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Shawn Vestal: Pause on STA Plaza redo revealing

As the downtown business illuminati attempt to derail eight years’ worth of planning for improved bus service in Spokane, they insist that it’s not because they don’t like poor people.

They insist it’s not because they don’t like public transportation. They insist they just want a chance to offer opinions and suggestions, since the preceding weeks and months and years of chances to offer opinions and suggestions have been so insufficient.

They insist too much, methinks.

The delayed renovation of the STA Plaza – agreed to last week at the urging of the Downtown Spokane Partnership and Greater Spokane Incorporated – is another attempt to drive the plaza or its people out of the city center.

It’s just very hard to come right out and say that.

The STA board was set to approve the renovation plans last Thursday. The agency planned to move forward with a $5.8 million plan to fix up the station; the plans would recreate the space for retail shops, customer service and other uses inside the plaza, as well as improve the ability of customers to track their bus routes and arrivals from inside the facility – an attempt to reduce sidewalk congestion.

Though there have been some changes along the way, the plans have been talked through with the DSP and GSI for months now. Still, the project somehow slipped off their radar. At the 11th hour, both groups came begging for more time Thursday, and the STA board gave it to them. The vote on whether to renovate the plaza will now be in November.

Mark Richard, president of the DSP, told the board, “It’s not about the people who ride the bus. It’s not about people at all. It’s about the behavior that is occurring in and around the downtown plaza that raised the concerns we’re here to express.”

What behavior? Richard did not say.

Mick McDowell, chairman of DSP, urged the board to delay its renovation for a discussion of the “wide range of possible solutions to the wide range of problems associated with the downtown plaza.”

What solutions and what problems? McDowell did not say.

Steve Stevens, the brand-new head honcho at GSI, said, “This isn’t about what people look like, who ride the bus. It’s about what people do in and around the plaza.”

Which things, exactly? He did not say.

Now, clearly there is sometimes bad behavior at the plaza. Hell, someone stabbed someone there not long ago, in an incident that resembled a prison shivving. But if you’re truly concerned with bad behavior, that’s what you focus on – you know, like making it a crime to stab.

You don’t just move everyone you think looks like a stabber to a different part of town.

At the STA board meeting, someone asked the question directly: What are the specific behaviors that the objectors are objecting to, and how might the renovation affect that?

Al French, county commissioner and STA board member, said he’d been to DSP and GSI meetings where these concerns were discussed. “That was never specifically identified in any of the two meetings I attended,” he said. “They just spoke to a behavior that was negative behavior to the downtown area but didn’t elaborate on what that is. It was never specifically identified in either of the meetings.”

Shelly O’Quinn, county commissioner and STA board member, said there were specific examples. She noted one in which some workers coming to Spokane for an extended stay didn’t want to be downtown because they’d had a bad experience with congestion and smokers in the area – a problem that has now largely been solved by the STA decision to reopen its smoking area.

O’Quinn provided another specific example, about the time she came out of the GSI building across the street from the plaza and found someone leaning, appallingly, on her brand-new car.

Isn’t there something the STA can do about that? It’s clear that the downtown partners think it can, and it’s clear that what the downtown partners think the STA can do is pretty simple: Leave or get all the people hanging around there to leave.

Richard has made a persuasive case that I might be too dismissive of concerns that people have about the worst range of behavior among downtown ne’er-do-wells, and the impact they have on the willingness of people to do business downtown. A few friends of mine have done the same, suggesting that I underestimate the problems. Perhaps I have. But I’m pretty convinced that others are overestimating them, and many of the things I hear said about the downtown area – not from Richard, but from others – seem downright hysterical. And more importantly, in terms of the current debate, the so-called solutions almost always have less to do with targeting any behaviors than they do with simply moving the people.

The current proposal is part of a long-range plan first developed in 2008. DSP supported it then. There has been, all along, a desire from some to move the plaza, to shrink the plaza, to make the plaza less attractive so people don’t hang around there, to move the plaza crowds inside and out of sight, to pack the whole thing off to the Intermodal Center, to use the plaza for “something better” like an Abercrombie and Fitch …

But the STA has committed to staying where it is, at least for now, and it should. We are a city, and for a whole host of reasons we need a good public transportation system, and the downtown area is the right place to have a renovated hub for it. That system and the people who use it are part of the community, and they have as much right to be downtown – to stand on a sidewalk within sight of a hotel customer – as anyone else. If they break a law, there’s a new cop shop right there. If their behavior is offensive, the plaza can enforce its rules.

But if all they do is make some people uncomfortable, that’s no reason to give the plaza the bum’s rush.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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