As the Omicron variant recedes, tech companies are eyeing a return to the office. But for those with offices in downtown Seattle, there’s a new question looming front and center: With crime rates rising to levels not seen in years, how safe is returning to in-person work in the city?
A few weeks ago, an Amazon engineer was hit in the head with a baseball bat while walking in Belltown. Days later there was a rash of shootings in downtown districts, building on what city officials say was a 40% increase in gun violence last year. Then earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal editorial board declared that “lawlessness now hampers Seattle’s economic recovery.”
While shootings make headlines, some who work downtown say crimes that don’t make the news are just as unsettling — and many of those aren’t investigated or resolved, or even reported. That’s one reason why some businesses, tech companies included, are moving out of downtown, or adopting a wait-and-see approach of staying remote a little longer.
“Smaller employers have left in droves,” said Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association. “Few of them needed to build a new HQ in another city. They just allow employees to work from home, and when their lease ends they get a new place in a new city like Bellevue, Renton, Redmond [or] Auburn.”
Cloud storage company Qumulo has a long-term lease agreement for offices on Third Ave., but CEO Bill Richter said violence and drug abuse are constant. For now, the company allows employees to choose if they want to come into the office or work from home — and Qumulo foots the bill for parking or Uber for those who choose to commute.
“If I were making a decision about where to locate my office right now, I would have serious doubts about prioritizing downtown Seattle,” Richter said.
Seattle saw sharp spikes in crime in 2021, but rates haven’t reached the historic levels seen in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The spikes are still alarming, though — so much so that Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell put public safety at the top of his first State of the City address Tuesday.
“The truth is that the status quo is unacceptable,” Harrell said.
Companies are taking steps to keep employees and customers safer as they transition back to in-person work, including closing offices early so employees can get home before dark, and hiring private security officers.
Madrona Venture Group, headquartered on Third Ave. downtown, is paying for employee parking after executive assistant Cindy Petek was struck in the face by a woman on a light rail train last month.
“It was so startling and so upsetting,” Petek said. “It was quite a shock. I hadn’t done anything to provoke her.”
Petek said she tried for days to report the incident using the non-emergency police number, but couldn’t get through. Finally, after submitting a written report to Sound Transit, she was referred to the King County Sheriff’s Office.
Greg Gottesman, managing director at Pioneer Square Labs, said the firm’s employees walk to transit in groups and leave early, especially after an office break-in this past December.
“I think we all have to be empathetic to what’s going on in our broader society and the world around us,” Gottesman said. “But it’s hard — you want to feel safe. You don’t want to have people coming into your workplace and stealing valuable equipment.”
Gottesman said cameras captured video footage of a person gathering up computers and cameras in the office, and employees were able to use location tracking on those devices to find they’d been taken to a Queen Anne apartment building. But even with that info, reports to police didn’t get results.
A Pioneer Square Labs employee had family photos on one of the cameras. He posted flyers near the apartment building, pleading that the photos be returned. Days later, the camera’s SIM card was returned in the mail along with a note asking him not to return to the area.
Gottesman isn’t among those considering a move away from downtown just yet. He said he’s hoping that as more people start returning to in-person work, the city will become safer again.
“Seattle wasn’t perfect before, but it has gotten a lot worse,” he said “I love Seattle so much … I think it’s the most amazing spot on the planet. But you want to feel safe, and you want your employees and the people you work with to feel safe.”
‘A day late and a dollar short’
Last year, police data showed aggravated assaults in Seattle increased a staggering 24%, and violent crime was up by 20%. Reported robberies also rose by 18% for the same year-over-year period.
Meanwhile, lagging police response times — or no response at all — is a common thread in many anecdotes from around the city. Reform advocates note that not all calls for help require responses from armed officers, but little has happened to build and support alternative response systems so far.
Mayor Harrell said Tuesday he plans to hire 125 more police officers — “the right number of officers, and the right kind of officers” — as the city grapples with how to address a long history of institutionalized racism, as well as gun violence that disproportionately impacts Black residents.
Harrell also promised to create a third public safety department that will employ emergency responders trained in de-escalation techniques and community harm reduction, and to move unhoused people from tent encampments on sidewalks and other areas around Seattle.
“Public spaces are for everyone in our city, and with many workers across our city returning to the office over the next month, our focus must also ensure sidewalks are accessible to the public and clear of obstacles and obstructions,” Harrell said. “This is an essential obligation of our government, just like continued work to provide shelter, housing, services and support for those experiencing homelessness.”
On Thursday, a group of Seattle-area companies and philanthropies — including Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, and the Gates Foundation — announced that they will put more than $10 million toward decreasing homelessness in and around downtown Seattle.
While crime and homelessness are often lumped together, reality isn’t quite so straightforward. Research doesn’t show a clear link between homeless encampments and crime, and those who work with unhoused people say they’re often more likely to be the victims of crimes than the perpetrators.
Richter said he’d like to see more of a police presence downtown, and that doesn’t have to be at odds with providing assistance to unhoused people.
“Very often, the debate is, do we want more police presence and to feel safe, or do we want to work on improving homelessness?” said the Qumulo CEO. “I just think that conflation is not very productive. For me it’s really an and statement, not an or statement.”
It’s worth noting that there are some businesses taking on new leases downtown. A number of tech companies have recently set up new workspaces in the city’s core business district, including shipping matchmaker Convoy and e-commerce startup Fabric, which moved from Bellevue last year.
Schutzler, with the WTIA, said he’s hopeful that the new mayoral administration will work with businesses to address crime downtown, and to keep offices full.
“I think there’s a really good opportunity for the city to begin to think through a lens of, how do we build together?” he said.
But he’s not entirely hopeful.
“I’m afraid it might be a day late and a dollar short, that the city is going to go through a really tough decade.”