Boarding the bus in downtown Spokane became a high-brow experience this morning.
After 20 years of debate and five years of delays, court challenges and cost-overruns, Spokane Transit Authority’s ritzy downtown bus station was scheduled to open at 5:30 a.m.
The daybreak opening of the $20.6 million center was the public’s first chance to shuffle across the Italian tile, flip a coin into the cascading indoor waterfall and lose gum at the base of $2,000 potted ficus trees.
If things go as planned, diesel-belching buses no longer will form walls along downtown streets. Instead, 10 buses at a time will slide into diagonal loading zones on Riverside and Sprague avenues outside the center, wait four minutes for more riders to load, then zip away so a new wave of buses can take their places.
Riders can wait inside, watching television monitors for the latest information about arrivals and departures.
They should be safe: 43 television cameras cover most of the center. Security guards and Spokane police working from the center’s own police substation will patrol restrooms and other areas the cameras can’t see.
Supporters predict the airy center will make riding the bus more popular and will become a gathering place, even for those who don’t have bus passes.
There’s space for an espresso bar downstairs, and shops and restaurants upstairs. Burger King is the only tenant to commit so far; three others appear ready to sign a contract, said project manager Art Thoma.
Skywalks link the center to Crescent Court and the Seafirst Bank building.
“It’s really a space for people. … A living room for Spokane,” said head architect Ron Tan. “It’s a place where you can say, ‘Why don’t we meet at the STA center and talk it over.’ A place to meet your date.”
Critics concede the building is a beaut - too nice, in fact, for a bus station.
“The people who built it, the architects and all the companies involved did first-class work,” said clothing store owner David Hamer, who would rather have electric trolleys than buses downtown. “If you’ve got enough money, you can build whatever you want.”
Public debate about getting parked buses off downtown streets started in the mid-1970s. The STA board announced in 1990 it would spend $7.5 million for a bus station topped with a high-rise for offices and shops that would be built and filled by developer Don Barbieri.
The public-private partnership collapsed amid a 1991 court challenge, and STA announced it would build a two-story center, estimating the cost at $12.5 million. The figure climbed steadily as the cost for materials and labor grew and project leaders changed their minds on color schemes and other details.
In the most notorious of some 200 change orders, the STA board decided to cover the floor with Fiandre porcelain tile rather than embossed concrete.
The change added about $140,000 to the building’s cost.
At a time when voters are telling politicians to cut back, the center became a symbol of government excess.
It’s a bad rap, said Tan.
“They accused us of building a Taj Mahal,” he said. “We had to build it with substantial material to stand the wear and tear of thousands of people.
“Those tiles? They’re very durable.”
As the cost of the center increased and criticism escalated, the STA board made at least one concession to practicality.
Plans called for 26-foot potted bamboo trees. Instead, the board chose much shorter ficus trees, which cost as much but are hardier.
Tan was crushed. The 36 leggy bamboos would have risen from the first floor, through the open center of the second floor. The chubby ficus trees don’t reach the second floor.
“Bamboos weren’t just trees, they were a design element. They’re very lineal,” Tan said. “Ficus - well, they’re like any other tree.”
The center isn’t like any other downtown building. Its glass is green, its bricks are buff instead of red and its front is rounded.
“We felt that all around, the buildings are all very sharp, very angular,” said Tan. “We thought maybe some rounded edges would offer relief.”
Inside, light from 30-foot skylights streams onto benches that are comfortable for a short stay, but not for a nap.
“We’re a bus station, not a hotel,” said Doug Bird, STA’s safety manager.
The building has areas for performers or orators, including church choirs, politicians or radical groups. Building managers are asking music stores to loan a grand piano that would be available for anyone who knows how to play.
The $75,000 waterfall between twin escalators is the centerpiece. Two bronze cougars that will be poised as if climbing the cascade should be done in time for the center’s Aug. 16 ribbon-cutting ceremony, said artist Ken Spiering.
STA officials expect more than 15,000 people to use the center each day, giving Spiering exposure unmatched even by his red wagon slide in Riverfront Park.
“It’s the crown jewel (of spaces). … The best any artist could hope for,” Spiering said.
A Gonzaga University graduate, Spiering said the cats have nothing to do with Washington State University.
“I’m delighted in people being able to interact with it in any way they can, bringing their own life experiences and loyalties to it,” he said.
“If they’re Cougar fans, that’s great. I just don’t want to see it be an artificial symbol for WSU.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos Graphic: New STA Plaza boarding zones