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

Division over Division Street: New video from Larry Stone sounds alarm that some call ‘absurd’

Cars move up and down the North Hill on Division Street on December 30. City planners have several ideas for how the street might develop in the next decade.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
By Emry Dinman and Kip Hill The Spokesman-Review

Developer Larry Stone’s newest “film to help Spokane,” released earlier this week, opens to melancholic piano music and a junkyard filled with broken cars, followed by two sedans pressed by a hydraulic crusher .

As the image of a Spokane Transit Authority bus appears on the screen, a narrator asks:

“Do you want to be forced to ride the bus? Some City Council members want you to. And so does STA. But at what cost?”

Stone believes changes proposed for North Division Street to emphasize buses and bikes and reduce lanes for cars and trucks will be a “disaster.” Most elected officials shepherding the project call his criticisms misleading and “absurd.”

A sort of spiritual sequel to the 2019 video “Curing Spokane,” which depicted a city suffering from rampant crime and blamed, in part, public transportation, “The Disaster on Division” and a series of accompanying videos squarely targets buses and changes to roadways for hurting the city.

The videos accuse the STA and four representatives from the Spokane City Council of increasing congestion, pollution, dangerous driving and otherwise harming businesses by reducing travel lanes and clogging remaining lanes with buses.

Six videos shorter than a minute blame buses and lane reductions, or “road diets,” along Sprague Avenue, Mission Street, Crestline Street and Main Avenue for backups behind buses, drivers illegally passing buses into oncoming traffic and other traffic woes.

In one video, Jim Hanley, longtime owner of The Tin Roof, a furniture store on East Sprague, accused the STA of ignoring the interests of local business owners.

“The buses pull in, we have a backup of traffic that occurs every approximately 15 minutes, all day long, and it impacts the businesses and it impacts the people who are driving through our district,” Hanley said in the video .

But the primary video put out by Stone, a developer and major donor in support of conservative candidates for local office, focuses on proposed changes along North Division and Ruby streets that are slated to accompany the completion of the North Spokane Corridor.

By the end of the 2020s, the STA hopes to roll out a north-south rapid transit bus route along Division Street, the second in Spokane after the recently completed Central City Line that runs east and west through downtown.

A lane in both directions along the Division corridor is slated to be converted into a bus-priority lane, which passenger vehicles could still pass through to turn into or out of businesses. An additional lane on Ruby Street is set to be replaced with protected bike lanes. Even with the conversion of lanes, however, two lanes northbound and two lanes southbound would continue to be reserved for normal car traffic.

The plan took shape in anticipation that the long-awaited North Spokane Corridor will finally be finished before the end of the decade. When that freeway does open, a significant amount of traffic, especially freight, is expected to move away from Division and Ruby streets.

“Once this is all in place, it will be an opportunity to radically rethink Division,” then-City Council President Breean Beggs said in January.

But Stone believes rethinking Division could be a disaster.

“The cost of it is nearly $200 million, and to spend that to create more congestion just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “We could repair something like 90 miles of our streets with that money, which makes more sense. Our streets are in need of repair.”

As the narrator of “The Disaster on Division” describes a grim future for what has long been the city’s busiest street, the pictures of four left-leaning members of the City Council and STA CEO Susan Meyer appear on screen.

But the proposal has garnered support from across the political spectrum.

Last December, nearly every member of the City Council, including conservative Councilman Michael Cathcart, voted in support of the plan, outlined by a multiyear study called DivisionConnects. Councilman Jonathan Bingle, the council’s only other conservative member, was the sole no vote, though he said at the time this was primarily due to uncertainty with when the much-delayed North Spokane Corridor would be finished.

In 2021, the Spokane Regional Transportation Council voted to support giving buses priority on a lane in either direction along Division. The vote was nearly unanimous, with one holdout among the 17 members: Stone, who was on the council representing the region’s major employers.

The two candidates for Spokane mayor, longtime Democrat Lisa Brown and incumbent Nadine Woodward – whose election campaigns Stone supported with major donations in 2019 and again this year – have both expressed support for the Division rapid bus route.

“Looking to update how we currently utilize that corridor compared to two or three decades ago is healthy for a community,” said Brian Coddington, city spokesman and Woodward’s chief of staff.

Brown told The Spokesman-Review that she believes the changes to Division will make it easier for residents without cars to get around the city and in turn make it possible to build denser housing along traffic corridors.

“I think Division will be enhanced by the project,” she said.

Brown criticized Stone’s video as divisive, as did Spokane City Councilwoman Karen Stratton, who is among the STA board members, and state Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig of Spokane.

“There were so many lines in that video that were absurd, false and misleading, it’s hard to pick one,” Billig said.

Stone’s video stated that the U.S. Department of Transportation warned that reducing lanes on a road that vehicles passed over more than 20,000 times per day – Division handles more than 50,000 – would “significantly increase traffic congestion and likely force drivers to find unsafe alternative routes … .”

Billig noted that this study referenced reducing a four-lane road to three lanes, which he said is not applicable to a six-lane road like Division. The Department of Transportation has also reported that some higher-traffic roads have had lane reductions without significant impacts to traffic, and notes that it is sometimes worthwhile to trade “a small decrease in mobility to gain a large increase in safety.”

Stratton argues that Division Street “has always been a nightmare,” and that changes could increase safety for pedestrians, make the road accessible to bikers and slow traffic overall, leading to fewer deadly crashes.

Billig also argues that the use of priority lanes for buses means the buses won’t clog traffic behind them when they stop. Billig also believes Stone minimizes the amount of traffic that will be diverted to the North Spokane Corridor, which Billig said is well-studied.

Stone isn’t alone in expressing concerns, however. County Commissioner Al French, who sits on the STA’s board of directors, said that while he had voted in support of the Division corridor rapid transit line, he was concerned about priority bus lanes and also doesn’t believe that the North Spokane Corridor will reduce traffic sufficiently along Division.

“There were some assumptions made early on that I don’t buy into, but we’ve still got time to address those issues,” he said.

The bottom-line for businesses

Major changes on the arterial could have significant impacts on some businesses. Many of Division’s drive-thru coffee shops, for instance, aren’t built to accommodate a walking customer.

Others expressed unease and uncertainty after the City Council voiced its support for the plan late last year.

It’s not the first time lane reductions have caused anxiety for neighboring businesses.

Stratton, who was appointed to the City Council amid plans for a “road diet” along Monroe, said she heard from many business owners who were afraid of the impacts.

“And I will tell you, North Monroe has improved,” she said. “There are more businesses, people are walking up and down the street, they grab coffee, they shop, it’s an accessible area for people to cross the street, and it’s safer because people are slowing down.”

Owners of businesses along the rebuilt stretches of Monroe and Sprague said Tuesday they believe the lane reductions, which when pitched were controversial, cause backups during rush hour and may not have had the traffic-calming effects city officials wanted.

But the effect of the lane reductions on their bottom lines didn’t seem to be an issue for many.

“It hasn’t affected us negatively at all,” said Jennie Callihan, owner of the Zip’s location at Monroe Street and Dalton, on the north end of the area that was rebuilt in 2018. In fact, she said, sales were up, but that could also be due to a building remodel and the construction of a patio at the same time the road diet went into effect, she said.

“It’s the construction that’s the hardest,” she added.

Others along Monroe agreed, many identifying themselves as destination locations that draw from a customer base undeterred by idling buses or a pedestrian in a crosswalk.

“If you want to get somewhere bad enough, you’re going to get there,” said Buddy Richardson, whose family owns the Hub Tavern at the corner of Monroe and Fairview.

Sonnenberg’s Meat Market & Deli had to open its back door to customers during the Sprague construction because the entrance off the main road was blocked by construction fencing and dirt, said Dan Englehart, meat manager for the store. But customers still came and haven’t complained about any additional traffic after the reopening, he said.

“We never laid one person off,” he said. In fact, the business was able to sell lunch to crews working on the road, he said.

Neighboring businesses gave mixed reviews of the changes. Austin Bennett, whose family owns the Bennidito’s Brew Pub location at Sprague and Magnolia that opened in 2015, said the restaurant was busier before the rebuild, especially in the evenings.

“Tuesday nights, you’re lucky if you get more than 10 tables,” Bennett said.

Lunch crowds are better, before rush hour, he added.

Diana Chelf, who runs Two Women Vintage Goods on the south side of Sprague between Napa and Crestline, credited the road rebuild as part of the reason she decided to relocate her business from downtown to the Sprague district in 2018, after the work was completed on the east end of the project area.

“It certainly made it look better,” Chelf said, adding that the building housed an adult bookstore before the antique shop she operates with her daughter.

Customers are able to pull up alongside the building or park in a lot behind the store to load furniture and larger goods, she said. Most of the foot traffic that comes in to shop or buy an espresso say the area has improved with the beautification that came along with the lane reduction.

“This was the area no one went to,” she said.

Brandon Barton, co-owner of Martin’s Auto Service body shop on Monroe Street, said the road work in 2018 hadn’t affected business at all. In fact, construction crews helped install a temporary driveway to provide access to motorists during the road work.

“The biggest problem is when they go to leave,” he said, noting that the road can become busier at times and when buses are traveling through.

Jenny Cashion, owner of Chic & Shab Upscale Homes store in the Hoban Building at 2319 N. Monroe St., moved in her business in February 2019, after the work was done. Her truck was struck and totaled by a distracted driver, she said, and cars still speed by the shop. If businesses were closer together, she said, the lane restrictions and larger sidewalks might be more effective.

“I know there’s talking of improving the neighborhood,” she said. “It’s still a work in progress.”

But Stone argues that the problems on Division won’t be comparable to those on Monroe, Sprague or others that have seen lane reductions.

“Division is a much larger arterial, and it’s just going to be that much more crowded when we get rid of 30 to 50% of the lanes,” he said.

Richardson and others expressed some surprise at a plan to reduce lanes on Division Street, given that it sees much more daily traffic than the stretches of Monroe that were redone in 2018, and Sprague, a multiyear project that wasn’t finished until 2021, suggesting the city has its hands full in explaining how priority lanes for buses and protected bike lanes will work on the heavily trafficked corridor.

“It looks good, but it is not feasible,” said Rick Gimeno, owner of Rick’s Kar Korner located at the corner of Sprague Avenue and Napa Street.

Gimeno and employee Gary Grieb said they’ve seen crashes outside their window, as well as people speeding to pass idling cars behind waiting buses, as shown in Stone’s video. Traffic is heaviest during rush hour and when lanes are blocked on the interstate, as they were during a roadside fire at the end of July.

That congestion hasn’t resulted in lost sales, though, Grieb said. Numbers are about the same, though they did have to relocate the business up the street when the road was under construction.

“Most car shopping now is done online,” he said.