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Originally published July 3, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 3, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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Violence near Belltown clubs takes a toll on neighbors

A bystander was wounded early Monday when shots were fired outside a nightclub on Western Avenue in Belltown, where violent crime has increased in the past two years.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The bullet that shattered Henry Lo's first-floor window early Monday and nearly struck his girlfriend also shattered his faith in urban living. They're leaving Belltown.

When Lo bought a studio apartment there in 2001, the young architect wasn't naive. The defecating vagrants, the open drug dealing, the noisy nightlife — this he expected.

What he wasn't prepared for, he said, are the violent patrons who descend on a two-block strip of Western Avenue every weekend, drawn by hip-hop nightclubs with a history of complaints about drunken patrons against them.

"It astounds me with the police presence that the fights continue," said Lo, whose studio faces Western Avenue. "The police are just a Band-Aid. The source is these clubs."

Police say that just past 1 a.m. Monday, shots were fired in the 2300 block of Western Avenue outside a club named Tabella Lounge. An 18-year-old bystander was hit in the leg, but her injuries were not life-threatening.

Police arrested two men in a car, recovered a gun from it and booked one of the men, 21, into the King County Jail.

For years, residents near downtown — Pioneer Square, Lower Queen Anne, Capitol Hill and Belltown — have voiced frustration at what they say is the city's inability to hold accountable a few nightclubs that attract violence.

Violent crime has sharply increased in Belltown in the past two years after a steady decline, crime statistics show.

Early Monday morning, Lo was watching TV and his girlfriend was at her desk near the window when they heard a burst of gunfire, followed by screams outside and the sound of their window shattering.

Lo called 911 and then opened his front door to see a young woman on the pavement, screaming "My leg! My leg!" It was at that point, Lo said, that his girlfriend insisted they move out of Belltown.

Records show that nearly a dozen complaints have been filed with the state Liquor Control Board against Tabella, which opened on Western Avenue two years ago. The complaints allege disorderly conduct, serving underage patrons and overserving patrons.

City Attorney Tom Carr said the city likely will ask the Liquor Board not to renew Tabella's liquor license. Tabella management couldn't be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

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In the past, clubs have said they can't be held responsible for what happens outside their premises and the city needs to put more police officers on the streets.

Frustrated with the Liquor Board's lengthy process for revoking a license, Mayor Greg Nickels offered legislation last winter that would require about 300 nightclubs to obtain special city licenses to operate — but his proposal has all but stalled after an industry lobbying campaign.

City Councilmember Sally Clark, whose committee will discuss nightlife enforcement at 9:30 a.m. Thursday in council chambers, says she doesn't think there are enough votes on the council to require special nightclub licenses. Instead, Clark wants to strengthen the city's existing enforcement tools.

Carr, noting that there have been 11 nightclub-related shootings so far this year in the city, supports Nickels' proposal, finding that Clark's position ignores history. Over the past two decades, he said, the city has struggled to shut down problem clubs, using such tools as public-nuisance orders and voluntary "good-neighbor" agreements.

Often, the clubs haven't been shut down until after a fatal incident. "This is one of easiest jurisdictions in the United States to open a nightclub," Carr said.

Seattle police say they are gradually stepping up patrols in Belltown, but residents say it's not enough. Hundreds of drunken patrons, some armed, vastly outnumber the officers on patrol, residents say. The Liquor Board has said it has only four agents working in King County on weekends.

A neighbor of Lo's, Doug Pierson, said he's a Marine reservist who's been to Iraq twice. "When you get shot at, it pisses you off," Pierson said, and now that kind of violence is happening on his front step.

Earlier this year, he said, two partygoers brandished knives when he told them to leave. "There's no excuse for them to be freely roaming around here."

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

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