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

‘Curing Spokane’ advocates selling STA downtown plaza and putting a bus station underground

Buses depart the STA Plaza in this photo from three years ago. A new video, “Curing Spokane” advocates selling the plaza and building a new downtown bus station underground. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Public transit and parking are partly to blame for criminality in downtown Spokane, according to an online video produced by an influential local developer.

The 17-minute video “Curing Spokane”, which is similar to the “Seattle is Dying” piece put out by KOMO-TV in March, paints a stark picture of drug use and lawlessness in the city core.

While the Seattle video recommended sending homeless people to McNeil Island, a prison used to house sex offenders deemed too dangerous to release into society, the video, “Curing Spokane,” recommends selling the downtown transit plaza, moving the station underground and making parking free downtown.

About 12 minutes into the video, produced by developer Larry Stone, is the suggestion that Spokane Transit Authority’s downtown bus plaza is a magnet for criminal activity.

“It is a public space and many people say they avoid it because of crime,” according to the film’s narration.

Relying largely on anecdotal testimony, the video and its accompanying website deliver a dark assessment of the plaza, which was built in 1995.

“It is widely agreed that the STA Plaza has been a failure ever since it was built nearly 25 years ago,” according to the website’s “frequently asked questions” page. “Commute times also increased for many riders. When finished, many complained that their average 35-minute commute had increased to more than one hour.”

Brandon Rapez-Betty, STA’s spokesman, gave a point by point refutation of the video’s assertions. Selling the plaza was out of the question, and STA is focused on following the will of the voters, he said.

“We’ve been implementing the projects that the voters identified as important to their transportation needs, which they approved in 2016,” he said, referring to a local sales and use tax approved by voters in 2016 to fund STA’s Moving Forward plan. “Our community invested in a downtown plaza. To sell it only to build something else would create a loss of value.”

Stone’s video said Spokane should follow Boise’s lead in moving the transit hub underground, but didn’t provide an estimate for how much that might cost. It did say that “STA has plenty of money.”

The STA plaza was built for $20 million. It is currently assessed at $12 million, according to the county assessor’s office. Stone asserts that STA spent $8 million on the plaza last year, but STA said its 2018 capital and operating expenses at the plaza came to $1.96 million. So far this year, those expenses have totaled $1.05 million.

The video gives little details on the Boise station. It notes that Boise didn’t have a “a crime problem, it was a location problem,” and it described the underground station as “a safe and clean environment.”

Boise’s Main Street Station was conceived in 2005 and opened in 2016 with “eight bus bays, a customer service office, restrooms, bike storage and repair areas and a Boise Police Department substation,” according to the Idaho Statesman. U.S. Sen Mike Crapo, a Republican, secured $9.6 million in federal dollars for the underground station project, and the Capital City Development Corp., the city’s urban renewal agency, spent $2.4 million on the project.

Despite initial financial backing, proposal after proposal fell through until a private developer, Gardner Co., said it would build the station under the U.S. Bank Building it owned. Valley Regional Transit got on board, and the project was completed by a coalition of public and private organizations, including Boise City and the Ada County Highway District.

In 2017, the Seattle Transit Blog critiqued Boise’s transit system. Instead of suggesting Boise was a model for transit, the article said “Boise’s same size sibling up north is a canonical example of what they should be aiming for,” referring to Spokane and STA.

Stone is not the first to call for the plaza to be sold and for buses to go underground.

Ten years after the plaza was built, a task force of STA board members, business people and riders hired an appraiser to explore selling and moving the plaza. At the time, the plaza was appraised at $3.25 million, and appraiser Scot Auble said it would cost almost $17.5 million to build a new bus station – which did not including buying land for the new building.

The plaza remained.

In July 2014, a coalition of downtown business leaders persuaded the STA board to postpone a vote on moving ahead with a $5.8 million remodel of the plaza. Four months later, a task force of business leaders organized by Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, met behind closed doors to talk about the future of the plaza. At the time, former STA board chairman Chuck Hafner predicted Spokane’s business community would succeed in pushing the region’s central bus plaza out of downtown.

The Spokesman-Review reported at the time that the region’s two large business organizations, DSP and Greater Spokane Inc., had “complained extensively about the number of homeless people, mentally ill people, and drunk or stoned teenagers who hang out at the plaza.”

The plaza remained, and a remodel occurred. In 2016-17, STA spent $5 million on the renovation.

In 2016, Spokane architect Warren Heylman, best known for his work on the Parkade parking garage and Spokane Regional Health Building, said he had drawn up plans to move the city’s central bus station underground. He shared his plans with STA, but his idea didn’t go anywhere.

STA ridership peaked in 2014 at 11.4 million, the highest the agency’s ever had. It’s declined about 2% per year since, and reached 10.1 million rides in 2018.

“That is consistent with the national trend at a time when unemployment is at an all-time low. They have access to cars, other modes, rideshares, Lyft, Lime,” Rapez-Betty said. “But transit is a long-term investment. As the cost of gas fluctuates, and the economy fluctuates, our services – that decrease traffic congestion and air pollution – will still be here, providing public transit.”

Stone’s video uses numbers from the Spokane Police Department, and reported by The Spokesman-Review, to paint a dangerous picture at the plaza. According to those numbers, the plaza received more calls of service than any other location in the first five months of 2019. Through June 12, police received 641 calls to the plaza, followed by 434 calls to the corner of Division Street and Second Avenue, and 203 calls to the Spokane Intermodal Center, which serves as the Amtrak and Greyhound stations.

Rapez-Betty, STA’s spokesman, called the numbers misleading and placed the number of incidents that occurred at the plaza in the same time frame at 99 – not 641. Of the 99 reports, 54 of them resulted in a citation or arrest.

“A call for service is really a term used by the police department to track location of officers. Even if an officer is locating their position, it’s a call for service,” he said. “We contract to have an officer at the plaza. They’re supposed to be there.”

Around 4 p.m. Thursday, as buses came and went, Evan Terpening was waiting for his bus home after work at ENGIE Insight, a Spokane-based sustainability and energy management company.

“I don’t think downtown is unsafe,” he said. “Part of being in a society is being around a lot of different people.”

Though he hadn’t seen the video, he said it sounded like it wanted to “make places safer for wealthier, white people.” Moving the plaza even four or five blocks would be detrimental.

“Having it downtown makes it useful for a lot of people,” he said.

Melanie Lappen, a Spokane native, agreed that the plaza should stay where it is.

“It’s perfect right here. It’s around everything,” she said. “There’s some homeless, but it’s a lot better than it used to be.”

Drew Ulrick, a commercial real estate agent, said Stone’s proposal had merit, and noted that walking by the plaza “is a little unnerving at times.”

He said he is intrigued by Stone’s proposal to sell the plaza and build a subterranean bus station.

“I think it’s an interesting idea and a good one,” he said. “You’ve got to attack the problem at some point. I think it’s worth a shot.”

A better parking system

The video also criticized the city’s parking system, and said developing “urban parking solutions” would help push criminals out of the city core.

“A better parking system will attract more visitors downtown. More visitors downtown will put pressure on the criminals to leave,” the video states.

Again, it points to Boise as an example for Spokane to follow. Its municipally controlled parking garages offer a free hour of parking, and on-street meters give 20 minutes of free parking.

“Parking has always been an issue in downtown Spokane,” Dave Black, a real estate developer who owns NAI Black, said in the video. “One of the reasons we lose businesses from downtown out to the other areas in the periphery of downtown is that there’s free parking and lots of parking.”

Spokane’s core – which includes downtown, Spokane County government campus, Spokane Arena and South Hill hospitals – has more than 37,000 parking spaces.

A recent and exhaustive study criticized downtown Spokane’s parking situation, calling it “confusing and uncoordinated.” But it did not recommend free parking.

The city recently approved spending $240,000 to implement the study’s suggestions, which include expanding the pay-for-parking meter district and increasing the prices for premium spots in the central shopping district.