newcomers would stimulate growth of nearby businesses to meet the demand for more services and amenities such as a grocery store.
“From a business perspective,” Schaffert said, “it is so vital to have people living in a downtown core if you want to have sustainable businesses.”
More housing that brings more working residents would propel the area toward becoming a “24-hour downtown” with round-the-clock activity, said Connie Lorenz, president of the Olympia Downtown Association.
To help that shift happen, the association has regular events such as the Downtown Academy, a free monthly education series that recently hosted a discussion on downtown safety efforts. The association also hosts Girls Night Out to familiarize people with downtown perks and amenities.
New development helps underscore the economic health of downtown, Lorenz said.
“Anytime you see a crane, it’s a good thing,” she said. “It means something’s happening.”
Mayor Stephen Buxbaum points to the Columbia Heights project at Fourth Avenue and Columbia Street as a turning point in the city’s push for more market-rate housing and economic activity.
The private investment in the 138-unit apartment building, slated for completion in 2016, will help breathe life into downtown and the waterfront, Buxbaum said.
“Going from what is maybe a 12-hour downtown to a 16-hour downtown to a 24-hour downtown, that makes things healthier,” the mayor said. “You only achieve that by increasing the number of people that live downtown.”
To Schaffert, Columbia Heights is an asset, but not everyone thinks the apartment building will change the area for the better.
For 13 years, Lisa Owen has owned The Mark restaurant on Columbia Street across from the project. She initially thought Columbia Heights would be all owner-occupied condominiums, and was disappointed to learn it will rent apartments instead.
“We need people who live in downtown to invest in downtown,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s a transient community. How are things going to ever change if (residents don’t) own any property in downtown?”
Buxbaum says the development will help the area, regardless of whether the tenants rent or own their units. Also optimistic is Zach Kosturos, president of Prime Location, a local commercial real estate company.
“More people downtown equals a safer environment,” Kosturos said in March when he was a panelist in a League of Women Voters forum titled “Living Downtown.”
Kosturos’ company manages about 1,000 apartment units and represents several downtown landlords, both residential and commercial. Every day, he hears about the problems — dirty needles, blood on business doors — that keep people away from downtown.
Several of his retail tenants have left, and he hired additional security at one downtown business.
“The faster that gets fixed, or at least changed to some extent,” he said, “the faster we’ll see downtown back to where we want it to be and how we remember it.”
Olympia developer Walker John is working on another project to bring more housing downtown.
He’s transforming the former state Department of Personnel building at Franklin Street and Legion Way into a mixed-use facility with a bank, a brew pub and 19 market-rate apartments.
The city needs more market-rate housing for seniors, low-income residents and everyone in between, said Ron Thomas of Thomas Architecture Studio, who works with Walker John.
“One singular project is not going to be the solution,” Thomas said at the “Living Downtown” forum. “It’s multiple projects. A rising tide floats all boats and all types of housing.”
A major initiative to lure residential and commercial development downtown is the proposed establishment of a Community Renewal Area.
The economic development tool would allow the city to tackle blighted properties downtown through public-private partnerships. An example would be the vacant buildings on the isthmus between Capitol Lake and Budd Inlet.
In the meantime, some of downtown’s current residents say the area lacks convenient access to basic necessities and parking.
Crystal Guyer, 66, lives in a subsidized one-bedroom apartment across from The Washington Center for the Performing Arts. To live in the complex, the nearly 50 tenants must be at least 62 or disabled.
Guyer, who lives on food stamps and a limited income ($731 a month), says she can’t afford to shop downtown. Without the housing subsidy, she and her dog would be living in a van, she said.
“They have specialty shops up the wazoo down here,” Guyer said. “What they don’t have is just a regular old grocery store — at least for bread, milk, orange juice and eggs. I drive clear out to Walmart.”
Downtown has nearly 1.6 million square feet of retail space, according to the county’s Economic Development Council. Another 2.1 million square feet is devoted to office space among 117 properties.
Business in the city’s center got off to a rocky start in 2014, and Lorenz of the Olympia Downtown Association was worried.
In the first six months of the year, 22 businesses — a mix of retailers and restaurants — closed while only 15 opened. Several of the businesses that closed cited “the problems of downtown” as a reason for leaving, Lorenz said.
Despite that initial scare, downtown’s retail vacancy rate is about the same this year. The rate through August was 5.9 percent, down from 6 percent in 2013.
The number of closures downtown have eased so far in the second half of 2014, and the downtown area had a good summer, Lorenz said. She is optimistic for the upcoming holiday shopping season and the construction of more market-rate housing.
“To me, those are indicators of things to come,” she said. “When these apartments get filled, there will be more people, and that creates more demand.”
Downtown’s office vacancy rate is dropping as well. After hitting a five-year high of 14 percent in 2013, the rate fell to about 12 percent in the first half of 2014, according to the Economic Development Council.
Citywide, the office vacancy rate was 10.9 percent in the first half of 2014, slightly below the national rate of 11.5 percent, according to the CoStar Office Report, which specializes in commercial real estate data.
Sometimes inactivity is the problem.
The Griswold office building in the 300 block of Fourth Avenue has been empty since a fire nearly a decade ago. Owner Cliff Lee of Everett said he’s struggled to finance renovations to the gutted building.
In April, volunteers repainted the building’s facade and eventually added a rainbow-themed mural that states “Respect and Love Olympia.”
Despite the facelift, the vacant building is considered an eyesore and a magnet for trouble.
Absentee property owners such as Lee should be held accountable for the condition of their properties, said Sarah Adams, owner of Psychic Sister, 109 Fifth Ave. SE.
“People spend a lot of time talking about the problems facing downtown while focused on the poorest people among us,” said Adams, a member of the Parking and Business Improvement Area’s Safe and Clean Committee.
“But what about those with the most resources and the most power to change the culture of downtown? Why aren’t they living up to their end?”
Some in the homeless community recognize the effects of blight.
Daniel, who asked that his last name be withheld because he fears for his safety, first became homeless in 1984.
In his experience, said Daniel, 54, homeless people gravitate to neglected areas in cities and spend much of their time shuffling from shelter to shelter.
He suggested an alternative: Hire the homeless as apprentices to help repair blighted areas while learning a trade, thus making them employable.
“If you want to fix up downtown Olympia, don’t point to the homeless. Point to the buildings,” he said. “We’re letting buildings go to waste.”
ROLLING UP THEIR SLEEVES
Shortly after sunrise on a Thursday in March, Steve Cooper started on his weekday morning ritual. He put on rubber gloves and began picking up litter that had collected along sidewalks, at building edges and beneath shrubs on his properties.
“I figured it was time to stop bitching about it and start doing something,” said Cooper, whose company, Cooper Realty, owns several properties and parking lots in the downtown area.
“I don’t get angry about it,” said the lifelong Olympia resident. “I just don’t want it dirty.”
He hustles to clean up the trash — from plastic bags and fast-food wrappers to liquor bottles and drug debris — before tenants arrive for the day. Sometimes, in a building’s entryway, he finds human feces.
The problem has worsened over the past several years and can be a deterrent for shoppers, Cooper said.
Downtown has character, he said, but there also are “characters” whose anti-social behavior contributes to negative perceptions about the area.
Shifting that perception, Cooper said, will lead to more sales for businesses, higher sales tax revenue for the city and more renters for him.
“If there were more (police) walking patrols and more focus on keeping streets appearing safe, then perception becomes reality,” he said. “They need to manage the playing field in such a manner that makes our streets safe and clean.”
Last spring, Lara Anderson, owner of Red Door Interiors, was in no mood to wait for improvements downtown.
In the first three months of the year, her store’s sales fell by 40 percent. After finishing one particular day without selling a single item, she vented her frustrations on Facebook.
“We are struggling with understanding why the decrease is so significant,” she posted on March 15. “Is it because people don’t want to come downtown? Does the public no longer value what we do?
“We don’t want to close our doors, but we all have a breaking point.”
After five years at Washington Street and Fifth Avenue, Anderson feared the business would not survive if the trend continued. Part of the problem, she said, was the perception of safety for potential visitors.
Inspired to become part of the solution, Anderson pleaded with the Olympia City Council to increase the police presence downtown and focus on keeping the streets clean.
“Right now the perception is, ‘Don’t go downtown. It’s a scary place,’ ” Anderson told the council in March. “I don’t buy that.”
That same month, the closure of Wind Up Here stunned the community. Located across the street from Red Door Interiors, the iconic toy store had brought families and foot traffic downtown for 20 years.
The owner said the cost of doing business downtown had become too difficult. Fellow business owners like Anderson said the presence of panhandlers and street people played a part as well.
Then, six months later, the Captain Little toy store opened in the same spot — and business at Red Door Interiors improved. Anderson credited the optimism and customers generated by the new toy store.
“When it was just a closed business, there were a lot of people just sleeping on the doorstep,” she said.
Homeless people stopped congregating at the site once construction began on the new store.
“We immediately have seen more people in our store as a result,” Anderson said.
Over the past several months, additional police patrols have made downtown feel safer and more vibrant, said Anderson, who also praised the arrival of more apartments and the activity they bring.
Still, she said, the issues facing downtown are far from solved, especially when finding help for the homeless.
“The answer isn’t just to push them out of the core,” Anderson said. “We still as a community need to come to a consensus. As a business owner, I feel like a lot of this is ‘lipstick on the pig’ unless we can help those in need.”
TURNING A CORNER
Mary Corso has been a business owner downtown for 11 years. During that time, she’s seen all kinds of things come and go and come again — other stores, civic improvement plans, crime and the homeless.
Through it all, not only did Courtyard Antiques on Fourth Avenue East survive, but the business is expanding. Corso will open a paint studio up the street in mid-October.
“We adjusted our prices to fit the economy,” she said. “You just adjust.”
Corso embraces the “24-hour downtown” philosophy. Courtyard Antiques closes at 6 p.m. daily except for Fridays, when the doors are open until 9 p.m., regardless of whether customers are coming.
“My whole goal is to keep this place lit up and keep that downtown energy,” she said. “We need to keep the town looking vibrant — make it look like everybody’s home.”
Carso is encouraged by some of the actions city officials have taken to improve the city’s center.
One action that had a positive impact on the business culture downtown, she said, was the City Council’s decision in February 2013 to ban camping on public property. For the previous two years, homeless residents had routinely camped on the steps of City Hall, which is adjacent to Courtyard Antiques.
And the walking patrol has improved the area surrounding her business — to a point, she said. Some customers still are leery about the downtown dwellers who yell back and forth, she said.
“I don’t feel unsafe,” Corso said. “But a mutual respect would be great.”
In addition to running Courtyard Antiques, Corso is president of the Parking and Business Improvement Area, which includes nearly 400 ratepayers.
The group is dedicated to downtown issues such as safety and cleanliness, and has been a prominent supporter of the police walking patrol.
“It’s all of our problem,” she said. “Nothing gets solved by pointing fingers.”