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Keep service at Plaza, STA says

Study suggests scaling back amenities inside building

The cascading fountain and escalators might have to go, and the spacious mezzanine could be converted to leased office space.

But the Plaza – the heart of Spokane Transit Authority operations downtown – would remain a bus facility for years to come under a new study and recommendation to the STA governing board.

“Downtown is the centerpiece of our system architecture,” Chief Executive Officer Susan Meyer said Wednesday, and the Plaza at 701 W. Riverside Ave. remains the best option for providing bus service – but with major changes.

Among the changes, Meyer and her staff are recommending that bus operations be confined to the Plaza block only; that sidewalks be straightened for improved pedestrian movement; that all bus and retail services be consolidated on the ground floor; and that the interior be remodeled to enhance crowd monitoring.

To do that would require about $2.5 million from the agency’s cash balance with construction in 2010.

When it was built for $20 million, the Plaza was envisioned as an indoor gathering area – a kind of public park, Meyer said. STA wants to move away from that concept and make the building more efficient, both operationally and financially.

That means the escalator and art fountain could be removed.

“The consultants we have talked to have suggested we consider taking out the escalator,” Meyer said. “The primary driver is that it opens up the space to be more usable for transit purposes.”

A new customer service desk would be built beneath the top of the escalators in the northeast portion of the ground floor. With the escalators gone, visual security would be enhanced, she said.

In addition, the second floor could be remodeled into offices for lease or for another use such as a downtown market. Meyer said those improvements would be undertaken only after STA finds a tenant and could become a revenue source.

The recommendations are part of a two-year, $420,000 study on the future of the STA by transit consultant NelsonNygaard. The study includes examination of routes, possible service additions and changes in express routes. The full report is expected in March.

The reconfigured Plaza was one of four options for downtown service examined in the study.

Through the consultant’s work, Meyer and her staff rejected a proposal to move downtown operations to the rail and intercity bus depot known as the Intermodal Center, at Sprague Avenue and Bernard Street. Such a move would cost up to $5 million, would have left transit riders with mainly an outdoor facility for waiting and transfers and would have aggravated traffic congestion in that part of downtown.

Other options were to convert the existing service to a “grid” system, create a longer downtown transit mall or develop two smaller peripheral transit hubs in the downtown area.

STA staff made its recommendation to reconfigure the Plaza to the transit board last week. The board is scheduled to take public testimony on the recommendation at its next meeting on Nov. 20.

The discussion of the Plaza’s future comes after years of controversy over the $20 million facility that was criticized even before it opened in 1995 for its lavishness and likelihood of attracting an unsavory crowd.

Many business people have viewed the Plaza as a bad neighbor over the years. In 2005, STA received an appraisal showing that the market value of the building was about $3.25 million.

STA has worked with police and the Downtown Spokane Partnership to add a uniformed presence and security staff around the Plaza. The downtown group, which is an organization of business and property owners under local government funding, also encouraged STA to look at options besides the Plaza for downtown bus service, said Marla Oleniacz, the business group’s marketing director.

She said stepped-up security “has really made a big difference” and that the business group appreciated the willingness of STA to look at options.

Mike Prager can be reached at (509) 459-5454 or by e-mail at mikep@spokesman.com.

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