Armed with flashlights and clipboards, inspectors descended on a North First Street motel Tuesday in the opening salvo of a long-term campaign to clean up one of Yakima’s busiest — and in places grittiest — thoroughfares.
Only minor code violations were found at the Yakima Inn, but city officials hope the inspection and future ones planned for other North First Street businesses will serve as notice that Yakima is serious about cleaning up.
“There’s no wiggle room anymore,” said Joe Caruso, head of Yakima’s code administration division.
While the roughly 11/2-mile stretch of North First Street from Yakima Avenue to Interstate 82 is locally well known for crime, drugs and run-down properties, it is also front and center for many visitors. The street is a major entrance to Yakima, and it’s where many out-of-town visitors stay.
Earlier this year, the city was awarded a $2.7 million federal grant to bury utility lines, fix sidewalks, landscape and make additional upgrades along North First Street. But that work isn’t expected to begin until the spring of 2014.
In the meantime, other efforts, such as Tuesday’s, will be on the street’s motels, which officials and community members said have been sources for illegal activity.
Police responded to more than 100 calls to the Yakima Inn last year. But it’s hardly alone.
Officers answer thousands of calls to North First Street each year, and that is just the tip of the iceberg, Yakima police Chief Dominic Rizzi Jr. said.
“The problem out there is far greater than what the calls indicate,” he said.
Several business owners, workers and residents of North First Street say the Union Gospel Mission attracts vagrants, who are the source of the problem.
But the mission, which provides housing and social services to the homeless and others in need, has a very structured program, including a 7:30 p.m. curfew for residents, said Rick Phillips, the nonprofit’s director.
“We don’t know yet what’s causing the problem. We know where it is, so we’re going to attack the where,” Rizzi said.
The police department has to first reduce the number of quality-of-life calls — such as public urination or aggressive panhandling — that make up the bulk of calls from North First, and then police will be able to better identify what is encouraging crime, he said.
In a couple weeks, police will step up patrols and undercover activity along that stretch of road.
Police will also offer training to the street’s business community to reduce the number of calls from the area. Property and business owners who don’t work with the police could face fines under a 2010 city ordinance that allows the department to designate a property as a “chronic nuisance” if it generates three or more serious police calls within a 60-day period, or seven within a year. Nuisances in this case are defined as calls ranging from prostitution to drug activity to assault to worse.
Yakima Inn, like several motels along North First, easily qualifies as a chronic nuisance, Yakima police Officer Rich Fowler told the motel’s owner before Tuesday’s inspection began.
In 2012, police were called to the motel 162 times, and they’ve already responded to 43 calls this year. About half of those were nuisance calls, Fowler said.
Once a property or business is declared a nuisance, the owner has to work with police to reduce calls. If they don’t do anything, they can be fined $500 every time police respond to a nuisance call.
“That’s not our intent,” Fowler said to the motel owner. “In two years in this program, I haven’t fined one soul.”
The police have been able to work with owners to get calls down to a manageable level in as little as 60 days, he said.
Yakima Inn owner Bhupinder Vishast said he already works with police and will work harder to limit calls.
Yakima is taking a similar approach with code violations. The city wants to work with owners, but without their cooperation, it could levy fines, deny business licenses and even condemn property, among other actions, Yakima City Manager Tony O’Rourke said. “Business has to meet us more than halfway.”
The city is using carrots in addition to sticks. For example, it is working on getting money to help business owners pay for storefront and landscape improvements. Police also will work with Central Washington Comprehensive Mental Health to get counseling for people they arrest, when appropriate.
The city’s $2.7 million federal grant is described as a long-term investment in making North First Street an attractive and inviting gateway into Yakima. In addition to burying utility lines and replacing sidewalks and curbs, the grant is expected to pay for pedestrian-friendly lighting, benches and banner poles.
However, the city likely won’t have as much money to spend on North First Street as it did on the downtown core, which got more than $10 million from the Legislature.
Plus, North First Street’s low property values could make it harder for business owners to put money into their establishments.
“We haven’t been able to get rents up over the years, because of the deterioration of the area in general,” said Jim Beckett, a Re/Max real estate agent who manages a motel-turned-retail building at the corner of First and D streets.
The lack of improvements or even maintenance by businesses, land owners or the city discourages individuals from putting money into their building or property, he said.
But the local business community’s pride in its appearance is more important than how much is invested, said restaurateur John Gasperetti. His high-end restaurant, Gasperetti’s, has been a Yakima institution — and North First Street fixture — for nearly a half century.
“It doesn’t require money as much as it requires someone to take pride, and get out there and pull weeds.”
• Dan Catchpole can be reached at 509-759-7850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.