As Ballard becomes one of Seattle's "it" places, crime is catching up to population growth, leaving residents and city officials alike searching for answers in hard economic times.
Not like Mayberry anymore: Crime catches up with Ballard growth
They arrived as a pair in late March at the Sylvan Learning Center in Ballard. The first man asked director Pam Cople about reading comprehension help for his sixth-grade daughter then excused himself to take a phone call.
A second man walked in, also chatting on a cell phone. Cople said she didn’t notice he’d swiped her purse from her office until he was nearly out the door.
“I grabbed him, missed him and ran after him,” she said.
He escaped. Cople said she assumed he’d been talking to his buddy on the phone, alerting him that she’d left her office and he could search for her purse. The police didn’t catch the crooks.
“They had it all planned,” Cople said. “You have to have some kind of game plan. I feel like it was quite organized.”
Once a quiet, Scandinavian suburb of Seattle, Ballard has morphed into an urban hotspot, complete with top-rated restaurants, fresh nightlife and, yes, crime.
Residents are concerned about keeping their streets safe, their parks clean and their police visible. They want all the perks of downtown Seattle to accommodate their growing population, but there just aren’t enough funds, said Beth Williamson Miller, executive director of the Ballard Chamber of Commerce.
Crime makes a commercial district seem unfriendly — the last thing you want when you’re struggling to stay out of the red in a stagnant economy, Williamson Miller said.
“It used to be because we were kind of out of the way, we were fortunate enough not to have a lot of public safety issues like some other communities have had,” she said. “Now, because we’ve become more dense and become kind of the ‘it’ place, we’re seeing more criminal activity.”
From quiet to cool
Hovie Hawk’s friends mocked him for wanting to move to Ballard in the late 1990s.
“There was nothing here, so it was pretty quiet,” Hawk said. “There weren’t as many of the ‘cool’ places. It was a much safer place to walk around.”
More than a decade later, Hawk’s business, Design Hovie Studios, sits on Northwest Market Street. He said he’s worried about the increase in crime in central Ballard, particularly panhandlers around the Ballard Library and Ballard Commons Park who he believes have become more aggressive.
His wife is too scared to even drop off library books with their children in tow after she was screamed at by a homeless person, Hawk said.
“It’s not an overly dangerous place, but there are times that I get out of [work] later and I’m definitely a lot more leery than in years past,” Hawk said.
Crime inched higher from 2008 to 2009, but it hasn’t grown any faster than the city itself, said Rob Mattson, Ballard neighborhood district coordinator. It’s all about perception, Mattson said.
It’s tough to pin down concrete numbers about Ballard’s population. Statistics from the 2000 census are hardly viable anymore, and this year’s data has yet to be calculated.
Even looking at rough figures, the growth is far from a boom. In 2000, Ballard’s population hovered at 43,500. Today, it’s estimated at around 45,000.
But when those numbers fluctuated so little from 1970 to 1980, 1980 to 1990, and 1990 to 2000, a modest 1,500-person jump can seem like a lot, Mattson said. Especially because most of it happened in densely populated central Ballard, while single-family neighborhoods like Blue Ridge and Sunset Hill have remained static.
The face of central Ballard is losing its wrinkles, too. It’s younger. Hipper. Restaurants and clubs have popped up where retail shops used to be, and liquor flows well into the night.
“That changing character contributes to who’s on the street at night and what they’re here for,” Mattson said.
Keeping the streets of Seattle safe is a priority for Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess. His five-point civility initiative bundled an increase in police foot patrols, fixed police beats, improved outreach services, housing for the homeless and a crackdown on aggressive solicitation. This final point sparked backlash from community members.
Mayor Mike McGinn vetoed the anti-aggressive panhandling ordinance in April, and the city council failed to overturn his veto in a May 24 vote.
There are still nearly 3,000 homeless individuals on the streets of Seattle, as estimated by King County’s annual One Night Count.
The Compass Housing Alliance hopes to curb that number, and is looking to install a housing unit for formerly homeless individuals in Ballard in October.
The Nyer Urness House will accommodate 80 studio apartments and offer services, such as meals and counseling.
Hawk said he is concerned about the housing's central Ballard location at 1753 N.W. 56th St., several blocks from his business.
But 15-year Ballard resident Amy Besunder, who lives five blocks from the site, said that plucking transients off the streets and into housing would be beneficial to a community largely lacking services for the homeless.
There’s a food bank and some churches that offer aid, but there’s not too much else, Besunder said.
“I’ve seen people who are homeless sleeping on the streets, but for the most part, what I see are people in need of services,” said Besunder, who works at McDermott Place, a low-income housing institute in Lake City. “Right now, we just don’t have any services available to people in our community.”
Compass Housing Alliance project manager M.J. Kiser said that while Urness House would not increase panhandling in the area, she is unsure whether it would decrease crime.
“I don’t think that folks in permanent housing tend to do a lot of panhandling because they have their basic needs met in the building,” Kiser said. “I think we’re all safer when people have more stability, and folks who are housed have inherently more stability than people who are not housed.”
The Seattle Police Department North Precinct’s community policing team is also working to improve livability on the streets of Ballard.
Whenever someone reports an instance of aggressive panhandling or someone living on the street, Sgt. Dianne Newsom doesn’t send them to jail.
Instead, Newsom and her crew bring in intervention services to try to get them help.
Newsom said people in residential neighborhoods are especially concerned about car camping. There’s one woman who lives in her car but has a seizure disorder. The police receive calls about her all the time, and they’re trying to move her somewhere she can be monitored, Newsom said.
“Our goal is to get their life turned around,” she said. “We are trying to make the community better, not just safer, but better.”
Problems in parks
When a Greenwood resident dug up a used needle in a park sandbox, she phoned it in to police, who told her to just “throw it away.”
Some Ballardites are worried about park safety, people who camp in bathrooms and deal drugs, Williamson Miller said.
There has been some progress in cleaning up the parks. Last year, Seattle Parks Superintendent Tim Gallagher approved an exclusion zone for Ballard’s three urban parks: Marvin’s Garden, Bergen Place and Ballard Commons. If someone violates a rule in one park, they’re trespassed from all three.
But, many want a stronger police presence to deter elicit activity in parks.
Ballard has been eyeing the park rangers program, which debuted downtown to an enthusiastic response. They’ve lobbied the city for something similar, said Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw.
“Just having that presence in your park keeps [criminals] out of it,” Williamson Miller said. “Marvin’s Garden is so tucked away, it’s easy for activity to take place.”
Raising security, shrinking funds
Like most things, amping up security in Ballard comes with a steep price tag.
With a $60 million deficit, it’s unlikely that Parks will be able to expand the park rangers program, even though some Ballard residents agree that more policing is crucial to keep the community safe, Bagshaw said.
Though a bike squad rotates through North Precinct neighborhoods, it can’t devote its wheeled patrols exclusively to Ballard. There isn’t an assigned foot beat anywhere in the precinct, Newsom said.
Jealousy still lingers about the enhanced safety features in downtown Seattle.
“There’s a level of unhappiness that downtown is getting some of these programs and we aren’t,” Williamson Miller said. “It’s hard to be overly critical in a time when budgets are terrible for our city and county and state government, but it can’t be used as an excuse forever, either. We need to make sure we’re providing enough public safety through policing in all of our communities.”
Some citizens have gone the grassroots route to keep their neighborhood safe.
Back in January, Hawk and a group of friends gathered to discuss the safety problems they’d observed in Ballard. They wanted to know what number to call when they saw something potentially dangerous.
Hawk initiated a campaign called Keep Ballard Friendly and a list of nonemergency numbers for citizens to report unsafe behavior and environments to a police officer is posted on their Web site.
“I think it’s just a matter of having everyone raise their awareness level and not being afraid to call,” Hawk said.
Ballard isn’t overly unsafe, Mattson said. Its crime is just catching up to its population as it shifts from the suburban to the urban and settles into its role as one of Seattle’s liveliest neighborhoods, he said.
“We’re becoming a big-time city,” Newsom said. “We’re not like Mayberry anymore.”