September 25, 2005 in City

Trouble with the Plaza

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photo

Passengers board an awaiting transit bus at the STA Plaza. The Plaza has become a social gathering place for many, but others have called the building a monument to wasteful public spending.
(Full-size photo)

The Spokane Transit Authority Plaza is a gathering place caught in a gathering storm.

With 27,000 commuters, shift workers, teens and elderly people – people from all walks of Spokane life – traveling through the Plaza each day, it’s the most heavily used public building in the region.

For some, that melting pot creates too many opportunities for conflict.

They say it’s little more than an extravagant magnet for riff-raff. Others, however, call it a beautiful public space that keeps bus riders out of the cold and serves as a community meeting place.

Either way, transit officials want to crack down on crime and nuisance problems while remaining mindful of the need to serve bus riders.

They’re hoping an increased police presence will accomplish just that.

The agency’s board of directors and Spokane City Council will both vote next month on a plan to dedicate a team of two police officers to the downtown core. The transit authority would pay the bulk of one officer’s salary, and the city would pick up the rest.

And a committee of Spokane Transit Authority board members, staff, riders and Plaza neighbors is being formed to discuss the security issue.

One alternative that now appears a long shot is relocating the bus hub to a site on the downtown periphery. Not only would it make the central bus hub less convenient for commuters, it could be very costly.

“Any practical person would look for what we could sell it for, if we could sell it, and would see it could be expensive and would be difficult to find another option,” said Susan Meyer, CEO of the transit authority.

A recent appraisal of the property showed the building that the Spokane Transit Authority spent $20 million to construct nine years ago is worth just $3 million on the commercial market because, without extensive renovation, it’s suited only to be a bus hub. Rebuilding elsewhere would cost at least $17 million.

That reality has silenced many calls for the Plaza to be moved, but not all.

‘Tolerance starting to wane’

Some neighboring businesses are fed up.

Sterling Savings, directly across the street from the Plaza, spends more than $120,000 a year on security directly related to Plaza patrons and hangers-on, said Sterling Vice Chairwoman and Chief Operating Officer Heidi Stanley.

Stanley would like the Plaza moved.

Vandals flooded the bank’s basement when they damaged fire control system pipes, and security camera tapes have captured multiple drug deals, other vandalism and even stabbings. People have trespassed at the bank 14 times, and police handled 36 incidents in the vicinity within just the past four months, said Stanley.

She blamed most of the problems on Sterling Savings’ proximity to the STA Plaza.

When Plaza security guards kick troublemakers off STA’s property, they often just move on to the Wall Street pedestrian area across the street, right next to Sterling Savings.

“Our tolerance level is starting to wane,” Stanley said. “We’ve had threats to our customers and to our employees.”

Other neighboring property managers also expressed dissatisfaction with the situation but were reluctant to speak publicly about it for fear of bad publicity or retribution.

Plaza incidents run the gamut from littering to assault. In 2004 there were 29 assaults, 92 cases of criminal trespass, seven sex offenses and 40 instances of malicious mischief or vandalism. Of the 591 total incidents reported, 22 involved weapons and 115 involved drugs or alcohol.

Plaza security officers are authorized to arrest people and issue citations.

Right now they and other privately paid downtown security forces are the only consistent law-and-order presence in the downtown core. There are no police officers assigned full time to patrolling downtown.

If approved by the city and the transit authority, the two new police officers would operate out of the Plaza and patrol the downtown core.

But Stanley worries that will only be a “Band-Aid” and not fully address the problems she routinely witnesses.

Others say crime isn’t the only issue.

STA Board member Cheryl Gotzian, a Millwood city councilwoman, said she hears complaints about perfectly legal, but still annoying, behavior, such as smoking and buses queuing up on surrounding blocks before pulling into the Plaza, blocking businesses.

Some may grumble about the Plaza, but so far it doesn’t appear to have affected real estate downtown, said Scot Auble, who conducted the recent Plaza appraisal.

“People are making decisions to remodel or buy properties in close proximity when there are other places they could go,” Auble said, pointing to Global Credit Union and Bank of Whitman. Both moved in near the Plaza after it was built.

“If there was a strong aversion to being here, people wouldn’t choose to be here after the fact,” Auble said.

Global Credit Union spokesman Ed Neunherz said the people working at the downtown location have no problems with the Plaza.

“We’re happy to see the folks, and we think it’s a positive part of the downtown community,” Neunherz said.

Troubled past

Before the Plaza was built, downtown businesses complained about the crowds of people waiting on sidewalks for their buses. Passengers had to rush from street corner to street corner to make their connections.

Most agreed that something had to be done.

Criticism of the Plaza didn’t begin to gather strength until the costs began to skyrocket as change orders ballooned.

The original budget was closer to $12 million than $20 million.

Some of the hard feelings about that spending color opinions of the Plaza today.

“So much of what transpires in conversation is myth,” said STA spokeswoman Molly Myers.

But while many complain that Italian tile and a cascading fountain are too extravagant for a bus depot, others wonder why a public place shouldn’t also be beautiful.

Diverse crowd

The Plaza is a bustling place.

Commuters, schoolchildren, moms, dads, the unemployed, the vacationing – all rub elbows inside and out.

Sixth-grader Laura Chamberlain and fifth-grader Victoria Crist, clarinet and violin in tow, wait at the Plaza a few days a week on their way home from school.

The two 11-year-olds said they like to watch all the people and feel safe at the Plaza.

Crist said she likes riding the bus. “I feel a little more responsible when I’m taking care of myself,” she said.

Liara Athos, 19, has a car, but comes down to the Plaza with her 5-month-old son, Dawson, to meet up with friends who rely on the bus.

She’s part of an informal group of friends who gather at the Plaza, but she doesn’t hang out there as much as she once did.

“There’s a lot of drama,” Athos said, explaining that some of her group end up dating and breaking up with one another too often for her taste.

Though a critic of some Plaza patrons, Stanley conceded that it’s a convenient hub for those who work or shop downtown, including the one-third of downtown Sterling Savings employees who take the bus.

Sterling Savings even pays for their bus passes.

The Plaza serves as more than just a transportation hub. It’s also a pizza parlor, luggage store, coffeehouse, concert hall and art gallery.

In addition to leasing space to several fast-food restaurants and shops, STA also offers the Plaza as a concert location during the holidays and allows nonprofit groups to set up information tables on the second floor.

The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture has been exhibiting historical artifacts and art at the Plaza since April.

For R. J. Davis, a Spokane Public Library clerk and longtime bus rider, the Plaza is a welcome relief from the days of waiting for buses on downtown street corners.

“I’ve heard rumors that the businesses don’t like bus people standing around. I feel like it’s discrimination,” Davis said. “We have a right to be where we need to be to catch our buses.”

Only part of the problem

Trouble is going to crop up downtown with or without the Plaza. It’s just the nature of a highly used area, downtown security experts said.

That’s why there’s the need for an additional police presence downtown, Spokane Deputy Police Chief Jim Nicks said.

“It isn’t the Plaza we’re addressing. What we’re addressing is the entire downtown core,” Nicks said. “We had problems in the downtown area before the Plaza was built.”

Panhandling, vandalism, drug use – all would happen in some parts of downtown anyway, said Larry Killstrom, a security ambassador with Downtown Spokane Partnership.

Sometimes kids cause problems hanging out near Riverfront Park, and there is much more drug activity near the Otis Hotel than the Plaza, Killstrom said.

“I’d be reluctant to blame it on the Plaza,” he said, adding that the Plaza security does a good job of cracking down on offenders.

“My sense is that while we’re not responsible for all the problems in the downtown core, because there are lots of people using our system every day it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between the problem folks and our passengers,” said the STA’s Meyer.

Moving forward

STA is now focusing on its upcoming service improvements. Come Oct. 16, passengers will be able to take several new routes.

Many will enable them to traverse the area without having to change buses at the Plaza, cutting down on some of its use.

And future route changes may expand on this concept, with more buses using smaller transfer locations such as the Spokane Valley Mall and Spokane Community College, said STA Operations Director Steve Blaska.

But the Plaza still factors significantly in STA’s bus system and will continue to do so, he said.

To that end, STA staff and board members are committed to making some changes.

“We want to be a good neighbor where our facilities are,” Meyer said.

Gotzian said she’s unsure what’s next for the Plaza but added that there is definite room for improvement: “I want to sit down with the people who feel they are the most affected by it and come to a good conclusion.”

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