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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Frustrated by loitering crowds, building owners turn to technology

Young people loitering on downtown Spokane sidewalks have a new foe: the Mosquito.

Several building owners in the downtown core, fed up with swearing, spitting and unruly behavior on public sidewalks, have installed devices that emit a steady, high-pitched squeal that is, generally, audible only to young ears – people 30 and under.

Mosquito speakers are designed to annoy loiterers and coerce them to leave the area. They have been installed on the Symons, Peyton and Washington Trust buildings. The Washington Trust device was installed roughly five years ago, according to Kiemle & Hagood.

It’s a grating sound to ears young enough to hear it. Spike Fulton, a 22-year-old from Loon Lake, said the noise is “a real bother. It makes it hard for me to talk with someone else if we stay right here.”

The devices are part of a multipronged effort by downtown Spokane businesses to counter what they view as an increase in hooliganism and disorderly behavior.

The heightened concern is fueled in part by last fall’s widely publicized closure of a downtown restaurant, Beignets, whose owner blamed its demise on groups of young people loitering on Wall Street. Loiterers blamed for that closure were likely some of the people who regularly gathered at Spokane Transit Authority’s smoking area near the bus plaza. Spokane Transit closed the smoking section in August because of street improvements.

Now, as warmer weather nears, many downtown business owners say they’re concerned about a repeat that could harm their livelihoods.

Julie Katzer, owner of the Brews Bros. Espresso Lounge, said she’s losing customers because of crowds of young people hanging out on the sidewalk, blocking her door.

“It’s a regular topic of conversation with my customers. How they don’t like walking past the (loiterers) on the sidewalk,” Katzer said.

The problems include spitting, loud arguments, brawls, abusive language and panhandling, Katzer said. “Generally, the customers are just not feeling safe,” she said.

Closure of smoking area a catalyst

Katzer said hers and other businesses in the Peyton Building, on Post between Sprague and Riverside, are also being affected by the closing of the STA smoking area one block east, on Wall Street.

The problem eased this past week after Kiemle & Hagood, which manages the Peyton Building, hired security guards to walk the sidewalk and talk to people blocking pedestrians. The guards will work – during daylight hours – another two weeks, said Alison Bantz, Kiemle & Hagood’s Peyton Building manager.

But Katzer and others say they don’t want efforts that simply move the loitering problem from one downtown area to another.

Businesses in the Symons Block, between Sprague Avenue and First Avenue along Howard Street, dealt with sidewalk congestion and unruly gatherings last year after city officials chased off the groups who were disrupting businesses along Wall near Beignets.

Lisa Smith, owner of the Modern Apothecary shop in the Symons at 9 S. Howard, said building managers acted quickly, bringing in more security patrols and installing three of the Mosquito devices on the Symons’ exterior walls.

Even so, Smith is concerned Spokane officials don’t have a plan other than chasing off the street crowd. “As a city, we’re not trying to find activities or options for those kids. We should look at what Seattle is doing, such as providing music and art programs for free.”

Spokane Police Department statistics show that the number of crimes reported downtown has dropped 17 percent in the first three months of this year compared with the same period in 2012, noted Mark Richard, the new leader of the Downtown Spokane Partnership.

Those numbers support Richard’s view that downtown is not crime-prone. But many business district owners believe more aggressive law enforcement is needed to keep the downtown crime rate from growing, he said.

“There’s some anxiety out there, and we’re working on reducing that anxiety,” Richard said.

Susan Carmody, owner of Jigsaw, a fashion and clothing retailer on Main Avenue and Wall, argued that Spokane’s downtown safety problem has been exaggerated, based on her experiences. “We have fabulous security ambassadors here,” she said. “But any downtown area in any city worth its salt always has problematic populations.”

Carmody said civic officials need to pay attention to security concerns, but they should avoid overreacting and calling the problem worse than it is.

Several downtown groups agreed that Mayor David Condon and Spokane police Chief Frank Straub are actively involved in improving public safety, assigning more officers downtown.

Beyond the two patrol officers per shift working in the area a year ago, the department has added three more “neighborhood conditions officers” per morning shift and three more per evening shift.

The goal is not just stopping crime but building a stronger relationship with retail owners, with shoppers and with people visiting downtown, said Capt. Frank Scalise, who oversees those downtown officers.

Of all the antisocial practices that business owners find troublesome, the worst are spitting and smoking near doorways, said Bantz, the manager of the Peyton Building.

It might seem easier to tackle the smoking problem because Washington banned smoking within 25 feet of doorways in 2005. But Richard and others recently realized Spokane police don’t have the authority to cite offenders who smoke within 25 feet of a business or near public spaces. City police officers need a local ordinance that establishes the ability to cite and fine offenders, said Nancy Isserlis, Spokane’s city attorney.

Until that changes, the law only allows the health district to cite businesses that don’t comply. Richard said the City Council will likely approve that change in May.

Richard said he’s also been asked by some downtown property owners to consider buying more of the Mosquito anti-loitering devices, like the ones on the Symons building.

Two other buildings also have that device; one is on the northeast corner of the Washington Trust Bank building at Sprague and Wall; the other is above the entrance to the Peyton Building.

Bantz said she heard about the Mosquito from another property manager. The device emits a steady signal in a pattern ranging from 80 to 130 feet, depending on how the machine is set.

However, the Mosquito isn’t foolproof. Katzer, owner of Brews Bros., said it doesn’t seem to deter young people engaged in loud conversations. And it seems to have no effect on loiterers who wear earbuds, she said.

The devices are also expensive, priced around $1,300 without the added costs of a power transformer, a protective cage and the labor to install the unit.

Richard said he hasn’t been able to research the Mosquito units and respond to those looking to them as an anti-loitering tool.

Chris Mustard, general manager of Moving Sound Tech, the Mosquito’s Canadian distributor, said about 100 of the units have been sold across the U.S. Most are on the East Coast; eight to 10 have been sold in Washington but none in Idaho, he said.

Moving Sound also sells devices that play classical music as an anti-loitering tool, but Mustard said those are far less popular than the Mosquito.

Samuel Crosby, manager of Cougar Crest Winery tasting room in the Peyton Building, said he’s had younger customers complain to him about the Mosquito. They hear it when they leave or enter the tasting room.

“I understand their concern,” he said, “but frankly those younger customers are not our primary target audience.”

Solution will require collective effort

As businesses, law enforcement and downtown advocates search for a solution, they’re meeting regularly to define their goals and find ways to help each other, said Lynnelle Caudill, general manager of the Davenport Hotel Collection.

Caudill said she personally sees one solution: moving the downtown bus plaza, which she said has become a magnet for antisocial behavior.

“I think it should be relocated,” Caudill said.

She said the solution ultimately will require a collective effort.

“We have to do something,” Caudill said. “We’ve worked hard to have good things happening downtown. Now we have to manage it to keep it going.”