Power Lines

The Capitol Hill Street Closure Controversy

When Pike and Pine closed to car traffic over the summer, some businesses in the neighborhood rebelled.

By Josh Feit October 26, 2015 Published in the November 2015 issue of Seattle Met

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Illustration by Dave Wheeler

The harassment, like the condos, the high-end restaurants, the packs of roving partyers, is new. 

“For eight years, I rode my bike and walked up and down super late at night after gigs and felt very safe,” says Reanna Justice, a lesbian and former burlesque performer who lived on the hill for a decade. “The only men who passed me on the street were groups of wonderful gay men who would compliment, you know, my makeup. But now it’s like any other neighborhood. The men on the street are more of a threat.”

Brian Peters, aka Mama Tits, a local gay performer who’s lived and worked on Capitol Hill since he was 21—and now hosts a regular Sunday-afternoon gig at the Unicorn, Mimosas with Mama—says, “In the past six months to a year, Pike/Pine has become a ‘cruise’…. Whenever [I’m] out walking in drag, it’s the people in the vehicles hollering, yelling the gay slurs, yelling the freak slurs, throwing things. I’d be like, ‘Did somebody just throw something at me?’ ”

In August, in an attempt to rechannel Capitol Hill’s explosive nightlife and condo growth—more than a third of the 2,751 units built in the Pike/Pine corridor in the last 20 years were constructed in the last year and a half—into a positive for the neighborhood, the city tested what seemed like an exciting idea: Close Pike Street between Broadway and 12th on Saturday nights to cars and promote a late-night street fair. 

To execute the pilot project, which the Office of Economic Development evaluated through surveys and stakeholder meetings in late September to determine next steps, the city turned to Capitol Hill Housing. An urbanist group with visions of the neighborhood as a low-carbon terrarium paradise, CHH set up yoga sessions, dance lessons, street musicians, and a drag show. “Having a drag performer in the middle of the street on a Saturday night puts a stake in the ground and says, ‘This is an LGBQT-friendly neighborhood,’ ” says Michael Seiwerath, CHH’s director of community programs and external relations.

There was just one problem.

The resulting street revelry turned out to be anathema to many longtime Capitol Hill residents, property owners, and boosters who think a regular street festival officially brands Capitol Hill as an over-the-top party district. 

In the weeks after the experiment, the city, which typically goes from zero to 60 on converting pilot projects into policy, was comparatively reserved. SDOT director Scott Kubly, arguably the city’s lead advocate for pro-pedestrian upgrades, wouldn’t address concerns. And while Heidi Hall, the project point person at the Office of Economic Development, said she’d received “very positive response on the programming,” she was vague on which steps, if any, would be taken next, instead pointing to an upcoming report that will “focus on key things we learned” to see “what a process might look like if there is a decision to pursue a pedestrian street concept.”

Local critics, however, were frank. “If you close the street, you allow more people to loiter and hang around,” says major Capitol Hill property owner Michael Malone. “You create an open environment that can lead to panhandling and aggressive behavior.” The street closure stunt brought “the moths to the light,” he says. Malone moved to Capitol Hill in 1967 and started AEI Music (best known for its Jimi Hendrix statue) and now owns nine buildings along Pike/Pine, including Poquitos at the corner of 10th and Pike, and thinks the street closure actually exacerbated the potential for gay bashing. His vision of Capitol Hill is more focused on striking a balance between nightlife and the daily routines of daytime commerce. “[The Pike/Pine neighborhood] is not only a place to have a drink, but it’s also a place to have lunch or go shopping, and live in. Not everyone that moves into the hood wants to sit around and do shooters on Saturday night.” 

Tracy Taylor, general manager at perhaps the neighborhood’s premier retail business, Elliott Bay Books, says, “We don’t support street closures. Our customers come on foot, by bicycle, and by car…. We left Pioneer Square partly because the perception was parking was too difficult. We were surrounded by bars and very little retail, and it created a vacuum. When we have streets closed …to help foster a festive atmosphere for the bar crowd, we lose customers. It’s a simple reality.”

"Not everyone that moves into the hood wants to sit around and do shooters on Saturday night."

It’s not just property and business owners who were bummed out by the street closure. Twenty-two-year-old Lauren Burgeson, a Capitol Hill Community Council at-large representative who’s on Pike/Pine “pretty much seven days a week for either shows at Neumos and Barboza” or to hubs like Big Mario’s and the Cha Cha, was initially supportive of the project. She thought the reduced car traffic and increased police presence would make the streets safer, but: “I noticed that crowds seemed to be even rowdier than usual. I overheard several people say they had heard about the closure and specifically traveled to Capitol Hill that night to party.” Burgeson says that the past year has been marked by an increase in violence against people of color, women, and LGBTQ populations. (In 2010, the annual average number of street crimes in the neighborhood was 146; there were 255 in 2014.) “The street closure seemed like it encouraged this behavior by giving those that came here to drink the opportunity to have full rein over the area.”

The city is still crunching the data, but initial surveys don’t support critics’ claims that the closure drew hooligans to Capitol Hill. Surveys taken from both the pilot and nonpilot nights show similar stats: People are not only going to bars, but doing a mix of activities—59 percent said they were dining at restaurants, quaffing coffee, shopping, and going to work, according the Office of Economic Development’s Hall. And the data contains perhaps the city’s best argument for pursuing the street closure pilot in the first place: Initial surveys showed 70 percent of people were walking, biking, or using transit and ride share as part of their trip to and from the neighborhood. In short: A majority of people were coming to Pike/Pine in the evenings without a car anyway. 

“As far as sending the message that Pike/Pine is a party district, it’s a little late for that. That’s what it is already,” says Jeffrey Ofelt, owner of Cha Cha and Bimbos, who supports the street closure. “I’m no more concerned about it tipping into a frat-boy party zone than I was before.” Despite Ofelt’s vested interest in the street closure—“We found the trial closures a very positive thing, with less problems…and more business”—his insight about the partyers jibes with the ultimate logic of the street closure idea. 

“People are afraid of change rather than working with it,” Peters (aka Mama Tits) says. “Yes, Capitol Hill has a party atmosphere, but it’s up to the neighborhood to determine what kind of party it’s going to be.” The programming during the street closure provided a glimpse of how the community could take the streets back. “Watching the drag queens in the middle of Pike, I saw the crowd go from two people to 50 to 150 to 300 people and more, and I thought, This is my Capitol Hill; this should be every Saturday night.”

Burlesque performer Justice says the street fair rekindled the old “gayborhood…this idea of having everyone back in the streets.” When she looked up at the new condos “across the way, there was a couple peering out their balcony and looking down. And at that exact moment, someone was on stage with a jock strap and their booty hanging out, and I was just laughing, and I felt great, like, ‘Yup, this is Capitol Hill; this is where you moved.’ ”

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