Dumpster-free zones get mixed reviews in Seattle

SEATTLE -- This summer, the city expanded its dumpster-free zones to include new commercial districts, even though merchants had mixed reviews. Some restaurant owners said it's too easy for vermin to get into the plastic bags that replaced the big metal boxes. The director of the Clear Alleys program says rats, roaches and gulls got into the dumpsters too.

"What we're looking at here is a really great example of what you can do with public spaces," said Tom Gannon, as he strolled down an alley south of Main Street in Pioneer Square.

Gannon calls the alley the gold standard of what can be done using the city's program to eliminate dumpsters in public right of ways.

"What they did in this alley is really open it up to art, plants," he said. "They use it to show the World Cup."

About six years ago, Seattle dumped the dumpsters in its business cores and required merchants to switch to bags and bins. The idea is to keep the walkways clear and safe for pedestrians and police.

"You try to create as many clear lines of sight for the police as possible," Gannon said.

Businesses throughout Belltown and Pioneer Square fall under the Clear Alleys program. The International District got added a year ago.

However, not every neighborhood has seen success.

"I don't think it's a horrible program but I think it's a messy program, and it doesn't solve some of the issues with alleys," said David Meinert, who owns multiple bars and restaurants, including the 5 Point Cafe and Bar in Belltown.

Meinert said the plastic bags he's required to use are expensive and costs him more than dumpster service. He also said the bags are less secure.

"They get broken into by street people and by birds, and so when that happens that garbage gets spread across the alley or on the street," Meinert said.

Gannon says whatever shortcomings, bins and bags are still better than dumpsters, especially when restaurant owners take care to separate food scraps and compost from the regular garbage. He said the big benefit from the dumpster-free program is that some alleys have been transformed.

"The alley provides an opportunity for entry level businesses to open up storefronts," Gannon said.

Ben Rainbow owns a shop called Back Alley Bike Repair that opens up to an alley. He loves the vibe of the cleaned-up brick walkway.

"It's like a new American thing," Rainbow said. "it's a European mode of thinking. It's like, this is public space, this is immutable public space."