Vacancy no more
Long a home-away-from-home for those without one, Fremont's storied Thunderbird Motel is being torn down to make way for a different kind of homeless housing.
The Thunderbird Motel’s iconic totem kept its eagle eye on Aurora Avenue for more than 50 years. A relic of the older America of highways and hotels, each of the motel’s 19 rooms open their doors to asphalt.
“There’s sort of a nostalgia there, a time back in America, a Norman Rockwellness to the old motel,” said Fremont Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jessica Vets. “The Thunderbird is certainly part of that picture.”
But now the bird is going down, ending its 56-year-old mark on the landscape of Aurora and the blight it became to neighbors over the past two decades.
The building is currently covered in graffiti and surrounded by a chain link fence. Once it’s torn down, a 71-unit building managed by Catholic Community Services for chronically homeless people will take its place.
Those who live in Fremont are not sad to see it go. Kirby Lindsay, who manages the neighborhood blog Fremocentrist.com, said she felt “positively gleeful” that the building was making way for permanent housing.
Linda Clifton, a member of the Fremont Neighborhood Council, is glad to see the end of what became a hub for drug use and prostitution.
“The demolition of the Thunderbird is a major step in the right direction,” she said. “It was one of three very badly managed hotels. They became crime nests.”
Making way for housing
Dean and Jill Inman owned and operated the Thunderbird and four other hotels along Aurora. The city and police officials said the Inmans turned a blind eye to the criminal activity at their hotels, let the buildings fall to disrepair and created health risks.
In 2010, the Chronic Nuisance Property Ordinance paved the way for Seattle Police to shut down the motel, then known as the Fremont Inn. The ordinance allows police to hold property owners responsible for chronic crime problems at their businesses.
Fremont Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jessica Vets said crime plummeted after the motel closed, but fully replacing the building with housing will seal the deal.
“Any vacant building begets people who are hanging around,” Vets said. “Whether they be homeless people who are looking for a place to live or people who do drugs, it’s certainly a magnet.”
With city and state housing grants, Catholic Community Services purchased the property for $900,000.
Initially, neighbors balked at the plan to replace the motel with housing for the homeless. Many worried that the building would attract people similar to those who used the Thunderbird for drugs and prostitution.
Catholic Community Services Division Director Dan Wise said that won’t happen.
“They had a really bad experience with the motel, and I understand that,” she said. “I really see that we’re going to be able to build a really beautiful building and we’re going to be good neighbors.”
Retaining an icon
The motel and the Thunderbird totem in front that mimics an American Indian style of carving attracted a few fans, however.
A local rock band took on the name “Thunderbird Motel” hoping it would evoke the idea of raw Americana. The group described the building as a “seedy shelter full of drifters, adulterers and dope fiends lurking in the neon shadows of the American Dream.”
Those who live and work close to the motel do not necessarily share the glamorous view of the motel’s recent history.
Lindsay from Fremocentrist.com said she doesn’t see the totem’s appeal.
“As the widow to a native Alaskan man, I’ve seen much, much better,” Lindsay said.
But in traditional Fremont fashion, a number of other people want to see the icon preserved and revered in the same way the neighborhood has preserved things like the rocket ship and the statue of Vladimir Lenin.
Catholic Community Services said they’ll save the sign. And Vets said it may find a home in Fremont yet.
“As everybody knows, we have many art installations that are old relics that have come here to live, not die,” she said.
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