Cleaning Up Sea-Tac Strip -- Officials Target Prostitution, Dance Clubs

Pacific Highway. Old 99. Highway 99. The road that funnels constant traffic through South King County has many names to many people, but none is more infamous than the Sea-Tac Strip.

For years, exotic dance clubs, prostitutes, massage parlors and topless bars occupied the stretch of road that parallels the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Now, the image-conscious cities of SeaTac and Tukwila, which recently inherited sections of the four-lane highway through incorporation and annexations, want to cleanse the strip's tainted reputation.

Through local ordinances that are stricter than the county's, Tukwila is trying to remove adult-entertainment businesses along the highway, and SeaTac is attempting to force prostitutes to peddle their wares elsewhere.

To further improve its image, SeaTac may install flags along the highway and call it International Boulevard.

``We have an opportunity to really showcase this city,'' said SeaTac Mayor Frank Hansen, who hopes to show off his town during the Goodwill Games July 20-Aug. 5.

Although the city isn't hosting any athletic events, it surrounds an international gateway - the airport. And with the Games' media-registration center located about five blocks from the highway, Hansen said the entire nation could see how this area is turning around.

The strip received national notoriety about eight years ago when King County police discovered that victims of the Green River killer were being abducted off the strip.

The killer is believed to have slain 49 women between the summer of 1982 and early 1984. At least half of the victims were last seen on or near the strip. Seven of the bodies were found within a couple of miles of the highway.

Prostitution decreased after the height of the Green River killer publicity, but county police still make 80 to 90 percent of their prostitution-related arrests along the strip, according to King County police Sgt. Frank Kinney, supervisor of the vice- control unit. Last year, the county made more than 400 prostitution arrests countywide.

Kinney said the number of prostitutes in the area seems to be decreasing with recent law-enforcement developments.

A month before SeaTac residents voted in March 1989 to incorporate, King County increased its police force in the area. The county police, who still patrol the area under contract with SeaTac, continue to target the road.

When Tukwila annexed neighborhoods along the east side of the highway north of South 160th Street last summer, it also added more patrol officers to the strip.

And SeaTac created tougher anti-prostitution laws than the county had, by, among other things, making a second violation for prostitution within a year a gross misdemeanor instead of just a misdemeanor. Repeat offenders face a higher fine and longer jail time.

A question over whether a newly created SeaTac Municipal Court had been properly established prompted county police to temporarily stop making arrests under city law. They enforced state law instead.

County police will begin enforcing city ordinances not covered under state law, such as stricter anti-prostitution laws, once the city contracts with the county for court services. A contract is expected to be approved within the next two weeks.

Kris Keller, general manager of the Super 8 Motel on the highway, said there may be less prostitution along the strip because some seedy businesses are gone.

A hotel and mini-mart have replaced a massage parlor and topless bar.

There are only three adult-entertainment businesses along the strip today: an adult-video store in SeaTac, a female nude dance club in unincorporated King County on the west side of the highway and a male strip club on the east side of the highway that became part of Tukwila through annexation.

Tukwila already has given Dandy's, the all-male strip joint, the cold shoulder by denying it a business license. The city says Dandy's violates the city's 23-year-old ordinance that prohibits a cabaret-licensed business from operating within 500 feet of a playground. A children's play area is located in a nearby apartment complex. Dandy's owners have appealed the license denial.

If residents west of the highway outside Tukwila vote May 22 to be annexed into the city, a 2-year-old adult-entertainment ordinance likely will be applied to Little Darlin's, the other exotic dance club, according to Tukwila City Councilman Clarence Moriwaki.

Enforcing the ordinance, which tolerates adult-entertainment establishments only in areas zoned for heavy industrial use, is a legitimate way of getting rid of undesirable businesses, he said.

Stricter laws are one way to clean up the crime, but it takes more than that to change the image and really turn this area around, said Bob Southall, general manager of the Seattle Airport Hilton.

Southall, chairman of SeaTac's image-enhancement committee, has proposed city and local businesses share the cost of installing about 125 flagpoles along the strip at a cost of about $200 each.

The SeaTac City Council has approved spending up to $50,000 on Southall's program, which will bring other improvements later.

The poles could fly Goodwill Games banners this summer, later to be replaced by either international flags or city banners, Southall said.

The committee, made up of council members and business representatives, also wants to call SeaTac's portion of the highway International Boulevard in addition to Pacific Highway South.

The reaction from the public is mixed.

Chang Ki Yi, owner and manager of Masae's Teriyaki in SeaTac, said flags will give the community a fresh feeling and city identity, but another street name will only confuse people.

Bill Bowlin, SeaTac city founder, said, ``I think it's a good start. This city needs to develop its own image and this is one way to get started at it.''

Now, people think of the city as SeaTacky, he said.

Keller, the Super 8 Motel manager, said he thinks giving the area a facelift may curb crime if the city commits to a program beyond flags, such as putting in sidewalks and shrubbery.

``People aren't going to hang out where they're going to stand out,'' Keller said.

But others are skeptical that the image of the strip will ever change and that flags and new street names may be cosmetic and a waste of money.

``I don't think it's going to do a bit of good,'' said SeaTac community activist Pat Ashcraft. ``It may look nice, but it's not going to change anything.''

Bob Kueker, manager of Angle Lake Cyclery on the highway, said he thinks money may be better spent elsewhere. ``(Flagpoles) require so much maintenance. I'd rather see a fireman or police management paid rather than a flagman,'' he said.

Flying flags and a new name isn't a cure-all for this area, Southall said. ``This isn't the answer or conclusion, this is just the beginning.''

Kinney, the head of the county's vice unit, said changing the appearance here could help because it will send a message to people that residents care.

Community pride may encourage more people to work closer with police and be less tolerant of prostitutes and other criminal activity the strip attracts.

But with the airport and the many hotels here, some prostitution will probably always be around.

``I guess that's why they call us the vice-control unit instead of the vice-eradication unit,'' Kinney said.