Three years ago, a stretch of Tukwila International Boulevard not far from four Tukwila schools was a hub of crime – and had been for decades.
People lingered on the highway, in small groups, near bus stops, exchanging money for drugs or offering money for sex.
That happened inside three infamous motels, too, away from the watchful eyes of security cameras that stand above International Boulevard. When those motels were seized by federal agents in August 2013, children waited in the parking lots to leave with their families, hopefully to somewhere that was free of crime.
They left with little, for they had little. A man yelled from the sidewalk, his refrigerator in a bear hug, for someone to pick him up.
Today, International Boulevard is much different. The four motels are gone. Mayor Allan Ekberg describes what happens next as a “reawakening.”
“Just having the opportunity to take down these motels is a big contribution to the community in the sense it’s a rebirth of the neighborhood up there around 144th and International Boulevard,” he said.
International Boulevard is safer – but not completely. Young people, especially young women, are harassed as they walk along the highway and they are speaking out about how they feel threatened.
Even with the motels gone, police and the community remain vigilant, aware that there’s still crime, including violent crime, no different than any urban area. No one wants it to take hold like before.
“Crime felt like it was in the environment before,” said Tukwila Police Officer Randy Rusness. “Now you just don’t have that feeling up here anymore.”
Now, a man at a bus stop is actually waiting for a bus, Rusness says. Crime remains but it’s just not as “overt,” he said.
“That’s one of the things that I look at now, and I am like, “Wow, a bus stop now is used by people riding the bus. It used to be a dry place to sell narcotics.”
Rusness adjusts the cameras in the Police Department’s Neighborhood Resource Center near the motels, revealing what’s happening from about South 144th Street to 146th Street.
“People on the highway now move with a purpose,” he said. “They are not loitering. They are not mingling or ambling around for no reason,” looking for drugs or prostitutes.
A seven-year veteran of the Tukwila Police Department, Rusness helped compile the “intel” needed by detectives to make their case to seize the motels. Early on Aug. 27, 2013, he joined hundreds of others in law enforcement in a federal seizure of the Great Bear, the Boulevard and the Travelers Choice.
The City of Tukwila paid the federal government $3.6 million to buy the three motels. In February 2015, the city purchased a fourth motel which wasn’t seized, the Spruce, for $1.24 million, which is just to the south of the Great Bear and the Boulevard.
Last September the city completed its purchases of International Boulevard properties, when it bought Sam’s Smoke Shop for $388,875.
The next step is for the city to develop a plan to redevelop the properties, which it potentially could sell or use for its own purposes.
It’s fitting that someone who rode his bike up and down International Boulevard (or Highway 99 or the Pac Highway as it was known) as a teen in Tukwila is now the one in charge of the demolition of the motels.
Robert “Tito” Thacker is the site superintendent for Construction Group International (CGI) of Woodinville, which was awarded the $603,000 contract by the City of Tukwila to demolish the motels and the smoke shop and leave the properties in an undeveloped state.
The actual demolition is being done by a subcontractor, Wood and Son Earthwork and Utility, based in Yelm.
Thacker attended Showalter Middle School and then Foster, eventually earning a GED through a credit-retrieval program.
“This place was never the greatest. The Boulevard, the Spruce, that row was never the greatest,” he said of that stretch of International Boulevard. He knows what it means to the community to see these motels gone.
“Anybody who grew up in an unfortunate neighborhood, who has seen things going on, they knew what was going on there,” he said. “They knew the drugs and the prostitution was going on.”
Although the motels had been boarded up for more than two years, transients still found their way inside. Every morning before demolition began, Thacker and those in the demolition crew would check every room or any other space where someone could make a bed and sleep.
“It’s a safety thing,” Thacker said. “It’s standard procedure.”
A particular problem was the Boulevard motel. Each morning the same transient left when asked to do so; there was no problem, so police weren’t called, Thacker said. “It’s understandable. He’s homeless. It’s pouring down rain,” he said.
The actual demolition began in mid-February and was completed days, if not weeks quicker than anticipated. Pieces of the Spruce, Boulevard and Great Bear were left standing until Seattle Public Utility could completely turn off the power.
Because the three motels are next to each other, trucks could easily load debris onsite and then enter the highway. The dump for construction debris and recycling center weren’t far away.
The general contractor is looking at options to recycle the asphalt and the concrete at the four motels, now that the recycler chosen for that work, Contractors Concrete Recycling on Renton’s West Hill, is no longer allowed to accept material. One possibility is to do the recycling onsite.
All that will remain on the four properties in June, when the work is done, are grass and security fences.
“I am excited for that bad mark on the community to go away,” Thacker said.
The properties will remain as green space for at least a year as the City of Tukwila decides how they will develop and who will do the developing. Such redevelopment, Mayor Ekberg said, will bring the neighborhood “to a new level.”
At the core of redevelopment on International Boulevard is Tukwila Village and the King County Library System’s new Tukwila Library, which is under construction right on the boulevard at South 144th Street.
Tukwila Village, years in the planning with the new library scheduled to open in the next several months, will become a catalyst for more redevelopment all along International Boulevard, Ekberg said.
The city is studying its own facility needs as it decides whether to renovate buildings or build new ones, including fire stations or a new public-safety building. Its aging public-works facilities are in the Green River floodplain.
“We want to look at this property as a potential for the city but we also want to look at it as a potential for the school district,” Ekberg said.
The thinking is far enough along that the City Council could decide to send a bond measure to voters, possibly for the November general election, to pay for the city’s facility needs, according to Ekberg.
“We are working on it. We are looking at it,” he said.
The Police Department has outgrown its space at City Hall and the building next door, now that it is fully staffed with 78 officers, Ekberg said. The court space is too small to handle the city’s case volume.
A possible location for a new public-safety building is the land the city now owns on Tukwila International Boulevard.
The numbers tell the story of why the four motels had to go. About a quarter of the police calls in Tukwila occurred there before they were closed.
Daily, officers would respond to one of the four motels, according to Tukwila Police Chief Mike Villa. In the year leading up to the seizures, police responded to Great Bear, Boulevard and Travelers Choice motels 490 times. Add in the Spruce, and the number jumps to more than 600 calls for service.
“While the root of these calls were usually prostitution or drug-related, they were often robberies, assaults and other crimes of that nature,” Villa said. “Residents and business owners reported feeling unsafe in the area and our officers were very busy responding to incidents along TIB.”
One year after the motels were seized, violent crime in the neighborhood went down by 40 percent and property crime decreased 21 percent in the area, according to Villa, and “what’s really great,” he said, is that the work is continuing,
Last year represented a 15-year low for robberies, and residential burglaries are at a 10-year low, which is 56 percent lower than five years ago, he said.
“While we believe that the permanent closing of the motels account for some of the drop in crime in 2015, it is also because of the various policing strategies we are deploying in our neighborhoods to keep our community safe,” Villa said.
The department also has 10 more officers that it did give years ago, he said. And the department will continue “to deploy best practices” and build relationships in the community.
Tearing down the motels was “not a magic fix,” said officer Rusness, although he called them “hubs of crime.” “It would be easy to sit back and let things get back to the way they were,” he said.
The department and the city will stay vigilant, he said.
“The community will have to stay vigilant,” he said. “And stay invested in this to keep Tukwila International Boulevard nice and safe.”