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, et cetera, there was the Payne Apartments, a 43-unit low-income apartment building located at 1521 Seventh Avenue. The building was then scheduled for demolition 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. Those 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 morning of June 26, 1995, Bob Kubiniec and Dana Schuerholz, representing Operation Homestead, scaled the side of the Payne by the fire escape all the way up to the roof, with the intention, fully publicized in advance, of staging a non-violent protest against the loss of affordable housing downtown.
That evening at 5 p.m., while several supporters rallied in the street below, Kubiniec and Schuerholz hung several banners from the building as part of the protest action. Among the slogans displayed were “Nike Stomps Housing,” “Save Existing Housing,” and “43 Homes. Here Today. Gone Tomorrow.” The Payne had been home to 43 low-income residents, many of whom were newly homeless at the time of the protest.
The Seattle Police Department handled the protest with characteristic restraint — in other words, by sending a full Special Patrol Unit (then Seattle’s equivalent of a SWAT team) into the building, with weapons drawn and wearing gas masks, shortly after midnight, to arrest Kubiniec and Schuerholz. 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.
“The police were really heavy-handed with us,” said Kubiniec. “They turned a peaceful demonstration into a really dangerous scene.”
Before the police arrived, 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.
“The housing situation in this city continues to be a crisis,” said Joe Martin, one of the protest supporters.
Kubiniec and Schuerholz were later acquitted of the trespassing charges. The gentrification of downtown Seattle would continue unchecked for several years after.
Sources: Jennifer Bjorhus and Dee Norton, “2 housing advocates arrested for sit-in,” The Seattle Times, June 27, 1995, p. B3; Jennifer Bjorhus, “Peaceful protesters get SWAT treatment,” The Seattle Times, June 29, 1995, p. B4; “The Payne Goes Down: City Over-reacts to Peaceful Demonstration,” Real Change newspaper, July 1995, p. 7.