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Bus bench wars don’t sit well

Let me get this straight.

The Spokane Transit Authority wants benches at its bus stops.

A company that sells advertising has benches at many of those bus stops, where it rents the bench backs as signs for its ad customers.

The city doesn’t like signs on the backs of benches because they offend the aesthetic sensibilities of some city officials and residents. It has essentially made such signs illegal and told the ad company to remove the benches.

After the city makes the advertising company remove its benches, STA will spend $87,000 to put up new benches.

Who wins here?

Not STA, because it has to spend money for something it already has. It also winds up with fewer benches. The transit authority says they will be very nice benches. (But they won’t have any backs.)

Not the ad company, because it’s not just going to lose the revenue from the ads, it’s going to have to pick up the benches and, maybe, store them somewhere until it finds someone else in need of 223 benches. Given that the benches were designed mainly to remain in place rather than be moved around, it’s also possible the benches will be broken down and hauled to a landfill or the trash incinerator.

One could argue that the city wins, because it gets rid of the signs that some people regard as aesthetically unpleasant. But the city’s demand to remove the benches has the feel of a lawsuit waiting to happen, considering that the city was, for a time, collecting money from the ad company and a good lawyer can always find fault with the way the city does things.

How about some alternatives?

At the risk of sounding obvious, why don’t the city and STA chip in to buy the benches from the ad company, and figure out a way to satisfy the objections of any officials and residents who consider them so aesthetically unpleasant?

The ad company says it spent about $200 per bench, but that’s not what the city and STA should offer. Figure a price that takes into account the fact that most benches are several years old, and that the company probably does not want to move them. Don’t cheat them; just make it more attractive than the alternative they’re facing. It would be less than $87,000. Way less.

That still leaves benches with backs that some officials and residents find aesthetically unpleasant. Translation: They don’t like big ads along the streets in their residential neighborhoods. The benches also violate – allegedly – the city’s sign ordinance.

It would be possible, although not very practical, to take off the backs and whack off the pieces of metal or concrete that support them. STA would then be left benches without backs, which it planned to buy anyway.

But backlessness is really a design thing. It makes the benches that STA wants look nicer – although not necessarily more comfortable. In a recession, should we really be spending extra on something that’s main purpose is, let’s face it, a short-term parking spot for butts?

Save the bench backs

It might be smarter to just change the backs. The easiest thing would be to put a large white plastic sheet across the back of each one, so there is no ad, just a back. That wouldn’t violate the city’s sign ordinance because, if it don’t say nothing, it ain’t a sign.

Chances are the big white sheets wouldn’t stay empty for long, given the affinity of miscreants to spray paint. So rather than leaving them blank, the city could put large photographic renditions of some of Spokane’s nicest vistas: the falls at spring runoff, the Clocktower at sunset, a happy kid on the Carrousel, fall foliage at the Arboretum. Or have a yearly contest for kids to design a bus bench-back that typifies Spokane. If the newspaper’s coloring contests are any indication, they’ll have plenty of entries.

If that’s still too objectionable, take a picture of whatever is behind the sign, blow it up and stick that on the rectangle, so the back blends in like camouflage. The city could put the whole process up for bid, and maybe the ad company, which knows more about these benches than anyone else, will come up with the best price.

And before sitting down to work this out, those involved would benefit from firing up the Rolling Stones on the iPod as a reminder that you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you get what you need.

Seems like what we really need is bus benches.

Spin Control is a weekly political column by veteran reporter Jim Camden, who can be reached at (509) 459-5461 or Spin Control is also a blog with political items and videos at