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Shawn Vestal: Monroe ‘road-diet’ exceeded expectations

Katy Azar and her son, Sam Azar, are breathing a sigh of relief as North Monroe Street nears completion Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. The mile-long repair and repaving has taken a toll on businesses along the street. Azars is in a former A&W drive-in at 2501 N. Monroe St. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Katy Azar and her son, Sam Azar, are breathing a sigh of relief as North Monroe Street nears completion Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. The mile-long repair and repaving has taken a toll on businesses along the street. Azars is in a former A&W drive-in at 2501 N. Monroe St. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A couple years back, Katy Azar looked at the road construction in downtown Spokane – streets torn up, deadlines blown, costs overrun – and feared for the future of her well-known Greek restaurant.

The city was moving toward a major renovation project on North Monroe Street, where her restaurant is located. She and other business owners there feared they couldn’t outlast an extended construction project.

“We were afraid it would take a year or longer,” she said Wednesday. “None of us could survive that.”

Instead, the city learned from its mistakes in the debacle of 2016 and 2017. It changed its approach to the Monroe project – including adding contractors to speed up the work – and got the job done early. The road will officially open this morning, five months after it closed for construction.

“I was expecting a Halloween opening,” said Marlene Feist, city spokeswoman. “We’re going to beat that by a month and a half.”

Work on North Monroe between Indiana and Kiernan avenues started on April 2, after a lot of argument that divided business owners along the route and resulted in a tort claim against the city.

The most publicized element of the $7.1 million project was the “road diet” – the slimming down from five lanes to three. But the project gave the North Monroe area a wholesale, soup-to-nuts makeover: new streets, new curbs, landscaping, benches and bus stations, lights and more.

Critics have said the changes, which are meant to improve safety and make the area more neighborhoodlike, will choke off traffic and lead to congestion. City engineers say a three-lane road is sufficient to handle the typical traffic there. We’ll see how that goes in the weeks to come.

But it’s hard to see how anyone could look at Monroe right now and not recognize it as a vast improvement. Night and day. Some businesses have undertaken facade changes. Landscaping at the curbs is in place, as is new lighting and nice crosswalks. It is attractive and appealing, a street on which you want to stop and get out and walk around.

“I’m giddy,” said Gina Campbell, the owner of 1889 Salvage Co. and communications director for the North Monroe Business District. “I’ve been walking on air for a week. It’s beautiful.”

With all due respect to North Monroe, beautiful was not a frequently used adjective for the corridor before April 2. The changes there echo other infrastructure projects around town that have driven neighborhood-level improvements in Spokane, from South Perry Street to West Main to East Sprague avenues.

These projects do more than repair roads and improve sidewalks; they really change the DNA of an area from a place to be driven through to a place to live.

Doing better

The headaches from downtown construction in 2016 and 2017 remain vivid. Initially planned for a single construction season, the work wound up stretching into a second year and going millions over budget.

The result at City Hall was a sense that “we’ve got to do better,” Feist said.

The balance with a road construction project is always struck between trying to ensure people can still get around and getting the work done as quickly as possible. The downtown work on Monroe and Lincoln streets tried to keep part of the roads open while they were being rebuilt – closing one side of a street for work, and then switching to the other.

On North Monroe, the city took a different approach: closing both sides of the street for a shorter stretch of road, and then doubling up on contractors to quicken the pace. Feist said the same approach was used on East Sprague, and probably will be again in the near future when it undertakes a renovation of Riverside Avenue between Division and Monroe streets. That will probably be done in three sections, with each section closed entirely during construction.

Feist said the Monroe project included a variety of other efforts meant to offset the impact on businesses: It offered help for facade projects, access to loans, free business counseling and a marketing effort to try to attract people to Monroe to support businesses during the work.

“It was a big a business mitigation package as we’ve ever done,” she said.

‘They came through’

Despite the city’s efforts, businesses along the corridor remained concerned. Azar said she was convinced she would need a Plan B to survive, so she got her real estate license and her son became licensed to sell insurance.

Her restaurant sported a large sign opposing the project even as construction proceeded.

But instead of going out of business, she came through in great shape, she said. Her customers turned out in large numbers to support her during the work. She was impressed with the city and the construction workers outside her restaurant, and she thinks the new streetscape looks good.

“Spokane people are great,” Azar said Wednesday. “They’re loyal. They came through for the Monroe Street businesses.”

Another prominent critic of the project was Skipper’s owner Gary Jarvis. Jarvis formed an alternative business association, which filed a $15 million tort claim against the city in 2017. That complaint was based on the effect that a two-year construction period would have on the businesses.

Contacted by phone on Wednesday, Jarvis declined to comment.

Campbell and the North Monroe Business District have been supporters of the project, though they naturally shared concerns about the impact of construction. Campbell and her husband had sold their Indian Trail home to move to a home near their business – she wanted to be “all in” on the neighborhood, she said.

She said she loves the changes. “Now it really looks like a place where you can live, work and play,” she said.

Like Azar, she was impressed with the speed and quality of the city’s approach. It sets a template for how it can work with business owners on other projects, she said.

“They did everything they could possibly do to help us get through it,” she said.


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