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

A stretch of downtown Spokane has been plagued by shootings. Can residents’ love of community transform it?

Amber Delfosse, 35, holds the door for her husband, Craig, as he moves boxes of their possessions out of their home, while neighbor Don Bentz, background center, smokes a cigarette on Thursday, May 30, 2024, in Spokane, Wash. The Delfosses moved into a one-bedroom at the Armstrong Apartments starting in 2020.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Amber and Craig Delfosse were admittedly nervous when they moved with their two children into a one-bedroom apartment above a pair of popular downtown bars on Sprague Avenue.

It was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they needed to downsize after losing their jobs.

They hoped their new downtown neighborhood, including Mootsy’s bar and Lucky’s Irish Pub, would be safer than its reputation.

Despite a fight-turned-shooting inside PM Jacoy’s convenience store during the Lilac Festival Armed Forces Torchlight Parade last month, which Delfosse’s 17-year-old son witnessed, Amber said the community of people who work and live in the area is loving, caring and watchful.

“The people that are here, it’s a real community,” she said.

Frequent emergency calls to Sprague Avenue between Howard and Washington Streets have many causes, said Capt. Steve Wohl, who works in the Spokane Police Downtown precinct.

The most obvious is just the number of people who live and work in the area.

“A lot of these issues are when you have a concentration of people,” Wohl said. “Anytime you have a large concentration, whatever it is, whether it be at a sporting event where there’s 30,000 football fans, you’re gonna have people drink and get in fights, right? It’s gonna cause issues when you’ve got people.”

Past and current city administrations have dealt with persistent fears that downtown is unsafe.

Former Mayor Nadine Woodward pushed to move a police precinct downtown and frequently spoke about drug use and criminal activity at Second Avenue and Division Street.

Current Mayor Lisa Brown declared a state of emergency in the area earlier this week.

While Sprague Avenue hasn’t drawn the same focus, safety is squarely an issue.

Police have responded to the area more than a thousand times so far this year, a similar number of responses to the same time period last year.

Wohl said that most calls in the area are for nonviolent crimes or medical issues. The people most at risk are the vulnerable, often disabled or homeless people, preyed upon by drug dealers and other bad actors, Wohl said.

“We see some stranger-on-stranger assaults, but rarely is it that way,” Wohl said. “Usually, it’s they’re targeted because they’re addicted to drugs, they’ve got mental health issues, they’re living on the streets and so they’re easy targets for people to come in and they know them, and they will victimize them through drugs.”

The Armstrong building, which houses PM Jacoy’s and Lucky’s Bar, is in the process of being sold to Daniel Sanchez, longtime owner of Mootsy’s, which also is in the building.

He plans to sell the apartments as condos, hoping that ownership in the block will encourage a new wave of vigilance.

The Ridpath Club Apartments reached full capacity in 2023 and has largely stayed there since. The 206 units are mostly studio apartments, though a few of them have one bedroom. Of those units, 184 are considered low-income. The rest of the units are listed at the lower end of the rental market rate with studios at $1,007 per month and one-bedrooms listed at about $1,080.

Paul Mann, one of the primary investors who revamped the Ridpath from shuttered hotel to low-income apartments, lives on the top floor of the building that used to be Ankeny’s Restaurant. He said there’s a big effort to be neighborly at the Ridpath.

“We’re working hard to build community within our building,” Mann said. “It’s like a big city neighborhood.”

Tenants of the building are very security-conscious, Mann said, noting people often come to the building from a prior difficult living situation.

“The parking lot across the street is kind of a magnet for people hanging out,” Mann said. “I think there has been more of that than there used to be.”

Tony Glover, 57, sat in his walker under the eaves of the Ridpath last week smoking a cigarette, a common site for passersby. Glover has lived in a studio apartment in the building for the last seven years. He’s disabled and on Social Security.

Inside the Ridpath, it’s pretty safe, Glover said, but his neighbors are “a mixed bag.”

Many are like him, older and receiving government assistance; but some use drugs and bring unsavory people into the building, he said. Management has been more stable in recent years, and the police presence downtown has grown, which Glover said has helped.

“It deters people from loitering,” Glover said of police patrols.

Ridpath residents are close, he said, citing the frequent game nights on his floor. That kinship makes it even harder when a resident dies, Glover said.

In the last five years, 26 people have died in the building, according to the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office A cause of death was not available for all of those people, but the majority were older than 50. At least six of the deaths were drug- or alcohol-related. One incident was violent: Galina Hensz was killed by her boyfriend, Joshua Bassett, who killed himself after shooting her in 2019.

Wohl, the police captain, acknowledged that people often say they feel unsafe downtown.

“It’s a perception,” Wohl said. “But the majority of the victimization comes in that community from a known assailant.”

Police respond to the area most frequently in the afternoon, something Wohl wasn’t surprised by.

“People are waking up from their overnight antics and then are now either using, either out being victimized, or trying to find a way to make some money,” Wohl said. “I think that’s when we see some of those numbers rise.”

As the number of people in the area grew, so did calls to 911 and the Satellite Diner’s insurance rates. The Satellite, long known for late-night eats, reduced its hours in 2021, closing at 2 a.m. instead of 4 a.m. The change has largely to do with insurance premiums, said manager Tim Barlos.

Barlos, who has worked at the bar and restaurant for 20 years, said he doesn’t feel the block has become less safe. The main differences are that people are more eager to report crimes now and that everyone has a cellphone with a camera, he said.

He and his staff make a concerted effort to ask people loitering on the sidewalk to move along, something employees at Mootsy’s and PM Jacoy’s do as well.

“It takes effort, and it also takes backup from the city government,” Barlos said.

He would like to see the return of the walking beat cop to help consistently keep people moving along. Wohl said there has been an increase in bike patrols in the area, but he too would like more police resources downtown.

Barlos also noted the majority of the first responder calls don’t appear to be for crimes but instead for medical care.

“When you have low-income people using medical services, they tend to not be mobile, they tend to not have insurance, so they tend to use emergency medical services more than a residential neighborhood,” Barlos said.

Last week, the Delfosses began loading up their stuff to move to a new two-bedroom apartment ahead of Sanchez listing the condos at the Armstrong Building.

David Elliot, a family friend, sat in the back of his pickup truck surveying his old stomping grounds. Elliot spent 16 years homeless and on drugs. He has now been sober for more than a decade. From Elliot’s perspective, things in downtown Spokane are far worse. He recalls hiding in a corner to smoke marijuana, but now people will shoot up hard drugs in the open, he said.

“Now, you can smoke death right there,” Elliot said, gesturing to a nearby doorway.

Sanchez said his push to buy the Armstrong was the drive-by shooting in front of Lucky’s Bar in 2022 that injured three people. The shooter, Johnathan Love, was sentenced to spend 17 years in prison.

Sanchez hoped by purchasing the building he could have more control to emphasize safety.

“If I’m not willing to do it young and able, then who will?” Sanchez said. “I just feel very strongly about making the positive changes that you’re able to make.

“The idea behind that is people will have a vested interest in their community,” he said. “And have that pride of ownership in their neighborhood.”

Sanchez hopes to list the condos in the next few months for an average of $150,000 with a variety of studios, one-bedrooms and two-bedrooms. The units will be sold as-is, so buyers can renovate to their liking.

While Sanchez is hopeful, he also is concerned with the vandalism and outbursts he and his staff at Mootsy’s see frequently.

“There’s a criminal element certainly all over the sidewalks,” Sanchez said. “There’s open drug use.”

During the Lilac Festival Armed Forces Torchlight Parade last month, two people went into PM Jacoy’s and got into an altercation with the owner, Eui Hwang. His son, Ryan Hwang, intervened, and his gun went off.

Charles H. Michael, 32, was grazed by a bullet, and Ashley Tsoodle was hit, according to court records. Michael had unrelated warrants out for his arrest and was arrested on suspicion of first-degree assault. The shooting remains under investigation, as does Tsoodle’s alleged involvement, said Julie Humphreys, a police spokesperson.

The Hwangs declined to speak with The Spokesman-Review about the shooting or safety on the block.

Sanchez said he has dealt with thousands of dollars’ worth of damage to Mootsy’s with little done to hold the vandals accountable. The situation is frustrating, but Sanchez said he’s still hopeful safety and people’s perceptions will get better with community action.

“Our strength here on the 400 block of West Sprague is community,” Sanchez said. “Safety is a feeling. It’s not a measurable metric. If you feel unsafe, then you’re unsafe.”