Newsbox vigilantes!

Downtown business interests try to tidy up free speech.

THE DOWNTOWN business community has launched a new initiative to clean up the hundreds of newsboxes that line city streets. The action, which got under way in the last few months, was prompted by long-simmering frustration among downtown business owners with the unsightly clutter of newsboxes in front of their buildings.

Many of these boxes "are not maintained well and look lousy," says Lucinda Payne of the Downtown Seattle Association. "The empty ones are used as garbage cans." This resentment has intensified in recent years due to the rapid proliferation of new publications on the street, as well as the marked increase in the amount of graffiti and other vandalism to which these newsboxes are subject.

"It's like they're standing there saying, 'Abuse me,'" says Walt Briem, the publisher of Active Singles Life. Briem, who refers to his vending machines as his "soldiers"—"You lose some, some are wounded in action, some are held captive by the city"— has run Singles Life since 1980 and he says there's "far more vandalism than there was ten years ago." Taggers use blank stickers taken from the post office and elsewhere to plaster newsboxes with their signature work. The WTO experience, in which (among other incidents) a Seattle Weekly box was sent through the window of a McDonalds, served to throw newsboxes into even lower repute among downtown merchants.

When property owners from greater downtown recently banded together to form the Metropolitan Improvement District—an association that aims to spruce up the area and improve security—one of their first orders of business was to hire a company called CleanScapes to take a whack at newsboxes.

Taking an inventory from King Street to Broad Street, CleanScapes has been rearranging boxes so they are lined up closer to the curb and do not impede sidewalk traffic, according to CleanScapes president Chris Martin. In locations where there's a glut of boxes, such as at some major Metro bus stops, CleanScapes has also been regrouping the publications, shifting some of them further down the block or around the corner, and removing those that appear to be abandoned. The idea, says Martin, is "to address visual clutter and pedestrian flow."

In making these changes, CleanScapes has been following "Newsbox management guidelines" of its own devising. According to a copy obtained by Seattle Weekly, these guidelines instruct CleanScapes workers to give "priority placement on main avenues" to "Seattle Times/PI." In descending order, priority is then given to three other daily newspapers from out of town, followed by Seattle Weekly and "Other legitimate 'Newspapers'." (In an interview with Chris Martin, however, this paper's ranking crept up to second.)

Jim Sullivan, whose company, Gargoyle, owns 400 downtown boxes and distributes a number of free papers (including Seattle Weekly), claims that "the Times/P-I now have my preferential spots all over town. At Third and Spring I had to move my boxes back from around the corner." Sullivan says he doesn't buy the idea "that boxes should be in a straight line. The reason we place them where we do is for visibility. Sooner or later, if somebody doesn't staunch all this civic improvement, we're going to end up with no boxes on the street." Sullivan also questions Martin's legal authority to be shifting privately owned boxes around.

AS IT HAPPENS, the legal picture is highly ambiguous. The city ordinance governing newsboxes "calls for accommodation of everybody," says John Zavis, a supervisor in the city's transportation department. Under the ordinance, anybody can put out a newsbox: There is no permit necessary and no requirement that the boxes be kept in presentable condition. While technically any given corner has a four-newsbox limit, the ordinance encourages officials to ignore that limit unless there's a serious problem.

At the same time, however, the ordinance gives the city the right to prohibit newsboxes anyplace it wants in order to "alleviate congestion." Zavis notes that the public has "a right to free and clear passage," and property owners have a responsibility to maintain a safe sidewalk in front of their buildings.

But while the newsbox oversight technically falls under his department, Zavis says, "There's really nobody from government to bird-dog them. I don't have a problem with [Chris Martin] doing it, since we don't have the time. If he's exercising too much power I can always go to the [Metropolitan Improvement District] and pull his horns in."

Zavis says he serves more as a mediator than an enforcer. He recalls, for example, that the NikeTown people "went berserk" when the first boxes showed up outside their glamorous emporium. But a compromise was eventually reached. "Most people are reasonable," he says, "though there are building owners who've said 'I don't care, I'm going to take that box and throw it in the Sound' . . . and they have."

When it's become necessary to break up a Great Wall of newsboxes, at a Metro stop for instance, Zavis says that he, too, has an ordering system, with the paid newspapers separate from the free ones, and a third group made up of auto and home advertisers. "I have to group them somehow," he says.

Gargoyle's Jim Sullivan believes that the ultimate desire of the downtown business community is "to take all the free boxes off the street." Yet he has little trouble understanding their attitude. "Publishers have let the boxes go derelict," he says. "The publishing community has failed to be a good neighbor. We give these people ammunition."

Indeed, anyone with eyes can see that the free newsboxes tend to be in much sorrier shape than the generally spiffy coin-operated boxes kept up by the Seattle Times Company or The Wall Street Journal. The freebies are open 24-7, Sullivan notes, so they attract garbage. Free papers such as the Weekly are also distributed by part-time contractors in their own cars, whereas the Times/P-I is delivered by union employees in company-owned vehicles who are being paid by the hour (not the box) and can carry cleaning supplies with them. These companies are also wealthy enough to regularly replace aging boxes.

The recent explosion of free publications, especially those hawking real estate, has added to the mess. "There used to be one or two, now there's twenty," says Walt Briem of Singles Life, which costs a buck. (Seattle Weekly itself switched to free circulation in 1995.) With a freebie, "sometimes people will grab it, walk two feet and then toss it," says Briem, "which adds to the litter around the boxes." Some of these new circulars come in bright red plastic houses and other bloated-traffic-cone designs. The soiled and rusted-out dispensers for many of these papers seem like a kind of street vandalism in themselves.

As it did during the WTO, Seattle once again faces a conflict between the unsightly profusion of free speech and the fastidious demands of commerce. Briem contends, "If you get rid of all the newsstands, sure it will look clean and tidy—just like Moscow or Peking." He wonders, "Should we get rid of all the ugly people downtown too?"

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