Welcome to Seattle! Now move along

There will soon be a new friendly face on downtown Seattle’s mean streets, steering tourists to nearby restaurants and guiding the homeless to social services. Their backers describe them as “urban ambassadors” or “public safety problem-solvers.” A group of 40 of them will be patrolling downtown Seattle by the end of the year, courtesy of a proposed new business improvement area (BIA), designed to serve most of downtown.

“I guess, ‘security people’ is what you’d call them,” says Nathan Torgelson, the city staffer coordinating the new BIA. “They’re security-guard-meets-street-level-concierge,” offers Lucinda Payne, director of marketing and public relations for the Downtown Seattle Association, operators of the new BIA.

Seattle’s coming street ambassadors are modeled on similar programs in cities including Philadelphia, Baltimore, Sacramento, Denver, and Portland. As described by DSA’s Payne, they will function very much like private security guards, walking patrols and serving as “eyes and ears on the street”—armed with two-way radios to contact the Seattle Police Department. They’ll also be trained and ready to give social service referrals to any unfortunates they come across. All this while wearing “distinctive uniforms that reinforce an overall marketing identity for downtown.” Sounds great so far, huh?

Well, not to everybody. Advocates for the homeless aren’t thrilled with the prospect of another layer of private security officers downtown. “My fear is they will be escorting the homeless, not to human services, but to the city limits,” says Joe Martin of the Pike Place Medical Clinic. “The main intent here is just to get people moving.”

Jerry Sheehan of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington says he is watching the program with interest. “It’s something we’ve obviously got to get some more hard information about,” he notes. Sheehan says he sees the potential for a conflict of interest in the ambassadors’ two-pronged duties—”making the city nice for tourists and having a social service function”—especially seeing that their salaries will be paid by downtown businesses.

In Portland, the Association for Portland Progress has employed a similar group of downtown “guides” for several years. Known as “green jackets,” the guides have generally functioned as low-key helpers to lost tourists. Far less popular are a separate group of pseudo-police-uniformed, armed security officers who are also on the downtown BIA payroll. These private Portland security officers were recently sworn in as special deputies by the county sheriff and granted arrest powers for minor crimes.

Seattle BIA officials wisely haven’t proposed a similar force of armed security officers; instead, they plan to hire off-duty Seattle police for supplemental security.

A good move, perhaps, but some Seattle residents are still turned off by the prospect of the Shopping Police rolling into downtown. Former Portland resident Rick Hangartner says he resented the high profile of private security people in downtown Portland and doesn’t want to see that example followed here. “It will definitely change the complexion of downtown, and I mean that in every sense,” he says. “Despite what they say, the goal is to enforce a certain kind of culture downtown that makes certain people welcome and others unwelcome.”

The security element is only about one-third of the Seattle downtown BIA’s budget. Also funded will be programs for graffiti removal, street sweeping, and pressure-washing sidewalks. The DSA’s Payne says homeless and formerly homeless individuals will be targeted in hiring for these service jobs. Commercial property owners will foot most of the $3 million annual cost of the BIA—complaints from downtown condo owners included in the district were soothed when their maximum assessment was set at $65 per year.

Transit mall revisited

Having built the downtown bus tunnel to get those darn buses off Third Avenue, Sound Transit now has to clear the tunnel for light rail trains. Now just guess where they want to put the buses.

Yes, it’s back to Third Avenue, says an interagency team “supported by Sound Transit’s team of consultants.” (If those security guards in the first item had you concerned, imagine the intimidation factor produced by a “team of consultants.”) The addition of all those buses wouldn’t crowd the street much, as cars would now be banned from Third during peak transit hours (6-9am and 3-6pm).

Motorcade mania

This winter’s World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle will keep police mobilized on a 24-hour basis, due to important duties such as providing security for events, eyeing (potential) protesters, and, yes, riding shotgun on those motorcades that visiting diplomats love so much.

Get used to the idea of blocked streets, Assistant Police Chief Ed Joiner told the Seattle City Council at a recent briefing. Although the department considered asking delegates to double up, they have diplomatically let the idea drop. “By and large, the big delegations are not willing to do this in a group setting,” says Joiner. “They want their own motorcade.”

The chair never rests

City Council member Richard McIver had better be careful; after deftly leading his colleagues through 31 separate policy issues on the convention center votes, he may get drafted to chair more council meetings. An especially inspirational moment: when convention center critic Peter Steinbrueck asked if he should propose his amendments by formal motion, McIver replied, “Why don’t we start with a suggestion, and if I don’t like it, we’ll move.” Judge Judy would be proud.