SEATTLE (From news reports) -- Concerns over crime in downtown Seattle escalated sharply this past week after Weyerhaeuser reportedly delayed its return to its Pioneer Square headquarters due to neighborhood safety issues.
In an email to employees, Denise Merle, Weyerhaeuser's chief administration officer, said the timber company won't bring workers back to the offices overlooking Occidental Park without "significant and sustained improvements in neighborhood safety," according to a media report Thursday.
Weyerhaeuser declined to confirm the message or comment on the matter.
But Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, said that during a conversation with Weyerhaeuser officials in mid-September, "it was certainly made clear to me that they have not made a decision to return and won't until they see some improvement to safety in the neighborhood."
The conversation took place shortly after the Sept. 13 stabbing of a man who was walking his dog in Pioneer Square, Scholes said.
Many employers have delayed their office returns due to surging COVID-19 cases and the delta variant. But Weyerhaeuser appears to be the first major employer to explicitly link its delay not only to COVID-19 but also to public safety concerns.
Other neighborhood business owners and organizations weren't surprised that Weyerhaeuser had balked over public safety following a recent spate of shootings and assaults and the presence of a tent encampment in the neighborhood's landmark pergola.
Absent effective policies to address public safety, said Scholes, those concerns "could become part of other employers' reasoning, if it isn't already."
"It's hard to bring your staff back when we've got so many issues," said Ali Ghambari, owner of Cherry Street Coffee House. He said he had to install buzz-in door security at his Pioneer Square store to keep his employees from quitting over safety concerns.
Some Pioneer Square businesses welcomed news of Weyerhaeuser's delay, saying it might be a wake-up call for city officials who some merchants say haven't given enough attention or resources to the iconic neighborhood.
"I'm glad they said it, because you know what? They'll pay attention to Weyerhaeuser," said Darcy Hanson, whose Merchants Cafe and Saloon sits across Yesler Way from the tent encampment.
Weyerhaeuser's decision to delay comes at a delicate moment for downtown Seattle.
The area is struggling to come back from the pandemic, which emptied it of most of the tourists and office workers that keep many downtown businesses alive.
But the Weyerhaeuser decision also comes at a critical moment for Pioneer Square in particular. Many of the iconic neighborhood's restaurants, bars, galleries and other businesses have begun to see signs of economic recovery, driven in part by a return of tourists and fans attending Mariners, Sounders and Seahawks games.
But many fear that momentum could be stalled by the perception of unchecked homelessness and street crime, said Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, whose district covers Pioneer Square.
"You can see the blossoms of a very strong recovery in Pioneer Square, especially relative to a year ago," Lewis said. "But you can just really see the tension where this recovery is coinciding with ongoing very real public safety challenges and very visible urban poverty that we have to address."
According to the Seattle Police Department crime dashboard, reports of violent crime in Pioneer Square through September are up by around 14% over the same period in 2020, but are down 17% compared with the same period in 2019. Reports of property crime this year are down 26% and 49% from 2020 and 2019, respectively.
Merchants say concerns about street crime and homelessness affect their customers and their employees. Hanson says one of her bartenders was assaulted by a person staying at the homeless encampment, which has also prompted "reviews from hell" from customers who have stayed at the hotel she runs above the bar.
"I wouldn't bring my staff down there if you could 'remote' bartend," she says. "But you can't."
Lewis and other council members say they're trying to address those challenges. In September, the council approved roughly $10 million in Police Department funding for community service officers and crime prevention coordinators, said Councilmember Lisa Herbold, chair of public safety and human services committee, in a statement Friday.
The council is also funding an alternative emergency response system that "will allow us to deploy the right response rather than sending an armed police office to every 911 call," Herbold said.