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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Monroe Street business group files $15 million tort claim against city to stop lane reduction

A pedestrian crosses North Monroe Street in Spokane on April 5, 2017. A $7.1 million road redesign is scheduled to begin next week. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

A coalition of business owners on North Monroe filed a $15 million tort claim Thursday against the city of Spokane, citing “significant revenue losses” during the city’s planned renovation of the street.

The Monroe Street Business Association, which was incorporated in June by Gary Jarvis, the owner of Skipper’s Seafood ’n Chowder House on the street, claims that the city of Spokane and the Spokane Regional Transportation Council planned the road work with “utter indifference” to how it would impact the businesses on the street.

“We are not worried 100 percent about the businesses,” Jarvis said. “It’s about the community. We are just trying to represent the citizens in our area who are against the project. We are trying to give them a voice.”

City utilities spokeswoman Marlene Feist confirmed the city received the $15 million tort claim Thursday afternoon.

“We did receive a claim for damages,” Feist said. “Obviously, we have not had an opportunity to review it at this point and we have no comment at this time.”

Feist did push back against assertions that the city has ignored the concerns of local business owners, noting that it has a $15,000 contract with Washington State University’s Washington Small Business Development Center to do outreach on Monroe, provide information about the project to businesses, and assist in cash-flow planning, marketing and budget making. The center will also help businesses plan to reduce expenses while keeping their operations going.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to assist in the time of construction,” Feist said.

Bob Dunn, a private practice attorney who has won many settlements after filing lawsuits against the city of Spokane, is representing the business association against the city, transportation council and the 17 people who sit on the council.

A tort claim is a necessary first step in the legal process to file a lawsuit against the city. If the city rejects the claim, a lawsuit could follow.

“I’m getting reports in from the members about what the losses will be over the two-year construction period,” Dunn said of the business group, which he said “consists of businesses up and down Monroe.”

At issue is the North Monroe Corridor project, a $7.1 million plan to reduce the number of lanes from five to three, construct more visible crosswalks and make the business center’s sidewalks wider with more trees and benches. The city will have two contracts out for the job, effectively doubling the workforce to complete the project in a seven-month time frame between April and October.

The complete revamping of the north-south arterial between Indiana and Cora avenues was first adopted by the Spokane City Council in 2014. The idea for the Monroe project came from the Emerson-Garfield Neighborhood Plan, developed that same year by neighborhood leaders as the guiding document for the neighborhood’s future .

E.J. Iannelli, former chair of the neighborhood, said in an email that North Monroe businesses, including Jarvis at Skipper’s, were consulted multiple times during the neighborhood planning phase. He also suggested that Jarvis’ business association didn’t fully represent the neighborhood’s businesses, noting that the North Monroe Business District is the longer-established business association on Monroe. He said “most, if not all” of that association’s members are in support of the project.

City Councilwoman Karen Stratton, who represents the neighborhood, said that the council had approved the grant award and the neighborhood plan, but there was no single vote authorizing the project, as some opponents of the work have claimed in targeting specific City Council members up for re-election.

“I regret in all of this they feel that this is going to come to a vote for the council, and that we can stop it,” Stratton said.

The council could adopt a resolution rejecting the grant money and nixing the project, Stratton said, but “my gut feeling tells me it wouldn’t pass.” Such a move would also ignore the work of the Emerson-Garfield Neighborhood in adopting a plan for the street, she said.

City officials say work will last for the construction season of 2018, over a period of roughly seven months. Design of the project is underway, and the work will occur between March and October.

The project is largely funded by a 2014 Federal Highway Safety Improvement grant for $3.8 million, and a 2014 Washington State Bicyclist and Pedestrian Safety grant for $326,800.

Dunn said his clients are against both the construction schedule and the design of the street.

“It’s a combination of everything. This project is called the Monroe road diet project,” Dunn said. “Everyone is concerned that it’s going to choke down the traffic for two years and, when it opens, no one will ever come back to visit.”

It is unclear what other businesses besides Skipper’s belong to the group. In August, the owner of the Vintage Rabbit Antique Mall announced the store’s closure in anticipation of the street work.

According to city data, average daily traffic counts in 2016 ranged from 17,000 to 18,300 on that stretch of Monroe. As a principal arterial, it sees more traffic than most streets, but less than other north-south arterials north of the river. Northwest Boulevard, Maple, Ash, Division, Hamilton, Freya and Market streets all see higher traffic counts.

The city says the three-lane road can handle up to 25,000 vehicles a day. Other three-lanes roads in Spokane handle 20,000 vehicles, and other communities say three lanes can accommodate 25,000.

An online survey done earlier this year by the city showed nearly 69 percent of respondents approved of the project. A radio ad produced last December by the Monroe Business Association said 90 percent of businesses on Monroe disapproved.

North Monroe has long been an important street for commuters, but plans city engineers have had for it over the decades have varied.

North Monroe was first graded in 1889, transforming a route that “was nothing more than a trail extending from the river to Five Mile Prairie” into a road for vehicles, according to a 1955 article in The Spokesman-Review. Twelve years later, it remained unpaved and a “sea of mud.”

Over the following decades, cars swamped American cities, and roads became a serious civic matter. In 1930, the city widened North Monroe for the first time. Traffic engineers marveled at the spiking traffic counts on the Monroe Street Bridge. Spokane United Railways, the predecessor to the Spokane Transit Authority, swapped streetcars for buses on Monroe in 1934.

By 1970, Spokane motorists had yet to grow tired of the Monroe commute, and the street had an average daily traffic count of 23,450. Engineers didn’t know what to do. The road was packed and hundreds of auto incidents occurred on the street between the river and the base of the North Hill at Cora every year.

Things were so bad on North Monroe that city traffic engineers began envisioning a new Monroe, though much different from the incarnation currently in the works.

In 1976, with traffic counts at 29,000 vehicles a day, they proposed eliminating all street parking on 31 blocks of North Monroe, from the river to Cora, widening the street and adding lanes to allow for the “safe and efficient flow” of traffic. The city had done the same thing on Division peaceably, but there were protests on Monroe.

Utlimately, City Council voted to widen the street and install “traffic bays.” The street’s sidewalks were narrowed to accommodate the new design.

In 1985, with daily traffic counts at 32,850 and climbing, city engineers were still fixated on Monroe’s flow. They had a list of options to make the road better for traffic. At the top of their list was building another bridge and making Monroe and Lincoln a north couplet, an idea that stayed alive and gained strong momentum at the turn of the century as the city bought land and sought permits to have the span built. In 2000, the City Council voted unanimously to abandon the unpopular effort to build the bridge.

The construction alone will become an economic burden on businesses and force them to reduce staffs, Jarvis said.

“I’ve been asked thousands of times, ‘How do we sign a petition? How do we vote?’” Jarvis said. “If you poll the citizens of Spokane, they are not for the project. It’s not even a small number.”

Due to incorrect information provided by the city of Spokane, this story previously misstated the funding sources for the planned renovation of North Monroe. It is not receiving a 2015 Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant for $475,000. Also, the project is funded by a 2014 Federal Highway Safety Improvement grant. A reporter error had the wrong year for the federal grant.

Staff writers Thomas Clouse and Kip Hill contributed to this story.