The gavel pounded not even 30 minutes into last night's Spokane City Council meeting, and Council President Ben Stuckart erupted at attendees for cheering and applauding. He called for a five-minute recess and warned the crowd that another "outburst" would send the rest of the meeting behind closed doors where no one would be allowed to testify.
The issue at hand: someone testifying in favor of repealing the controversial city ordinance passed last year that made it illegal to sit or lie on public sidewalks.
When he returned and the council was back in session, Stuckart said "the minute" the sit-lie law was passed, problems ceased downtown. Stuckart's right. Those problems, which reached a fever pitch last summer, have largely subsided, but activists find fault with law as a constitutional affront, not a safety measure.
Regardless, the council meeting went on and sit-lie had no part in the official agenda.
First, and most historically notable, the council approved construction of the first new skywalk in decades. Two decades, to be precise, which is the same amount of time it took to build all the other 15 skywalks downtown. The city's first skywalks, surrounding the intersection of Main and Post, were approved in 1972, and the last to be built near Riverside and Wall came in 1994. Soon, there will be one more, connecting the Convention Center to the Grand Hotel Spokane being built across the street.
In other economic development/hotel building business, the council approved a $250,000 reimbursement agreement for the developer of the Burgans Block near Boone and Division. The agreement creates a mini-tax increment financing parcel on that block . The idea is, when the block is up and running with a hotel and stores, property and retail taxes collected by the city will go back to the developer to pay for the streetscaping, landscaping and crosswalk that will be put in there.
The original price tag for the agreement was $850,000, but after council members expressed concern over the high price, it was reduced. Councilman Mike Fagan voted no across the board on this item - from amending it to its passage - out of displeasure with building a new traffic signal a block before an already existing traffic signal.
Also last night, a proposal by Councilman Jon Snyder to kick-start the long-delayed Pedestrian Master Plan was passed, and again the sole 'no' vote came from Fagan. The pedestrian plan would give guidance on how best to spend money to improve sidewalks and make roads safer for walkers. The plan was launched in 2011 but stalled a year later and never was finished after staff changes in City Hall.
To assure its completion, Snyder's proposal will dissolve the city’s Transportation Benefit District – along with its $2.5 million in annual revenue generated by the $20 vehicle tab tax – unless the plan is finished by the end of 2015. Ten percent of the tax is dedicated to pedestrian infrastructure.
Council gadabout George McGrath was the only person signed up to speak on Snyder's proposal. And like most things that originate with Snyder, McGrath was not pleased.
"It's not something everybody wants to do," McGrath said about cycling and walking. "It's not something everyone can do."
Snyder said that walking leads to a longer life expectancy, but that he appreciated that older folks need transportation support.
Still, McGrath said he supported one part of Snyder's plan: doing away with the transportation district. "Good. Do it. Because there is no benefit to the taxpayers of Spokane," he said.
Snyder bit back, saying that if everyone with a car all got on the road at the same time, "our whole transportation system would collapse." He added that even though bike and pedestrian infrastructure would be paid for out of a vehicle license fee, "the burden is shared throughout our community" because most households own a car, a bike and a pair of shoes with which to walk in when they want to get somewhere as a pedestrian.
Councilwoman Amber Waldref said it was "a little scary to put an ultimatum out there" but supported the plan anyway.
Finally, the council approved a new law allowing home builders to use plastic, high density polyethylene pipes in place of more expensive - and thief magnetizing - copper pipes in new homes.
Michael Cathcart, of the Spokane Homebuilders Association, said he'd been advocating and working on the legislation for over a year. Snyder said he wished the home builders group would work on more collaborative efforts such as this and avoid politics. The measure passed with full support of the denuded council, which was missing Councilman Mike Allen and still has one empty seat since the resignation of Steve Salvatori.