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Competing visions of Monroe Street cause ‘road diet’ division to linger

The stretch of North Monroe Street from Indiana to the hill leading up to the Garland District is a mix of older buildings, thrift stores, restaurants and service businesses, shown Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. A proposed city traffic revision would narrow it to a lane in either direction and a turn lane in the middle. Many businesses are opposed to the plan and expressed their feelings with the billboard at lower right. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The stretch of North Monroe Street from Indiana to the hill leading up to the Garland District is a mix of older buildings, thrift stores, restaurants and service businesses, shown Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. A proposed city traffic revision would narrow it to a lane in either direction and a turn lane in the middle. Many businesses are opposed to the plan and expressed their feelings with the billboard at lower right. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Two glimpses of the future are grappling along the claustrophobic North Monroe Street, the choice of thousands of motorists commuting into the heart of downtown each day.

One sees the cars speeding in narrow lanes right outside storefronts and pedestrians meandering outside of few and poorly lit crosswalks transformed into the neighborhood feel of Spokane’s Hillyard and Perry districts. The other sees the gaping immense disruptions of downtown street construction last year that scared away foot traffic and left some merchants worried for their businesses’ survival.

With a 2019 deadline fast approaching to take advantage of grant money to rebuild the street, leaders at City Hall will soon have to decide whether to trust the decade of work that has led to the so-called “road diet” plan that would reduce traveling lanes from four to two on a mile-long stretch populated by dozens of businesses, or step in on behalf of proprietors who distrust the city’s reasoning and feel their legacy in the district is being neglected.

“To me, it’s not an across-the-board no,” Mayor David Condon said of the opposition to the project, which has been plastered on signs and billboards outside businesses along the corridor. The mayor said he believed those frustrated with the project felt left out of planning or were upset with the construction timetable, areas he said should improve as larger road projects funded by a voter-approved levy move to fruition.

“Both sides have their strong arguments,” said City Councilwoman Karen Stratton, who represents the district encompassing the Monroe corridor. “I sympathize with people that have put their heart and soul into a business, and they see past construction projects in the city that have gone on too long. I also see the point of the neighborhood.”

Opponents have targeted Stratton and her colleague, City Councilwoman Candace Mumm, ahead of a future vote that may never occur. City Council President Ben Stuckart said he believes a majority of his colleagues and Condon are on the same page in support of the construction, based on a planning process that began years ago, and no one has brought forward a proposal to return the money or nix the plans.

“We have to do something different,” Stuckart, who recalled at least two near-misses with cars while touring the district with then-Councilman Jon Snyder years ago, said. “The current situation, the status quo, is not working.”

No controversy

Ask those who support or oppose the so-called “road diet” that will alter lanes, sidewalks and signs along a stretch of North Monroe Street, and they’ll agree on one thing.

There should be no controversy.

“I tell people this: It’s like a pregnancy, and the baby is nine months along,” said Gina Campbell, who opened the vintage shop 1889 Salvage Co. about a half year ago on the bottom floor of the historic Lloyd apartment building. “This is going to happen.”

Spokane expects to begin construction on the project in time to take advantage of $4.6 million in grant dollars awarded to reduce crashes along the corridor. The project would reduce traveling lanes from four to two between Indiana to Kiernan avenues.

Another group of proprietors, many of whom have been in business for decades, still believe they can sway City Hall against the idea. They say it will kill commerce and change the character of a neighborhood and road that acts as a north-south arterial for commuters.

“If people perceive they can’t get here, they won’t come,” said Jan Richart, who’s operated the Vintage Rabbit Antique Mall on Monroe for 23 years.

Each day, the 1.1-mile stretch of Monroe sees anywhere from 16,000 to 19,000 motorists, based on historic traffic counts and where you’re counting from. Traffic is heavier near the base of the hill up to Garland.

Fewer drivers will make that trip after the road is changed. Supporters say traffic reduction, both during construction and after, will be justified by features attracting customers to local businesses. Opponents say those that choose alternate routes won’t pick up dinner at a restaurant, drop off their car at a mechanic or pop in to their favorite antique shop to browse without the hassle of congested roadways. They also argue that they may lack the ability to make money during construction.

Richart said she depended on her customers having an easy path to her front door.

“People don’t follow detours for products they don’t need,” she said. Several of the businesses in the area follow the boutique model.

The road is 50 feet across, with four-foot wide sidewalks branching out to 11 feet at intersections. The proposal would increase sidewalk widths to as much as 12 feet and allow more room for on-street parking.

Engineers estimate the traffic changes would cause about 15 percent of rush hour commuters to pick other routes, resulting in about 235 cars leaving the Monroe corridor each day. Almost half those vehicles (40 percent) would be diverted to Division, with the others split between the Maple and Ash couplet, Post Street and other smaller roads. Drivers would not have to wait longer than a minute at any of the intersections affected by the traffic shifts, according to city estimates.

Gary Jarvis, owner of Skippers restaurant at the north end of the construction area, disputes those numbers and believes the reported support for the project ignores the customers who walk in his door for clams, shrimp and fish and chip baskets.

“Ask anyone who comes in up Maple, they’ll say it takes four lights just to get here,” Jarvis said.

Where some business owners see a loss of clientele, others see an opportunity to make shopping safer and thus attract more visitors.

“This is definitely a transition neighborhood,” Campbell said. “I think this will give the business and residential community a sense of pride. People take care of things they’re proud of.”

The road hasn’t received significant updates since 1997, according to city records. Campbell said the city will have to come in and rebuild anyway, so businesses might as well take advantage of the federal grant dollars and the attention of City Hall while they have it.

“We’re excited for more parking, and I think it’s going to bring more people in,” said Dave Musser, who opened Bellwether Brewing Co. close to a year and a half ago after living in the neighborhood for a decade. “Hopefully, people will have a reason to stop here.”

“It’s definitely going to change people’s driving patterns,” said Joellen Jeffers, who owns Boulevard Mercantile at the corner of Northwest Boulevard and Monroe and belongs to the business group in favor of the project. But Jeffers realizes her location may mean she doesn’t lose as many customers as her colleagues farther north on Monroe.

“I do worry about a lot of these businesses,” Jeffers said.

Driving down Monroe, the proliferation of red signs calling to cancel the project, and the social media campaign by Campbell, Jeffers and others to promote the businesses along the corridor in anticipation of a long construction season, could give visitors the opinion everyone’s mind is made up. But many still have questions.

“I see what they’re trying to do,” said Jay Troutt, who opened Classic Cuts barbershop a about a year ago on the first floor of the Hoban building, 2311 N. Monroe Street, in a shopfront that had been vacant for more than two decades. “I don’t mind change. I’m a big picture kind of guy.”

Troutt said he likely would be unaffected by the construction because of his client base. He said while the construction could cause a revival of the neighborhood like in Perry and the Garland district, he wasn’t ready to get fully on board because the potential shuttering of some businesses was “something to think about.”

Blossom Quirke, who operates an antique shop that also sells online in a former single-story home at 2415 N. Monroe, said she agreed the city needed to slow traffic. But she had several questions about details, including whether she’d have to pay taxes during construction and whether alleys to provide off-street access would be improved.

A lack of trust?

Karen Stratton, the city councilwoman representing the neighborhood, said she first attended a meeting between city engineers and business owners about the Monroe project shortly after joining the council in 2014.

The Emerson-Garfield neighborhood already had adopted a plan calling for changes to the corridor, citing the input of 53 businesses. After a series of pedestrian collisions, including one that killed a 5-year-old girl in October 2013, the city applied for and received the grant money to reduce the lanes on Monroe, what supporters say is the only option to increase safety on the road.

Stratton said at that first meeting, it appeared as though business owners believed they were being dictated to about the future of their street. That sentiment lingers in the campaign against the project by business owners who believe they weren’t consulted and aren’t being heard.

“That’s when I started thinking, there’s a real lack of trust in this room, with the businesses and the city,” Stratton said.

Condon said the lack of an organized business group on Monroe, compared to other neighborhoods that have seen similar street work, made it more difficult for the city to consult their opinion early on.

“Those typical avenues for communication didn’t exist in this part of the city,” Condon said. “We’re doing a door-to-door initiative, we’re doing a mailer initiative.”

Jarvis said local media has minced his words and failed to report the true economic effect of closing the street for the project.

“Go back and look at the track record of the city and see how they’re going to do construction,” Jarvis said. He pointed to last summer’s downtown work that blocked access to businesses for weeks and still isn’t complete. City street officials said a labyrinth of utility lines and a lag in federal approval for the project led to the delay.

Gary Hustad, whose family has owned Custom Body at 3104 N. Monroe St. since 1949, said the views of “heritage” businesses along the corridor weren’t being considered because of the momentum for something new.

“It’s putting us on the defensive, that if you’re a business that doesn’t like it, you get a negative connotation,” Hustad said. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

Dale Hearn, owner of Hearn Brothers Printing, Inc., said it appeared City Hall was trying to impose a character on the neighborhood that defied its history.

“Monroe is the lifeline to the city,” Hearn said. “It’s just going to choke the traffic down.”

Campbell, the owner of 1889 Salvage Co. who’s helping recruit businesses to assist each other during the upcoming construction, said the project shouldn’t shove a wedge between her colleagues. Instead, they should be working together to support each other.

“When this issue is over, we will all be one,” Campbell said.

Eric “EJ” Iannelli, former chairman of the Emerson-Garfield neighborhood who helped develop the plan and has served on an advisory panel overseeing the Monroe project, said the city shouldn’t be faulted for communication. They’ve been talking with residents and business owners for two years before putting shovels in the ground, what Iannelli called an “insane” amount of lead time for construction.

“Some of the communication, as always, could have been handled better,” Iannelli said. “But they’re human.”

Iannelli says he visited many of the businesses that have now come out against the project and encouraged them to participate in planning for the street, without success. It’s frustrating to see those same businesses saying they weren’t included in the conversation, he said.

Appealing to City Hall

While opponents hope they’ll find a sympathetic ear on the City Council, there are no pending proposals before the panel to alter the lane reduction plan.

“The council doesn’t typically vote on individual projects,” said City Councilwoman Candace Mumm, who also represents the district encompassing the neighborhood.

Stuckart said the council could adopt a resolution opposing the project that requires the city to pay back the grant money. An additional $2.5 million will be spent by the city in support of the project.

“I have not contemplated that. I haven’t seen anything brought forward,” said Stuckart. “The neighborhood put this in their plan. We’ve had a lot of public input.”

Condon said the city still is seeking opinions on the project, which is backed by the plans of the neighborhood, the city and public transit systems, which enabled the awarding of the grants in the first place.

“That’s what community engagement is about,” Condon said.

That includes the results of an online survey, indicating initial support for the project. City staff asked participants to read through a presentation about the construction, then answer whether they believed it balanced safety and the needs of businesses and residents. Nearly 2 in 3 respondents, 65 percent, said it did. Follow-up surveys, delivered by mail and by hand to business owners and other neighborhood stakeholders, are being collected and compiled for city review this month, said Marlene Feist, director of strategic development for the public works and utilities department.

Mumm, Stratton and Stuckart said they were skeptical of a proposal to add temporary fixtures along Monroe that would illustrate the changes to the road. That would include more than just painting stripes because of the signficant changes to the streetscape, including pedestrian bumpouts and larger parking spaces, Feist said.

The price tag of a temporary, trial project – at least $300,000 – has also raised concern, Stratton said.

“I think it’s a lot of money,” Stratton said. “I’d rather see that money put somewhere to help businesses survive during construction.”

Condon said the cost of temporarily striping Monroe “raised my eyebrows” and the city would need to decide in the next month if the price tag was worth it.

Mumm said she also believed the temporary striping wouldn’t receive the full support of the council.

On Monday, the City Council will vote on a systen that would be used to score future projects in neighborhood cores and whether there’s enough support from residents, business owners, public service providers and other groups to merit moving forward with projects similar to the Monroe Street plan.

“We’ll have a way to measure all these projects, in a more even way, and allow them to consistently be measured against each other,” Mumm said.

If the system is approved, city staff would score the Monroe project based on the criteria, Feist said, providing the City Council another source of information.

“It’ll take the emotion out of it,” Stratton said.