Wintonia has proved a good neighbor

For five days, City Hearing Examiner Meredith Getches listened as a neighborhood poured out its fears if 75 hard-core street alcoholics were allowed to live and drink under one roof.

Those opposed to the Denny Triangle apartments in downtown Seattle hoped Getches would apply the brakes to the proposed $8.7 million housing project. Instead, she concluded last week that the sometimes-destructive and obnoxious behavior of some street alcoholics can drastically improve once the individuals are placed in supervised and supportive housing.

She did not have to look far for evidence: A short walk from where the new apartments for street alcoholics will be built, the Wintonia apartment building has housed similar folks for eight years. And it doesn't seem to bother the neighborhood.

The six-story, red-brick building sits inconspicuously at East Pike Street and Minor Avenue.

Those who once fought against the Wintonia opening its doors to street alcoholics have learned that their fears and worries were for nothing.

Chronic alcoholics "living in the Wintonia have been good neighbors, even though they can, and do, choose to continue to drink," Getches wrote.

Pending a lawsuit, Getches' ruling clears the way for construction of the four-story apartment at 1811 Eastlake Ave., near the confluence of Denny Way and Interstate 5. The project, which would open in about a year, will be modeled after the Wintonia, though it differs in several ways, leading opponents to question comparisons.

Unlike 1811 Eastlake, only about half of the Wintonia's 92 units are occupied by hard-core street alcoholics. They also fear security problems unique to 1811 Eastlake, which will house one-third of its residents in semi-private cubicles on a single floor.

Once an eyesore

It was a decade ago when First Hill neighbors spoke out against a $9.2 million project to refurbish the old Wintonia Hotel into low-income apartments for homeless, chronic alcoholics.

The boarded-up Wintonia was just one eyesore in a neighborhood pocked with many. Since the Wintonia reopened, however, the Pike/Pine neighborhood has had a resurgence, with its diverse array of bars, coffee houses and boutiques. The Wintonia certainly didn't spark the revival, but it also didn't prevent it.

While the Pike/Pine neighborhood has its share of chronic alcoholics who aggressively panhandle, the Rev. John Simpson, senior pastor of First Covenant Church on East Pike, is convinced they don't live at the Wintonia.

"The primary issue around here related to public intoxication has to do with the grocery stores that sell 40-ounce cans of malt liquor and fortified wine, not the Wintonia," he says.

Fear and loathing

As the director of New Discovery School, a private preschool five blocks from the 1811 Eastlake site, Susan Gorman worries about the proposed new apartment. The school's toddlers enjoy playing at a nearby park, but street drunks increasingly seem to hang out there. She thinks 1811 Eastlake could make matters worse.

"When they are intoxicated, their behavior is unpredictable," she says. "And when teachers have 16 kids to supervise, you can't take a chance. You don't know if one of those people is going to lash out. Probably not, but you just don't know."

Ellen Taussig, head of Northwest School, a private secondary school two blocks from the Wintonia, raised similar security concerns for her students almost a decade ago. The school's 48-student dormitory is across the street from the Wintonia.

Her fears long since allayed, she now encourages the school's sixth-graders to perform holiday concerts at the Wintonia. When food is left over from a school special event, students sometimes deliver it to the Wintonia.

"We have been living in a more-than-peaceful co-existence," Taussig says.

The developer of a new hotel across the alley from the proposed new apartments predicts a fall-off in reservations once travel agents spread the word that half of its rooms look down upon an apartment building for street alcoholics. And the Benaroya Co., which owns several nearby buildings, fears tenants won't renew their leases.

Yet developer Val Thomas became so convinced the Wintonia was a good neighbor that in 1999 he built an upscale 57-unit condominium across the street. "It's knee-jerk to assume those types of buildings are going to automatically be problems," Thomas says. "Our concern was whether people were going to be hanging out windows or loitering outside the front door. So I met the manager and toured the building and came away convinced that wasn't going to be the case. And it hasn't been."

Fitting in

The Wintonia's fourth floor, resident Kevin Berube says, is the party floor. At night, usually on weekends or at the beginning of the month when government checks roll in, residents migrate from room to room and drink inside.

But the same people who don't know their limit on drinking do know their limit about where they can drink, Berube says.

"People are fearful of losing their housing if they go out when they are too loaded," he says.

In the appeal before Getches, opponents of 1811 Eastlake questioned whether street alcoholics have killed too many brain cells over the years to make those kinds of smart decisions for themselves. And they worried some will spill from the building, drunk and unruly.

Many street alcoholics do suffer brain damage brought about by years of drinking, which impairs memory and adds to their confusion and occasionally paranoia, says Dr. Kathleen Decker, a Bellevue psychiatrist with 14 years of experience treating street alcoholics. Decker testified before Getches on the opponents' behalf.

"Some people who have that syndrome cannot follow any rules in the slightest and also cannot be motivated to do so due to their cognitive difficulties," she says.

Decker also predicted the apartment at 1811 Eastlake will disturb the surrounding neighborhood because of the high volume of emergency-aid calls it would generate.

"The state of acute intoxication can lead to irritability and agitation," she says. "Often you don't have to do anything wrong to set off a person like this."

Joe Thompson, the Archdiocesan Housing Authority's director for affordable housing, has heard the skeptics who say an apartment of hard-core street alcoholics cannot be kept under control.

"I was initially skeptical, too," he says. "But eight years of experience tells me it does work."

At the Wintonia, police responded to 14 calls during the first 10 months of 2002, most of them minor.

"Fourteen calls to a building with that many people are very few calls," says East Precinct Community Police Officer Denise Bouldin, whose jurisdiction includes the building. "That number could be for any apartment house in any of the high-rise buildings in downtown Seattle."

Decker also points out that since chronic alcoholism can lead to organ-system damage, medical-aid calls at 1811 Eastlake could occur almost daily.

The Seattle Fire Department responded to 53 aid calls at the Wintonia, almost all of them medical-related, from January to October this year. During that same 10 months, however, there were 89 calls to the building next door, Faerland Terrace, an assisted-living and Alzheimer's care center.

Wintonia resident Ray Oldman likes to drop by Faerland Terrace every once in a while to visit with the old folks.

"They're just happy to have people to talk to," says Oldman, 64, who is an exception at the Wintonia — a former hard-core street alcoholic celebrating two years of sobriety next month.

Wintonia residents also have adopted Minor Avenue and regularly remove litter along a five-block stretch. The Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council sometimes meets inside the building, as does the neighborhood's Alcoholics Anonymous chapter.


The 1811 Eastlake project is owned and run by Downtown Emergency Service Center, a homeless-service nonprofit that has earned the trust of City Hall to manage other controversial housing properties in Seattle for formerly homeless people. The Wintonia is one of 15 low-income permanent-housing properties in the Seattle area owned or managed by the Archdiocesan Housing Authority, a division of Catholic Community Services of Western Washington.

A fear among opponents of 1811 Eastlake is that in its initial stages, the building will have to manage 75 tenants the likes of Melissa Lucero.

It took four years to evaluate the motivation level of Lucero, who moved into the Wintonia in August, says Chloe Gale, her case manager. Hard-of-hearing, wounded by chronic alcoholism and traumatized from years of homelessness, Lucero has difficulty expressing herself.

"The fact she has followed through here indicates to me that this is something she really wants," Gale says.

But Lucero, 49, gets bored inside her sixth-floor apartment. Still ambivalent toward her new home, she often falls back on the familiar and heads downtown to hang out with her longtime boyfriend and other pals from the streets. Together, they panhandle.

Gabe Elachik can relate. He recognizes a little of himself when he moved into the Wintonia eight years ago.

"I didn't think I would last very long here," he recalls. "I did not have a lot of confidence because my thinking wasn't very good."

He reels off names of friends from his days on the street, remembering how they would carve soapstone in the shape of grizzly bears and sell their sculptures to tourists and gift shops. Authorities recently found one of his old buddies decomposing in some bushes. If not for the Wintonia, it could have been him, Elachik says.

These days, Elachik prefers the comfort of his apartment, where he plays video games on his Xbox, shooting at animated figures before they can kill him first.

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2993 and