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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

October 10, 2013 at 10:27 AM

The elephant in the mayoral debate: Downtown crime

I keep waiting for Mike McGinn and Ed Murray to seriously engage on the most critical economic issue facing Seattle: Crime in the central business district. An economic issue, Talton? Yes. Seattle is fortunate to have an incredibly dense downtown full of retail, restaurants and offices, along with world-class assets such as Pike Place Market, Benaroya Hall, the Seattle Art Museum and Pioneer Square. Unlike most American cities, Seattle still has two major department stores downtown, including the flagship Nordstrom.

According to the Downtown Seattle Association, downtown accounts for 41 percent of the city’s jobs in just 4 percent of its total land mass, a highly efficient and transit-friendly use of space. It generates one-third of all state and local tax revenues. And population has grown by 70 percent since 1990. Nearby, Amazon.com has created an urban technology campus that is recognized globally as a better way to site a headquarters than the car-dependent office “park.”

From corporate headquarters and offices with high-paying jobs, to innovation and tourism, downtown Seattle is a backbone of the region’s economy and should be recognized as essential to the city’s health. And yet, in a relatively safe city for its size, downtown has seen crime rise, particularly violent outbursts from vagrants that are warehoused there for the entire region.

Councilman Bruce Harrell said, at a forum on this issue last month, “We know we don’t want to criminalize poverty and homelessness.”  Sure. But we should criminalize criminal behavior. And that hasn’t been happening in too many cases, with an apathetic city attorney and a police force walking on eggshells. Why are we tolerating a gang occupying Westlake Park, the heart of the city?

In no other neighborhood — think of the Magnolia bluffs — would it be OK to sleep in doorways, aggressively panhandle and use the sidewalks as a latrine. No other neighborhood would tolerate such an intense clustering of social services. As criminology scholar James Q. Wilson pointed out in his “broken windows” thesis, tolerating small infractions and civic problems invariably lead to more dangerous crime. Predators won’t be “diverted” into social services. The poor are more likely to be victims of crime.

Getting tough is anathema to a liberal city that wants to feel good about itself. So, apparently, is asking tough questions, such as whether programs for the homeless perpetuate the problem or actually provide (demand) a way out? Another: What are the best practices nationally for addressing downtown street civility, petty crime and other issues and how can we implement them here?

We take downtown for granted at our peril. Bellevue, for example, would love to suck downtown Seattle dry. Location is a decision that executives can make — customers and tourists, too.

Unless this problem is addressed robustly, then it’s a good thing candidates are talking about a $15 -an-hour minimum wage. Because the city will be left with far more of these jobs if the quality economic engine of downtown is left to chance.

And Don’t Miss: The secrets of Bezos: How Amazon became the everything store | BusinessWeek

Today’s Econ Haiku:

A six-week debt deal

Talk about uncertainty

The hostage card stays

0 Comments | More in Downtown and urban issues | Topics: Downtown Seattle, Seattle mayor race

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