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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bye-bye, benches: City of Spokane blocks off seating on Monroe Street bridge as part of safety improvement project

The city of Spokane is working on constructing additions to the benches inside the alcoves of the Monroe Street Bridge so that people will no longer be able to sit on them.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The city of Spokane has all but done away with the benches on the Monroe Street bridge.

Large steel plates have been welded over the concrete benches in the pedestrian alcoves on the west side of the bridge, and the city is in the middle of giving the same treatment to the rest areas on the east side.

The plates are roughly 2 feet tall by 4 feet wide and have been placed on a slant to completely cover the benches.

Councilman Michael Cathcart said the panels are part of a larger effort to improve safety in the area. The alcoves were minimally lit at night and were prime locations for drug use, graffiti and other unsavory activities during all hours of the day. Homeless people would often use the benches to rest.

Cathcart said he and his family had a negative experience crossing through one of the alcoves last summer that led him to call for a study into what physical changes could be made to deter some of those illegal activities. An individual who appeared to be smoking fentanyl in one of the alcoves exhaled that smoke onto Cathcart, his wife and their son as they passed by.

“This incident occurred, and I was so angry and so frustrated over it,” Cathcart said, noting that more violent crimes have also taken place there, like a stabbing that occurred last April. Three minors were arrested after they stabbed and robbed two people on the bridge.

The Spokane Police Department received 218 calls for service along the bridge, in Huntington Park and the adjacent first block of Spokane Falls Boulevard during a roughly one-year span, the department told the council in February during a presentation on the study’s findings.

Of those 218 calls, 38 resulted in reports and 17 resulted in an arrest or tickets issued. More than a dozen of the calls were drug-related, ten involved an assault, fight or robbery, and there were two calls related to a shooting and the aforementioned stabbing.

Almost half of the calls were related to a wellness check, suicide prevention or a medical checkup, according to the presentation.

“It’s just become a place for nuisance activity, drug use and just other nefarious things that just makes the public unsafe,” Cathcart said.

Mayor Lisa Brown said she was aware of some aspects of the project, like the additional lighting features being installed in the alcoves, but only learned about the steel panels going up after she came across them on her walk to work Wednesday.

“I was not fully briefed on the details of it,” Brown said.

Brown said her office is working to better understand how the project worked its way through City Hall and reviewing how beneficial some aspects of the changes will be.

She said she still has a lot to learn about “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design,” an approach that uses urban and architectural design as a tool to deter illegal activity.

In recent years, that approach has been referred to by some as “hostile architecture,” as many of the urban design features in that category are aimed at deterring homeless people, like the panels placed over the benches.

Brown says she understands environmental design can be a helpful approach to ensure public spaces are safe and welcoming to all, but is actively working to better understand the intricacies of the affects of some of the design choices .

“I am supportive of the lighting, but I would not have chosen the panels,” Brown said.

In addition to improved lighting and blocking off the benches, the city intends to add security cameras to the alcoves and under the bridge, Cathcart said. Crews have already begun to apply an anti-graffiti coating to the bridge to make graffiti removal easier, although similar efforts at other popular spots for graffiti have not been successful.

The city opted to fence off the Stepwell art piece in Riverfront Park months after it opened last year due to rampant vandalization, even though the roughly half-million-dollar structure was treated with an anti-graffiti coating before its April 2023 opening.

Brown added that the city is working to have Spokane Parks and Recreation rangers add the bridge to their regular patrol, since it is a main thoroughfare for park visitors looking to get from one side to the other.

Kendall Yards resident Jeff Walls walks the bridge pretty frequently to access downtown. He said he first noticed the panels a few days ago and has mixed feelings about their installation.

Walls said he would often come across people resting in the alcoves, and it wasn’t always pleasant to walk by them as they slept.

“On the other hand, it seems to be a pattern for the city to be like, ‘OK, we’re going to make it hard for unhoused people to be here,’ ” Walls said. “It just keeps moving the carpet; it’s not doing anything about the fact that there’s a group of people that have nowhere to go and don’t have enough services.”

Downtown resident Sean Behary crosses the bridge a couple times a week to grab groceries or run errands on the north side of the river. On those walks, he said he’s seen more senior citizens using the benches than homeless people.

“It’s just a shame,” Behary said.

Behary does not expect the measures to have significant impacts on deterring crime or camping, and said he’d like to see the resources put into the project go towards social support efforts that may affect more positive change.

“I think that you can criminalize homelessness all you want, but it’s not going to have any benefits to the city,” Behary said.

Cathcart said more changes may be in store for the bridge, more directly aimed at suicide prevention. The measures in place now are a more cost-effective way to address crime while the city doesn’t have the resources to hire more officers, he said.

“There are areas where we can make places safer just by virtue of doing some of these lower-intensity or modestly priced improvements,” Cathcart said.