Street alcoholics' home awaits ruling
Seattle Times staff reporter
The holdup in building an apartment house where 75 chronic street alcoholics would live and be allowed to drink in their rooms has stretched past one year as opponents continue to petition the courts to try to stop the plan.
The publicly funded $11 million project is to be built at 1811 Eastlake Ave., near the base of the Denny Way overpass connecting downtown and Capitol Hill.
The developer, Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), has secured a building permit from the city and cleared the ground on which the four-story apartment building is to rise. Staring down at the hole in disapproval are three staircase-shaped office towers owned by the Benaroya Co., the project's chief opponent, along with a hotel operated by Marriott.
Although opponents have lost each challenge so far, DESC has held off on starting construction until the cases are resolved. The state Supreme Court is expected to decide as soon as next month whether to review the lone active appeal. If the court declines, opponents have other strategies that could delay the project further.
One option is a federal lawsuit that would raise the same objection that state and local judges have ruled has no merit — that the project is a residential treatment center for chronic alcoholics and not simply low-income housing.
Developers of treatment centers must meet additional regulatory requirements.
"I, frankly, don't think our opponents are irrational people, but their opposition to this project has approached the level of no longer being rational," said Bill Hobson, DESC executive director. "I really believe our opponents can see that this project makes good policy sense. They just simply don't want it next to them."
Richard Aramburu, a Benaroya Co. attorney, said opponents remain steadfast in their position that assembling 75 chronic street alcoholics under one roof — without demanding that they abstain from drinking — will disrupt the mostly commercial district.
The philosophy behind the project is to remove homeless chronic alcoholics from downtown streets and parks and nudge those who are considered capable of achieving sobriety into treatment programs.
Clinical professionals estimate that fewer than 5 percent are capable, though more than 50 percent could reduce their drinking under controlled conditions.
Project backers, which include the state, county and city, think removing chronic alcoholics from the street and giving them a secure place to live can reduce their destructive behavior and therefore be less of a drain on taxpayers.
Hobson said that for each year 75 chronic alcoholics are left to live on the streets, taxpayers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in emergency-room, detoxification and other services.
The apartment building would have house rules that restrict tenants' drinking to individual apartments, and Hobson said DESC would pursue eviction of tenants caught drinking or exhibiting drunkenness in common areas of the building, including an outside deck, and on surrounding streets.
Hobson said allowing alcohol consumption on site is necessary to lure the chronic alcoholics to settle there — and, if all goes to plan, to settle down.
"The whole idea is to teach these people to use alcohol responsibly," he said.
The Benaroya Co. and other nearby businesses filed a lawsuit to try to overturn the city's granting of the building permit, which failed. In a separate suit now before the state Supreme Court, opponents claim that the project is a public nuisance and requires a state license to operate as a residential treatment center, arguments that both the King County Superior Court and the state Court of Appeals previously rejected.
DESC has secured state, county and city money but still needs approval for federal financing set aside for low-income housing, which amounts to 55 percent of the project's capital costs.
Aramburu said opponents hope to sway the officials who oversee the program that the project is not eligible for the financing because it is a treatment center.
Failing that, Aramburu suggested a challenge could be initiated in federal court.
"We haven't really had to think about that yet, but we haven't ruled it out," he said. "As time goes on, we think we are more right than less right about this."
Hobson said the legal challenges have added $300,000 to the cost of the project. He said the apartment would take 11 months to build and that the earliest construction could begin is April.
Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company