In a recent interview with local FOX affiliate Q13, the owners of local tea shop mini-chain Steepologie, Andrea and Joe Raetzer, said they permanently closed their downtown location, citing the city council’s effort to decrease the budget for the Seattle Police Department (SPD) as a major factor in the decision.
They later clarified to Eater Seattle that the shop closure happened July 31, before the council officially voted to pass the budget amendments this week with cuts to the SPD, and that they had nixed a plan to relocate to Westlake Center due to the full-on vote itself.
“What city council has done has been more detrimental to our business than a global pandemic, by far, absolutely,” Joe told Q13. The couple mentioned that they supported police reform and the protests, but Andrea said “our ability to express ourselves and protest what we believe in now has completely been overtaken by violence and rioting and complete lack of respect for each other.”
On Monday, after several weeks of deliberation, the Seattle city council passed budget amendments for 2020 that would cut the police force by 100 officers, disband the team that removes homeless encampments, and shrink the pay for some high-ranking command staff. The amendments came after the past several months of Black Lives Matter protests that included calls to “defund the police” and reinvest the money in community resources. Seattle police chief Carmen Best subsequently announced her retirement Tuesday, saying there was a “lack of respect” for the department in the wake of the council vote.
But at least some of Steepologie’s concerns predate the SPD shakeup, the protests, and pandemic. The owners of the loose leaf tea retailer say that the location on 4th Avenue and Stewart Street (open since 2017) had seen a steady drop in customer traffic over the past year and a half.
Back in January, there was a deadly mass shooting on 3rd Avenue and Pine Street that drew renewed pressure for an increased police presence in the vicinity, including a call to tear down a McDonald’s on that block and replace it with a mobile precinct. The Steepologie owners’ daughter was assaulted inside the store a week before the 3rd and Pine shooting in an incident captured on surveillance footage.
According to Andrea Raetzer, Steepologie — which still has open locations in Fremont, the Alderwood Mall, and the Southcenter Mall, with an Issaquah outpost opening in September — asked its landlord to increase security outside the downtown outpost, but notes that 24/7 private security is cost prohibitive. She tells Eater Seattle that the initial drop in business was connected to customer and staff member fears over crime in the area, and was exacerbated once COVID-19 hit the area and many of the people who worked downtown stayed home. The 4th and Stewart outpost has been closed since March.
The owners had considered reopening that location in June, but nixed the plan after the first weekend of protests in May, which impacted the downtown area. “We had hoped to be fully reopened on several occasions only to have it pushed back due to lack of Team Members willing to come back, despite us paying all returning staff a $1,000 bonus, and continued safety issues,” says Joe.
He tells Eater Seattle that the store officially closed July 31, more than a week before the city council officially voted on the budget amendments, but that the overall defunding talk played into the decision and the actual vote made them abandon a relocation plan.
“Rumblings of defunding have been going on for months now, and hearing what we knew would be a move to cut the budget was the last straw,” Andrea adds. “We had planned to relocate the downtown store to Westlake Center so we could have more eyes on the store, but we have cancelled those plans now with the [city council] vote.”
Not all Seattle businesses echo Steepologie’s concerns, and several have supported an effort to defund the police with an eye on more holistic public safety measures. That includes the popular International District coffee shop Hood Famous Cafe and Bar, which, along with Belltown’s Neon Boots (located just several blocks away from Steepologie), have recently explored alternatives to calling the cops to de-escalate conflict when there’s a disturbance.
A social worker trained Hood Famous staff on addressing biases and becoming familiar with resources besides 911. Neon Boots posted domestic violence and sexual assault hotlines, youth resources, substance abuse organizations, and many other numbers in a printable PDF for those who want to display them at their place of business.
Meanwhile, the city council’s budget amendments still fell far short of demonstrators’ demands to cut the SPD budget by 50 percent (the money saved this year is estimated to be just $3 million of the department’s $400 million annual budget). The council voted to take more significant steps in 2021, including the creation of a new department that would take 911 dispatch out of the hands of police.
“It might seem like a small cut, but this is where it starts,” says Andrea. “The SPD was already shorthanded. We would have rather paid more taxes to help the homeless and drug crisis situation than take SPD off the streets.”