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Tuesday, August 20, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

Not to butt in on benches, but

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.

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 anyone who has shopped at a garage sale where people are getting ready to move knows 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. That is to say, they don’t like big ads along the streets in their residential neighborhoods. The benches also violate – allegedly – the city’s signage 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 than the benches that are already up – although not necessarily more comfortable. In a recession, should we really be spending extra on something that’s designed, let’s face it, to park a bunch of butts?

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, though. So rather than leaving them blank, the city could put large photographic renditions of some Spokane’s nicest vistas: The falls at spring runoff, the clock tower at sunset, a happy kid on the Carrousel, fall foliage at the Arboretum or anything they want and “Spokane”. 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 large format photograph of whatever is behind the sign and stick that on the rectangle, so the back blends in like it was camouflage. It 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 everybody could please add one song to their iPods, and play it before they sit down to work this out. That would be the Rolling Stones telling them that you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you get what you need.

What we need are bus benches.

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The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.