In the course of reporting a story about aPodments and low-income housing, I was detained by a Belltown print shop and almost arrested this afternoon.
Here's a little background: I've been researching a hubbub about a 65-unit apartment building proposed by Plymouth Housing. The nonprofit builds homes for people who are transitioning off the streets and into stable residences, and it's planning the seven-story structure near Third Avenue and Virginia Street. Some neighbors oppose this project.
Two large, glossy mailers have been sent to nearby residents under the banner of the Downtown Seattle Neighbors Alliance, which encourages people to protest this building. In a series of questions that read more like accusations, the mailers argue this could be a magnet for criminals. The most recent mailer (.pdf) asks if it will qualify as a high-impact use under city law, making a "dangerous and/or noxious" presence and if it "has the potential for causing major community or health impacts." The mailers ask if it might require 24-hour police surveillance. The mailers even say that the residents will be homeless people who have failed in previous housing, even though Plymouth says that is "misleading" because the building will actually be designated solely for residents who "have demonstrated a long-term track record of stable and successful tenancy with Plymouth."
But who is the Downtown Seattle Neighbors Alliance—who do they represent?
Who is this group?
That's what I wanted to know—because the alliance has no online presence or phone number. But this group's media campaign is generating letters of protest, such as one complaint obtained by The Stranger that says this project presents a "danger as a result of addicts and mental patients and unstable individuals occupying the streets."
Some calls led me to Swifty Printing, which is located immediately next door to the proposed construction site. "The owners of the adjacent building own a printing company and are responsible for the mailing," says Bryan Sevens, spokesman for the city's Department of Planning and Development. At a recent design review meeting, held by the city, one of the shop's owners said he was a member. So I called Swifty Printing last week and asked if they were involved in the group and indeed printed the flyer. Answering the phone was Jack Nikfard, who said he was a partner in the company, and he said the business was a member, but he refused to answer any questions. He said I had to e-mail Lori at their group's e-mail account that was printed on the flyers.
I e-mailed Lori—as others have before me—but I never heard back. Lori seems to be the same Lori Nikfard with whom George and Jack Nikfard share property on Lake Sammamish, according to King County property records.
But I wanted to be certain that these people were printing the flyers. I wanted to ask if the "Downtown Seattle Neighbors Alliance" is just these few people, people who conveniently own a printing shop and are immediately next door to this project, or if there is anyone else involved in this "alliance." Anyone at all.
So I ventured down to Swifty today to ask.
When I arrived, I immediately asked the man behind behind the counter if he was Mr. Nikfard, and he said he was. I then asked, "Are you George or Jack Nikfard?" When he demurred, I asked if he is "the man I spoke to on the phone last week, and is your wife Lori Nikfard, because I'm wondering..." He cut me off. "Why do you want to know about my wife?" I began to explain that I was a reporter and that I didn't want to know about his wife; I was trying to figure out if he was Jack Nikfard, the same person I spoke to last week. He cut me off and began yelling.
The gist of his yells was that he would call the cops and I should leave, so I proceeded toward the door.
But he began to call the police anyhow. I gave them my business card to verify that I was, indeed, a reporter, adding that I was only trying to make sure I was talking to the right person. But as I was walking out, something crazy happened: A man came out from behind the counter, grabbed my arm, and pushed me away from the door, into a corner of the store, so I couldn't leave.
"You need to stay here," Nikfard barked. On the phone with police, he said his name was George and he accused me of "harassing" him. So, literally backed into a corner, I stayed put until the police arrived. "Stay right here," he told me again.
Of course I stayed put. I never resisted—I had only asked him preliminary questions and wasn't breaking any laws—so I was happy to explain myself to the cops.
Officer Michael Virgilio arrived at the scene after a few minutes.
"I want to make harassment charges because he has no business in here," Nikfard explained. He said a video camera in the room had recorded the entire incident.
With my turn to speak, I explained that I was trying to leave—this was undisputed—and that if, indeed, that camera caught it all on tape, I'd be happy to enter it as a court record that showed me walking in, asking a couple questions, and then trying to exit the shop.
"Asking questions is not harassment," Officer Virgilio told the printer, adding, "It doesn't fit harassment charges because you asked him to leave and he was trying to leave."
So I felt obligated to flip the coin: I asked the officer if they had they possibly assaulted me (given that I was trying to leave and they grabbed me, pushed me, and detained me against my will)? Am I the one who could arguably be pressing charges?
Yes, Officer Virgolio confirmed.
So if anything, the person committing a crime here could be the employee of this print shop. I declined to file a police report—it was already such a stupid waste of police resources, I didn't want to burden them any further—but the irony was too much to bear: They claimed in mailers that the homeless people outside were the ones breaking the law, but when a reporter approached them to confirm the mailers, they appeared to be breaking the law. They approached this dispute about Plymouth as if they just want to ask questions, but if someone asks them questions, they go completely berserk. They act as if they represent a community, but if a community interest sheds any light on them, they retract into their shell.
And then the best part of all happened.
When Officer Virgolio asked about the Downtown Seattle Neighbors Association mailer, one of the employees offered to retrieve a copy. He went behind the counter and returned with a crisp, unmailed copy of the mailer... which confirmed the mailers came from their shop.
Seattle is a lucky, lucky city—cranes are swiveling across our skyline and sidewalks are closed at every other turn for construction projects. Development is booming at full volume after the recession, while other cites are still doing their warm ups. We're also hearing lots of complaints, not surprisingly, from neighborhood busybodies just like during our last boom. But the complaints this time are of a different pitch. Back in 2004 to 2007, we used to hear more squealing about losing neighborhood "character" to unfamiliar town houses, about six-story buildings supposedly "out of scale" with the structures nearby. This time it's less about the shape of buildings, it seems, and instead about the class of the people who will live in them. The furor of Capitol Hill residents over aPodments, for example, is the screech of the wealthy and anchored who fear an influx of the young and mobile. And the latest battle cry is from businesses that—quite boldly—don't want poor people living nearby and are apparently willing to do extraordinary things to conceal their identity and punish anyone who dares to expose them.