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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Getting There: Do more cars mean better business?

When the Spokane Transit Authority rebuffed the city’s effort to relocate bus stops on East Sprague Avenue last week, a few business owners made the argument that the bus stops were bad for business.

At a meeting of the agency’s board of directors, the business people took to the lectern and, basically, made the same pitch: the new stations created traffic congestion because buses stopped in the lane of traffic. This drove motorists to find a different route, causing traffic counts to drop, which in turn made their businesses suffer.

Traffic counts are down, it’s true. In 2013, the final year Sprague still had four lanes, Sprague had upward of 14,000 cars traveling on it on the average weekday. Then the city “restriped” it, reducing the travel lanes to one in either direction, in preparation for major work in 2017. In 2018, the first full year the renovated stretch of road was open, Sprague had 12,700 vehicles on an average weekday.

Whether the drop in traffic is due to the bus stops, as the business owners suggest, or to the reduced number of lanes is a matter of debate. But do lower traffic counts on Sprague hurt business?

Depends on who you ask.

The East Spokane Business Association says yes, as it did in three full-page ads in a recent edition of The Spokesman-Review, which said the stops created “enormous congestion for the 98%” of people who drive and the change is “damaging tax-paying businesses.”

Jim Hanley has been in the neighborhood since 1942, co-owns The Tin Roof furniture store and is the secretary of ESBA. He says yes as well. Though he supports the “traffic calming” the reduced number of lanes has delivered to Sprague, he said the bus stops scare potential customers away.

“As traffic volumes slow, do does our business,” he said. “There are a lot of people that don’t drive by the store anymore that, in the past when they did drive by the store, said, ‘Ah. I think I’d like to stop and see something here.’ ”

Al French, a Spokane County commissioner and member of the STA board, says no. And he has numbers to make his case. He looked into the county’s books and tracked tracked retail sales in the area associated to individual addresses.

“Almost two out of three stores have seen an increase in sales” on Sprague, he said, noting that construction and building purchases weren’t included in the number, so only reflected the retail health of the district. “Cars don’t buy anything. People in the cars do.”

French is a transit advocate who, as an architect and developer, rehabbed Spokane’s NorthTown Mall, so he’s no enemy of car-oriented development. Instead, he has a nuanced view, saying there are three types of automobile shopping trips: destination trips, impulse trips and drive-by trips.

Sprague, French said, isn’t meant for the drive-by trips – the one described by Hanley and the East Sprague owners.

“Gas stations, convenience stores, grocery stores. The kinds of things you do on the way home,” French said. “You drop by the ATM to get some cash. To get gas. Or you need to pick up dinner for the family so you swing into the Safeway.”

Sprague, French said, is more of a destination trip. You seek out the district for a specific purpose. For a slice of pizza, to look at the antiques, to buy a couch.

When automobiles took over the American countryside, the view was simpler. Make way for cars. Downtowns emptied out as malls sprouted up on the suburban fringe. The more parking and wider roads, the better, as was the case when NorthTown first opened.

The mall’s anchor tenant then, in 1960, was Sears. The original Spokane location of the mega-retailer – downtown where the library now sits – was suited to a population that got around largely by either walking or riding a streetcar. No parking was necessary, and the store didn’t have to be of epic proportions because people could only carry so much. The new store, however, catered to motorists.

The new store more than doubled in size, going from having no parking to 3,000 stalls.

That was then, French said, this is now. Retailers can’t afford to supply thousands of spots, thanks to increased value in real estate, and they have to be smarter about where they locate. That’s what’s led to the different types of retailers, the destination, drive-by or impulse trips.

“For a long time, high traffic count meant high retail sales. That’s not always the case,” French said, adding that the slowing down of traffic on Sprague is ultimately a good thing.

“Quite frankly, when a car is stopped, either by a traffic light or a bus, it gives the people the opportunity to look in the store and see what kind of merchandise is there,” he said. “If they’re looking in the store while driving, that’s actually against the law. It’s called inattentive driving and we ought to be arresting them. We’re obviously not going to do that.”

But Hanley, who has been on Sprague so long he saw it in its Sunset Highway glory days to the squalor of the 1980s and ’90s to today, didn’t agree. He aims his business at these passing motorists.

“We have 100 feet of glass that’s 10 feet tall. The idea being, you drive by, you can see into my store what we have to offer you,” he said. “If we have traffic fall off because people are no longer coming down here, it definitely does affect our business. People just don’t stop if they’re not driving through the neighborhood.”

Hanley, however, said he couldn’t supply numbers to that affect, but has noticed a drop-off in customers.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve lost money,” Hanley said after the meeting, noting that business is difficult to explain to people who don’t own a business. “We did not make as much money as we did in ’18 as in ’17. We have definitely seen less people coming in the door.”

LaVerne Biel, president of the East Spokane Business Administration and owner of the business communications technology company Access Unified Networks, noted her business isn’t in retail and doesn’t necessarily rely on passing motorists. But she said as the East Sprague district fills in – its occupancy rate stands at 40% – traffic will get worse and, she said, drive more customers away.

“We anticipate more traffic coming in as these vacant buildings become occupied,” she said. “We know there’s been increased revenue in this year and that is primarily due to the buildings that have been resurrected in the area and new construction. We know revenue is really important because it pays your bills, right?”

French thinks the ire behind the bus stops has less to do with business, and more to do with resistance to change and animosity toward public transportation.

“Change is always difficult,” he said. “The roundabout up at the new Costco is a good example of that. People screamed, ‘My God how could you do this to us?’ And now it’s second nature.”

Beyond the time it takes for people to get used to new things – it’s been 20 months since Sprague reopened, and nine months since the Costco roundabout opened – French said some people won’t be happy until there are no buses at all on Sprague.

He pointed to what he saw in 1980, when a municipal corporation was formed to administer mass transit services in the area, the basis for how STA operates today.

“There were people who riled against it back then. There are people who rile against it today,” he said. “You’re never going to persuade them. Fortunately, they are the minority and not the majority.”

In the city

The city’s water department is replacing a water main at the intersection of Hamilton Street and Trent Avenue, which will completely close the intersection to traffic Monday and Tuesday. Hamilton is reduced to one lane in each direction from Trent to Springfield Avenue. The Interstate 90 westbound on-ramp from Hamilton remains closed for hydro-milling.

Beginning Monday, the city’s street department will start the Freya Street grind and overlay project between 37th and 29th avenues. The intersection of 29th and Freya will be closed Monday and Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Crews will make their way south once the intersection is complete.

The city is beginning arterial crack sealing on Thurston Avenue from Crestline to Perry Street, and on Perry from Thurston to 43rd Avenue.

The northbound, left lane of the Lincoln-Monroe couplet in downtown Spokane will be closed beginning Monday until Tuesday at 3 p.m. The closure will start at Main Avenue. The work is related to construction of the $20 million, 2.2-million gallon sewer and stormwater tank by the Downtown Spokane Library. Spokane Falls Boulevard from Lincoln to Monroe remains closed to traffic.

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