The remodeling of Spokane’s downtown transit plaza faces a new obstacle after downtown business interests on Thursday successfully won a delay of the project.
Some business leaders question if remodeling the facility would improve what they perceive as problems with loitering, unsavory behavior and public safety. But supporters of the project say problems at STA Plaza have improved greatly, and its central location is essential for the convenience of riders and plans to expand the system.
The Spokane Transit Authority board bowed to a request by two major business groups to delay remodeling of the STA Plaza to address the business leaders’ concerns. It voted 6-2 to delay planning work until November. The decision came the same day the board had planned to finally move forward with the project after six years of planning.
“It’s about the behavior that’s occurring in and around the Plaza,” Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, said during STA’s monthly board meeting Thursday.
DSP is a private nonprofit organization that runs the city’s publicly authorized business improvement district.
The DSP board and the Greater Spokane Incorporated board both issued calls for the timeout. GSI is the Spokane area’s chamber of commerce.
“This has nothing to do with the design or remodel,” said STA board member Richard Schoen, a Millwood City Council member. “It means if we do the remodel, we are going to stay (downtown).”
He said there are no reasonable alternatives to moving the Plaza.
“We need to make it very clear we are going to stay downtown,” he said in agreeing to the delay. “We have to be downtown to do our job.”
Richard of the DSP appeared to confirm that the downtown business interests may have a larger goal to get the Plaza moved.
In an email Thursday to Susan Meyer, STA’s chief executive officer, Richard wrote, “It may be an entirely different facility is needed to mitigate these activities.”
In agreeing to the delay, the STA board said it will meet with DSP, GSI and Visit Spokane, the city’s tourism promotion agency, to address their concerns.
STA board member Tom Trulove, the mayor of Cheney, said he wants “no more delays after that.”
Some board members said they support the plaza but agreed to the delay because they will need the support of the business community if the board decides to ask for taxes needed for major transit upgrades.
STA’s Meyer said the delay will cause problems in coordinating long-planned improvements with Plaza operations.
She also said that moving the Plaza would kill the proposed electric central city line and creation of new high-performance transit service to better connect the Spokane urban area because the agency would have to turn its attention to the complicated task of relocation.
Business concerns over downtown street culture date back decades. Even before the Plaza opened in 1995, groups of young people gathered along the sidewalks where buses loaded and unloaded.
Opening of the Plaza simply moved the location.
The STA board in May approved a $4.7 million first phase of remodeling and was being asked Thursday to authorize the $1.1 million second phase, following six years of planning, in which downtown business leaders were consulted. Meyer said DSP even had agreed to the changes.
The project involves moving customer service and other passenger facilities to the first floor, bringing retail from the second floor to the first floor, and adding a new retail space at the corner of Riverside Avenue and Wall Street.
Last summer, scores of younger people gathered along sidewalks adjacent to the Plaza, creating a street scene that was a mix of bus riders, homeless and unemployed. Business owners feared that the street scene was discouraging trade.
Part of the problem was traced to STA’s removal of its old smoking area in 2012. That caused smokers to migrate to other spots, including the block of Post Street next to GSI’s offices.
The problem was bad enough that STA spent $70,000 to rebuild the smoking area on the east side of the Plaza.
The Spokane City Council responded with a series of measures to help police get a handle on loitering and criminal activity. Efforts were undertaken to bring in more social service help.
City Councilwoman Amber Waldref said she is hearing from downtown people that loitering has declined markedly this year.
STA board members said the Plaza is being blamed for social patterns that are common in urban areas.
At the same time the Plaza is facing criticism, the STA board is pursuing the central city line, which is eligible for 80 percent federal funding, and high-performance transit.
The board voted unanimously to move ahead with planning for the central city line and enter a new round of public input on a draft proposal for high-performance transit.
The agency would need voter approval for a 0.3 percent increase in the sales tax.