The garishly über-megalithic commercial complex in the heart of downtown Seattle that currently houses NikeTown, along with other similar corporate chain stores, has long been a deceptively dazzling civic eyesore. You might not think so from looking at it now, but not long ago that spot was the site of an affordable housing complex–one of the last then remaining downtown. On the date in focus here, a pair of activists attempted to save it–symbolically, at least–from the impending wrecking ball.
Before there was NikeTown, etc., there was the Payne Apartments, a 43-unit low-income apartment building located at 1521 Seventh Avenue. The building was then scheduled to be torn down the following week to make way for the highly-publicized $25 million project that would house NikeTown, along with a Planet Hollywood outlet and other such upscale tenants. The project was one of many such pricey development deals resulting from the mid-1990s local economic boom then vastly transforming (or neutering, depending on whom you ask) the character of downtown Seattle.
Not everyone blindly welcomed that change. Operation Homestead, a grassroots organization founded in 1988 with the mission of saving low-income housing in Seattle, had already staged, as of the summer of 1995, a number of occupations of buildings threatened by development. These buildings were either abandoned or had been bought out by developers (and, in some cases, the developers had unlawfully evicted the buildings’ low-income tenants). In the early evening of June 26, 1995, Dana Schuerholz and Bob Kubiniec, representing Operation Homestead, scaled the side of the Payne by the fire escape all the way up to the roof, with the intention, full publicized in advance, of staging a non-violent protest against the loss of affordable housing.
The Seattle Police Department handled the protest with characteristic restraint–in other words, by sending a full Special Patrol Unit (Seattle’s equivalent of a SWAT team) into the building, with weapons drawn, shortly after midnight, to arrest Schuerholz and Kubiniec.
After bringing the two activists down to the street, the police then drenched them with water hoses, in order, according to the police, to prevent possible asbestos contamination (demolition of the building had already begun). The two were then left to sit in wet clothes for several hours in King County Jail, while under investigation for trespassing charges.
Meanwhile, supporters of the protest who had gathered across the street from the Payne explained the motivations for the action to the press. They lamented the city government’s failure to adequately address the ongoing loss of affordable housing in the midst of Seattle’s then-booming economy. They also lamented the city government’s eagerness to coddle the many real estate developers responsible for that loss.
Schuerholz and Kubiniec were later acquitted of trespassing charges. The gentrification of downtown Seattle would continue unchecked for several years after.
–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Real Change Newspaper archives; Jennifer Bjorhus and Dee Norton, “2 Housing Advocates Arrested For Sit-In,” The Seattle Times, June 27, 1995; Jennifer Bjorhus, “Peaceful Protesters Get Swat Treatment,” The Seattle Times, June 29, 1995.