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

North Monroe Street road diet receives mixed reviews

Darcy Gravelle, co-owner of Tossed & Found, says  customers have complained about safety, and the trees that were planted make it difficult for customers to load furniture into their cars at 2607 N Monroe Street. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane City Councilwoman Candace Mumm vividly remembers her first job with Taco Time on North Monroe, sweeping the parking lot, sorting pinto beans and working the register.

The North Monroe Street that Mumm experienced growing up was one where neighbors shuffled back and forth across the street, purchasing donuts at one shop and ice cream at another. In the same lot her father once opened a Taco Time in the mid-1960s now sits Waffles Plus, owned by Dale Westhaver. That was one of many changes that occurred in the area.

Before the building shifted from tacos to waffles, the road was re-striped from four lanes to five, and Mumm said this changed the area dramatically.

“You couldn’t walk across,” Mumm said. “You had to run for your life. There was a time that people felt like high traffic counts equated to increased business, and that’s just not the metric anymore. Walkability is.”

That shift, along with a desire to increase safety, led to the North Monroe “road diet,” which slimmed the street from five lanes to three a year and a half ago and which Mumm hoped would bring back a thriving, community-oriented business district.

Whether the project has been a success varies based on whom you ask.

Some business owners – including a few using colorful, profanity-laced terms – depict gridlocked traffic during rush hour. Others paint a picture of customers and neighbors strolling the sidewalks, popping into different shops on a whim.

The truth is likely in the middle. Even on a crisp February day, pedestrians can be seen ambling about, but they can also be spotted cautiously exiting on-street parking, and it’s clear some cars view crosswalks as an elective stop.

The available data doesn’t depict a clear winner on either the safety or business front. The verdict may be too soon to call, and the basis of the disagreement revolves around the question of who or what Monroe – identified as both a business and transportation corridor – is meant to serve. The city’s task throughout the project was navigating that balancing act.

Stephanie Hille, owner of Nails with Pzazz and Paramount Spa, said she’s known a revitalization of Monroe was due before it was announced, and her longstanding client, Mumm, kept her informed throughout. She said the diet performs well on the transportation front.

“Monroe is a corridor to downtown, and we wanted to be recognized as a viable corridor to downtown,” Hille said. “I believe that the road diet and the subsequent land improvements has made Monroe much more viable and a much more interesting place to be for both clients and for employees.”

The city launched the $7.1 million improvement project on a 1.1-mile stretch of North Monroe in 2018. In addition to reducing the number of travel lanes from five to three, the project installed new curbs, landscaping, lights, benches and improved bus stops. The project was completed earlier than anticipated.

But Councilwoman Karen Stratton said the city could have done a better job communicating with the business owners during the planning stage to help assuage fears the road closure would shutter their doors. This led the city to hire an on-site city representative meant to address any construction concerns throughout the course of the project. This proved to be so effective that Stratton said the city will retain that position for major undertakings.

Ed Ardiss has owned a Zip’s on North Monroe for 26 years, and he had concerns about the plans for the road diet. He was happy about the timing, but worried about the design. Now that it’s in place, he said, it works for the pedestrians and neighbors but not for commuters.

“I was pretty worried about the effect of less traffic and all that stuff on our business, and so far, so good,” Ardiss said.

Westhaver was one of the business owners who was less concerned about how he would fare during the closure. Waffles Plus has a long-established customer base, and he knew they weren’t going anywhere.

Duc Nguyen, owner of Duc’s Tailors, said he felt similarly.

He has owned his shop for 17 years, surrounded by scraps of fabric and countless spools of thread. “Everybody knows my name, OK?”

The Monroe diet hasn’t helped or hurt his business. The same people who have always sought his services continue to do so. On the sidewalk outside of his store, Nguyen gestured at the Montgomery intersection, where a stoplight once was. With nothing to break up traffic, Monroe can get busy, he said.

Hub Tavern was another establishment that could count on its regulars to keep it afloat, said Teri Stephens, who tended bar there for 14 years. Just a glance verified that assertion: On a late Monday afternoon, nearly every stool was occupied at the cash-only bar. Stephens said the lighting made Monroe much safer; she only wishes businesses had received hanging flower planters.

Tossed & Found co-owners Darcy Gravelle and Nicki Krossen were likewise unconcerned about losing business during construction, but said they have received complaints from customers since Monroe reopened.

“At the bus stops, people can’t get around, which makes them less likely to come down Monroe, because they know that if they get stopped, they have to wait,” Krossen said.

A minor complaint Gravelle and Krossen have is the tree the city planted outside their store. They asked to opt out because they worried it would make it more difficult for customers to load their purchases. And yet, the tree stands, and customers are occasionally encumbered by branches. At the same time, customers comment that Monroe looks much more beautiful.

Though the tree is a small example, it sits at the crux of the argument from unhappy businesses: Most acknowledge the new Monroe looks nice, but is it functional?

The safety question remains unclear.

Terry Preuninger, Spokane Police Department spokesman, said the department filed 29 collision reports on this section of North Monroe in 2017. In 2019, the number was 29 again. This doesn’t include certain cases where drivers simply exchange information and report the incident online rather than wait for the police to arrive on scene. He said the crashes were equally distributed along Monroe and that there didn’t seem to be any particular intersection that was more accident-prone.

Rodney Dewey, Hot Rods owner, said he liked the sidewalks and planters, but described chaos he’s witnessed during high traffic.

“I try to get out of here between 4 and 4:30, because it’s so crazy, all the cars coming down my side street here on Chelan,” Dewey said. “If the first car is trying to go across, good luck. Now there’s seven, eight cars on every street down the side street backed up.

“It’s weird. I like it, but man this street’s just got way too many people to try to bottleneck ’em up like that.”

Across the street, Westhaver said the new configuration makes it difficult to make a left turn during rush hour. Traffic overall has slowed – though he does have a solar-powered flashing speed limit sign on his wish list. Westhaver estimated that foot traffic has doubled, maybe more.

“I think overall the project was a positive, positive thing for me,” Westhaver said. “I’m not sure that everybody will agree with that, but I think overall it’s been good.”

Sabrina Bronchaeu, Gerardo’s cashier, said she thought rush hour traffic was better, and the beautification efforts made Monroe look cleaner and more modern. Autumn Bunton, Urban Art Co-op president, also said the appearance was much better, adding that she liked being able to cross the street to get food.

A vocal opponent of the project was Katy Azar of Azar’s Restaurant. After the project was completed, she seemed to come around, telling The Spokesman-Review in September 2018 that she liked the look of the street improvements. And while she still does appreciate the aesthetics and the quick completion, she has changed her assessment. Less traffic has equated to less business, she said.

While stirring caramel into an iced coffee, she noted the new configuration was actually more dangerous.

“They have slowed down traffic to the point where when you’re driving you’re worried,” Azar said. “They slowed it down to where you’re looking around, you can’t, because you’re worried about hitting the person in front of you because you’re going less than 30, and you don’t know when the other one is going to hit their brake and turn.”

Like Nguyen, Azar said since they took out the Montgomery stoplight, there has been a constant flow of traffic.

City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said the stoplight no longer made sense for the traffic volume Monroe received, and also pointed out the time spent waiting at the stoplight far exceeded the total time cars are stalled behind the bus stops.

“Stopping at a red light is not as frustrating as stopping behind a bus for whatever reason,” Feist said. “It’s a perception. That’s something that we’ve really come to see is that if we can accommodate the bus, by having a way for them to pull over, people are much more receptive to the three-lane section.”

Psychology plays more of a role in the daily commute than one might expect.

Rhonda Young, Gonzaga University civil engineering professor, said subtle signals to drivers can be more effective than speed limit signage.

“They say that if you look at a speed limit sign that you might remember it for a block or two, but ultimately, you’re using other clues around you to figure out the speeds on the subconscious level,” Young said. “So if you can set the tone with other things like the width, the trees, the crosswalks and all those things, then you get much better speed compliance.”

Young also said that even though it might seem counter-intuitive, road diets create much more efficient commutes.

“It kind of defines where people need to go,” Young said. “When you have extra lanes, you get a lot more people doing bigger speed variations. You get people who are traveling under the speed and traveling over the speed, and it feels like they’re taking up more volume than they are just because you’ve given them space to do their own travel.”

When the cars are put in the same lane, they tend to travel the speed limit and drive more safely, Young said. Traffic flow studies in Spokane are conducted every three years, and the upcoming study will be completed later this year.

Azar said it can be very frustrating to get stuck behind the buses, something Stratton heard at the most recent Emerson-Garfield Neighborhood Council meeting.

“It’s frustrating,” Stratton said. “It’s two minutes out of your life that you have to stop and wait. But for the most part, Monroe used to be that dingy, drab, depressing, north-south connection on the North Side to downtown, and it’s so much more than that.”

Stratton said the neighbors were mostly positive at the meeting, and Taylor Phillips, the Emerson Garfield Neighborhood Council chairwoman, agreed. She said the neighborhood used to be divided by Monroe, but now the street brings people together.

“It’s become a unifying signal for our neighborhood,” Phillips said. “We have folks that are really coming together, because now they feel safe to go up and down Monroe. They feel like it’s welcoming. They feel like it has a place for them.”

Though the average assessed value of single-family homes in the neighborhood is less than that of the county overall since the change, the homes have slightly exceeded the percentage increase in value. The county’s average increase was 11.8%; the area between Monroe and Divison increased 12%, and Monroe to Maple increased 11.9%, according to the assessor’s office.

The business counterpart to the neighborhood council is the North Monroe Business District, and chairwoman Megan Kennedy said the community is thriving. Before construction, they had 12 members, now they have more than 30 and counting. They recently hosted an informal get-together, and she said four new businesses expressed interest.

“We had everything from folks who’ve been here for decades to folks who just had opened their business or relocated their business,” said Kennedy, a principal with Rogue Heart Media. “It was just so many warm things to share as far as sense of place, the sense of welcome.”

Kennedy said events like the Cruise on Monroe car show and the farmer’s market have attracted people to the area. Her office features an old Monroe street sign recovered by construction crews and offered to area businesses as a memento.

“You’ll see them in businesses all up and down, and a lot of people still have their little construction detour logo somewhere in their building, too,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said there is an increasing overlap between the residential community and the business community, as more business owners are choosing to purchase homes in the neighborhood, including herself and co-workers at Rogue Heart Media.

The reverse is also true: homeowners opening businesses. Take Andrew Edlin, owner of Monroe Street Tattoo. While his young daughter was lounging on the couch in the waiting room, he explained his choice to open his shop late into the construction. He wanted to work close to home.

“I think slowing down the traffic a little bit helps with being able to see all the different signs,” Edlin said. “There are so many different businesses tucked in here that I think before, even living here, I would fly right by them.”

Dezi Nagyfy, co-owner of D and L’s Rustic Treasures, bought his building five years ago, and he said he was sold by the plans of on-street parking in front of the store. Bandit the tri-color chihuahua and “chief security dog” greets customers; Nagfy adopted Bandit seven years ago as part of a trade: a couch, $30 and odds and ends from the shop.

“Today you’re worth $100 million, aren’t you, buddy?” Nagyfy said to Bandit, his constant companion.

Bandit has many more people to beg for pepperoni now: Nagyfy said since the project’s completion, foot traffic has increased tenfold.

According to Feist, sales tax revenue is up 9.7%, comparing January-November in 2017 and 2019. This assessment includes retail, restaurants, coffee shops, dry cleaners and tailors, but not services like real estate offices or lawyers. This increase is keeping pace with the city’s overall, which is about 10%.

Like her counterparts at D and L’s Rustic Treasures, Debi Acker of Marilyn’s on Monroe takes advantage of the sidewalk real estate to display some of her treasures for passers-by. Acker wishes the parking spots were bigger, but said that due to foot traffic, her business likely has tripled.

North Monroe has its fair share of vintage and antique shops, and the afternoon of Presidents Day, Brian Deeny and Paul Ramer strolled out of Vessel coffee to hit the circuit. Deeny said he’d noticed the businesses have adapted to the changes, joining Marilyn’s and D and L’s in putting out items, and restaurants are offering outside seating in warmer months. Ramer said he wasn’t sure about taking the street down to three lanes, but he was happy there are more crosswalks.

Much of the beautification of Monroe came in the form of grants the city offered businesses to give their storefronts facelifts. Thirty businesses received facade improvement grants, for a total of more than $180,000.

Of those, 11 were granted to buildings owned by Jim Orcutt. Orcutt owns 17 buildings on North Monroe, with 23 tenants and one vacancy. From his perspective, the renovations to Monroe have made it feel like a new neighborhood.

“Typically, I’m seeing a lot of younger tenants that may not have looked on Monroe prior to,” Orcutt said. “The vibe is feeling a little bit more bullish. A lot of those tenants signed long leases, feeling like the tide is definitely rising along Monroe Street and they wanted to be a part of the future of that street.”

The city applied strategies from the East Sprague project, but tailored them to Monroe. For Sprague, the city closed down one half of the street at a time; for Monroe, it made more sense to give the project two separate contractors to speed up the process.

The city also gained knowledge from the Monroe project that will be helpful in the future, Feist said. Specifically, she spoke of the plans to do a grind and overlay of Riverside Avenue before the arrival of the Central City Line, as well as a re-striping. Instead of building bump-outs – an extension of the sidewalk into the street to create a narrowing effect – the city is considering a more temporary solution.

“The downtown businesses have been quite interested in us doing bump-outs with paint and planters,” Feist said. “So we paint the bump-out and delineate it with planters or something like that, rather than actually building out the concrete bump-out.”

Feist said this will create the visual narrowing, which will encourage traffic-calming without committing to a permanent structure. Again, the city is trying to give drivers visual signals to control traffic.

Although the city learned lessons from North Monroe, Feist said they could be applied only up to a point. North Monroe – a neighborhood, a business district, a means from point A to point B – was a unique combination of people and places, just like any community in Spokane.

“How do we adapt these things to other places? And what makes sense?” Feist said. “What we’ve learned is that you have to be really flexible based on the business corridor you’re in, because different businesses function differently.”