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Olympia raises concerns over business owner's wall to keep homeless out

An Olympia business owner had this door and lattice wall constructed in an effort to keep people from sleeping and going to the bathroom in front of her store. (Photo: KOMO News)

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- An Olympia business owner says she was so fed up with people sleeping and going to the bathroom in front of her store that she put up a lattice wall to keep them out.

Now the city wants her to take it down.

"I tried," said Anne Buck, Owner of Buck's Fifth Avenue.

The cardboard sign Buck briefly held in her hand inside her store Friday afternoon started as an experiment six months ago.

"We had so many homeless coming around that I thought maybe if we listen to them, they’d be able to tell us what’s bothering them," she said. "I thought if they could write their own book and people would read it, they might be more sympathetic. Or maybe the politicians would know where to put their money in order to help them."

The responses she got on some pieces of paper surprised her.

Everything from asking for a face-to-face meeting to pleas for help to real words about everyday struggles.

"It says, ‘The struggle is real. I can tell you that once you reach street level you feel like you’re never again going to reach back to the surface again,’" Buck read.

Vandalism recently prompted Buck to take the sign down, she said.

When on-going problems with people sleeping and going to the bathroom in her doorway continued, a lattice wall and a door were built on the alcove in front of her business last week to keep them from coming in at night.

"We have a lovely door that I was going to paint and that closes and locks at night," Buck said. "We just put it in because I’m tired of people sleeping here."

"And it worked. It’s worked great," she added.

The problem is the city believes the wall is illegal because it was built without permits and the building sits in a national historic district, which requires a design review.

"Yesterday I got the letter telling me to take it down or else," Buck said.

City officials released a statement to KOMO News about the situation:

The City of Olympia completely understands Ms. Buck’s frustration about the negative activity happening in her business alcove. We share her concerns and understand why she took action to make it stop. However, the City has three concerns specifically with Ms. Buck’s structure:

• That type of construction requires a permit and inspection. No permit was sought for the work and the work has not been inspected.

• Ms. Buck’s business is in a historic building located in a national historic district. This adds a heightened level of scrutiny to physical changes made to the building. Construction like the “wall” on a historic building has to go through the Design Review process. It did not.

• The door on the “wall” was built without the required “Panic Hardware.” This creates a real safety concern for people who might have to get out of the building fast in an emergency, like a fire.

So the issue is not that Ms. Buck took action to stop the negative activity happening in her alcove. The bottom line for the City is that unpermitted, uninspected, unreviewed construction happened on a historic downtown building that raises historic preservation and life-safety concerns for us.

How the process works is this: A Notice of Violation has been sent out by Certified Mail to Ms. Buck. When she receives it she will have two weeks to either take the structure down or get a permit to build something that is in keeping with the historic preservation requirements of the building and ensures people in the building can get out safely in an emergency.

The City stands ready to explore other ideas, and possible approaches and solutions with Ms. Buck. We hope that happens. We want the best for her and her business. We all win when downtown thrives.

Buck told KOMO News she’s made changes to the building before without complaints. She now plans to pay the $1,000 fee to contest the city’s notice & hopes leaders will reason with her, she added.

She's already received several compliments from customers and neighboring business owners about the wall. It’s staying put, she said.

"I’m not afraid," she said. "I just think it’s a sad situation."

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