Steve Eugster tugs at the glass door leading to the Post Street skywalk between Riverside and Main.
It’s locked, and he’s irked.
“Pedestrians have a right of access to use every part of the skywalk system, including what’s between these buildings,” said Eugster, an attorney who moonlights as Spokane’s public interest crusader. “The city should treat skywalks similar to sidewalks.”
Eugster, president and founder of the citizens watchdog group Spokane Research & Defense Fund, has fought the city over everything from the Lincoln Street Bridge to an unsightly billboard at 29th and Hatch.
Right now, he’s focusing his attention on the public’s lack of access to the skywalk linking the newly opened Crescent Court with the Burlington Coat Factory.
Lying between Crescent Court and the skywalk is a third building, the Crescent Addition. A wall between the addition and the court keeps people from using the Post Street skywalk and getting to the Burlington building.
The door leading from Burlington to the skywalk is locked.
It’s a complicated situation, made more so by private property owners, public “air space” and relatively new laws.
Eugster recently demanded that city officials find a way to reopen the skywalk.
“Under the circumstances, it is incumbent upon the City of Spokane to take action immediately to ensure that the people of Spokane have access to the entire skywalk system,” Eugster wrote in a Jan. 2 letter to City Manger Roger Crum.
Crum agrees the closed portion of the 15-legged skywalk system connecting downtown buildings should be opened as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the city can’t do much to speed negotiations between owners of Crescent Court and Crescent Addition, he said.
“We recognize it’s critical,” Crum said. If the owners can’t reach an agreement, “we’ll use whatever legal avenues available to us. I don’t think that will be necessary.”
Crescent Court developers Goodale and Barbieri and Crescent Addition owner Robert Paterson have discussed skywalk access for several months. Both sides say they hope to reach an agreement soon.
Eugster said his concern isn’t so much with the property owners as with the city. He thinks officials don’t need to wait for a private agreement to restore public access to the skywalks.
A city ordinance dating back to 1977 regulates skywalks much the same as sidewalk easements. When the city gives someone the right to build a pedestrian skywalk over public air space, no one has the right to block that access, Eugster said.
Unfortunately, City Attorney James Sloane said, that law came into effect after the Crescent Addition and the adjoining skywalk were built.
For skywalks built prior to the law, “there’s always been a substantial degree of voluntary compliance,” Sloane said.
“The purpose of the whole system is to facilitate public right-of-way,” Sloane said. “Closing off a portion of the skywalk like that defeats the purpose.
“The city is hopeful that the property owners can resolve the problem.”
Even without benefit of the law, Eugster believes, the city has the right to press the point - because of the public nature of the skywalk system. A property owner can’t block a sidewalk without a permit, therefore a property owner shouldn’t be able to block a skywalk either, he said.
City attorney Stan Schwartz said skywalks and sidewalks don’t make for a good comparison. Sidewalks exist on public easements, he noted, while the routes leading to skywalks are in privately owned buildings.
“If the theory is that we have a sidewalk through the Crescent building, then it follows that maybe we should pay for that,” Schwartz said. “I don’t want to put the city in that position.”
While skywalk accessibility is provided through the 1977 law, the right exists apart from that law, Eugster said.
“When a person who has been permitted to use air space for a skywalk prevents the public from access to the skywalk, the person is violating the right of the public and in fact is trespassing upon that right,” he wrote in his letter to Crum.
Making access even more imperative are plans to add two more legs to the system with the opening of the Spokane Transit Authority’s new downtown center.
When the new transit building opens this spring, one skywalk will connect it to the Seafirst Financial Center, another to the Sterling Savings building.
Sterling Savings and the Crescent Court open into each other at the skywalk level.
Taxpayers will pay $641,000 for those two skywalks, making it a “critical public interest of the STA” to ensure public access to the entire walkway system, Eugster said.
“In my opinion, the city has primary responsibility for ensuring the skywalks are fully accessible.”
Dick Barbieri, an attorney representing Goodale and
Barbieri, said he wants to assure Eugster that negotiations between Paterson and his client are going well.
“He has nothing to worry about,” Barbieri said. “There’s no reason to think there will be any extended closure of that skywalk bridge.”
Crum and Sloane said they hope an agreement is reached before the city is forced to step in.
“We’ll do everything we can to get that done,” Crum said.
If they don’t, Eugster said, “I will. Or I’ll try.”