Cindy Potter and son Elliott, 7, pass a vacant lot on Aurora Avenue North near North 89th Street, next to the Green Lake Motel, which was closed in May because of health code violations. An assault on Aurora led Potter and others living nearby to form a group that aims to clean up trouble spots on the strip.
Future looks brighter for downtrodden strip
Change comes slowly to Aurora Avenue North.
As the surrounding area turned rich, clean and a little bland over the past 20 years, the 70-block-long stretch of highway between Green Lake and Shoreline has remained more or less the same.
The used-car lots and building material supply stores still line the city’s old main drag. Seattle’s dead find their last rest at Evergreen-Washelli Funeral Home and Cemetery; the city’s down and out land at low-rent motels lining the strip.
The prostitutes, the pushers — they remain. But change, wanted or not, is coming to Aurora.
Earlier this year, a citizens group organized by the city drafted a 40-point improvement plan. City engineers have inked a proposal for a dramatic revamp of the highway’s northern end. Express buses are on their way, as are the condos-over-retail-space buildings ubiquitous in Seattle’s remade neighborhoods.
Crime rates in the once-dicey neighborhood are down, thanks in part to the initiative of residents. A recent spate of motel closures by the state Health Department has some wondering if city officials are quietly trying to push out the poorest.
“It’s almost like there was a kind of campaign against them. And it’s too bad, because now we’ve got a bunch of people out on the street,” said Faye Garneau, director of the Aurora Avenue Merchants Association. “The city has no places for these people to go.”
Garneau and her husband have owned property along Aurora Avenue for more than 30 years. She said she’s seen the corridor better and worse in that time and acknowledged that prostitution and drug dealing remain problematic on the street.
It’s also home to more than 500 businesses, including a smattering of Seattle institutions such as Puetz Golf, Garneau said. Most draw customers from the 40,000 or so drivers who use the street daily.
Some members of Garneau’s organization saw their livelihoods threatened by a city plan to remake Aurora. The merchants association successfully fought the city when it moved to put the proposals on track for expedited review.
If adopted, the proposals would bring wider sidewalks and an end to the center turn lane to a 35-block-long stretch of Aurora Avenue from North 110th Street to the Shoreline border, said Rick Sheridan, a spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation. Three lanes would carry traffic in each direction, including one lane reserved for bus and business traffic.
The aim, Sheridan said, is to make the road safer for drivers as well as pedestrians, who are forced to walk in traffic at several spots lacking sidewalks along the road. A planted center median would also moderate the area’s industrial feel.
“It’s really not meeting the needs of anyone in that community,” Sheridan said, referring to Aurora. “We can really create a more vibrant neighborhood.”
A bus rapid transit line would be included in the redesign. The proposed line would shuttle people into the city’s core with minimal stops and buses coming at 10-minute intervals.
Sheridan said the designs are preliminary and that construction wouldn’t start until 2011 at the earliest.
Garneau believes the plan as proposed would cut off access to several businesses and push more traffic onto surrounding streets. Business owners are also concerned about a loss of parking.
Community activist Cindy Potter’s organization, Greenwood Aurora Involved Neighbors, didn’t weigh in on the city proposal because it stopped just short of GAIN’s membership area. But she said some of the improvements suggested would be a welcome change anywhere on Aurora.
Having lived a half-block away from Aurora for nine years, Potter said she believes the neighborhood’s good qualities are often overlooked.
“Having grown up in Seattle, I never would have even thought to look at a house a half-block from Aurora,” Potter said. “People think of Aurora as such a trashy place, but you just step a few feet away and it’s a nice residential area.”
Potter isn’t a Pollyanna. She knows her neighborhood can be a violent place.
An act of violence actually prompted Potter and 11 others to start GAIN three years ago. A block watch captain attempting to shoo away three teenage drug dealers was beaten into unconsciousness. He lay on the street for hours before anyone came to his aid.
Since then GAIN members have been walking the streets around Aurora and cleaning up trouble spots.
Potter subscribes to the “broken window theory” of crime prevention, essentially that badly maintained areas tend to invite trouble. One broken window invites another, one streetwalker or drug dealer shows others they’re welcome to join in.
Potter said they’ve had an impact; police are getting fewer calls, and dump sites usually stay clean after the litter removal crew’s work is done.
Developers also have arrived. Rows of townhouses line the blocks tucked off Aurora. Now two mixed-use buildings — the kind with condos over retail space — are being planned on Aurora itself.
The city Planning and Development Department plans to launch a study of area, Deputy Director Alan Justad said. Planners will try to determine how much room for growth is there.
Justad said some planners have been interviewing property owners. But he said the effort won’t begin in earnest until late this year at the earliest.
“The value of land is going to continue to go up there,” Justad said. “So there’s going to be growth there whether we prepare for it or not.”
The Aurora motels, nearly all of which cater to the city’s poorest residents, remain a sticking point in that revitalization effort.
For some, the low-rent motels lining Aurora Avenue remain a refuge of last resort. They also have tended to attract drug dealers and prostitutes, and some have fallen into disrepair.
Since March, state health officials have closed four Aurora Avenue motels. Two have reopened.
Last week, authorities closed down the Seals Motel after receiving two complaints from Seattle police and another complaint from a customer. The emergency closure followed a similar action in mid-May against the Green Lake Motel.
Shannon Walker, director of the Health Department’s Facilities Licensing Division, said it’s unusual for her office to receive complaints from police departments. But she dismissed the assertion that her inspectors were assisting the city in an attempt to push out the hotels.
“Right now, we have two surveyors in Washington state,” Walker said. “We only have the resources to look at complaints that come in.”
Garneau, whose organization includes several motel owners, remains unconvinced.
“This year, it just seems to me that there’s a little overzealousness on the part of the inspectors,” Garneau said. “It’s a conception that a lot of people have, that these motels cause the drugs and prostitution. They don’t.”
Motel owners have an interest in keeping their places in compliance, and most won’t rent to clients they believe will destroy their rooms, Garneau said. But she said many renters aren’t able to care for themselves and can create a filthy environment almost immediately.
Since moving to the area in 1999, Potter said she’s seen motels on Aurora languish in disrepair. She supports the enforcement action and believes some motel owners are essentially profiting from the misfortune of their clients.
While cheaper than other options, the motels are hardly a bargain, Potter said. Most residents pay upward of $1,100 a month in rent.
Some motel dwellers just can’t get a deposit together for an apartment, others have problems with their credit or criminal history. Potter said some just don’t realize there are better options out there for them.
“Nobody needs a strip like this in their city,” she said. “And there’s no reason why it has festered for so long.”