It’s been over week since the STA board, under a request from the Downtown Spokane Partnership and Greater Spokane Inc., voted to temporarily halt the progress of their $5.8-million STA Plaza improvements while they discussed the plans with the downtown business community. It's a delay that STA director of planning Karl Otterstrom estimates could cost up to $200,000, even without changes to the design.
Since then, there's been plenty of speculation over why these business groups requested the project be delayed.
So on Thursday, I asked DSP president Mark Richard to go a little deeper into the details. The groups have shared plenty of complaints about the Plaza’s location and clientele, but the Plaza renovations were intended to specifically address those problems. In fact, many of the biggest critics of the Plaza had expressed optimism over the rehab’s impact, though said they still would prefer the Plaza be relocated.
In fact, Richard himself actually voted, way back in 2008, to renovate the Plaza. But during the recession, the renovation plans were put on hold. Since then, the proposed renovations have become more expensive and the Plaza has become even more of a lightning rod for business complaints.
Richard confirmed what we reported back in June: The stabbing in the Plaza, despite being a premeditated act apparently unconnected with bus ridership or Plaza loitering, had ignited a firestorm from powerful downtown business owners.
Since then, he says, while there’s plenty of praise for STA’s hard work, there’s also been frustration over the degree to which downtown business groups have been involved in the planning process. Despite numerous individual meetings between the groups and STA representatives, Richard says the groups wanted to be involved far earlier in the Plaza's rehab's design. He raises questions over whether there has been enough study over whether retail in the Plaza will be successful – though the STA has already finished a market research study on exactly that question in September.
"Part of the concern is the STA board changing their strategy — not to be disrespectful — midstream," Richard says. In May, the board only approved the first level of the Plaza renovations.
STA Board chair Amber Waldref says the second floor plans were still in flux: The MAC, Mobius and the Spokane Tribe had all been floated as possibilities to host exhibit space on the second floor, but specific details hadn’t been worked out yet.
"They didn’t have a timeline for upstairs,” Richard says. “No conference rooms, no programming, lots of places to hang and loiter."
But Waldref says the conference rooms were still in the plans. In fact, last week’s vote initially was intended to be about approving the second phase of the construction for the Plaza.
Having the right changes to the second floor, Richard says, are crucial to combat loitering. Beyond procedural issues, this is the crux of the complaints: It’s not about the type of people who sometimes frequent the Plaza, Richard says, it’s their behavior. And the biggest problem isn't bus riders.
"They’re large congregations,” Richard says. “The offensive language; the blocking the sidewalks; the individuals who are inebriated, the small gangs with their face covered with the bandannas; seemingly attempting to intimidate by covering everything but their eyeballs, are having an impact on the economy in the region."
It’s an interesting contrast from Richard’s statements to Inlander reporter Lisa Waananen in August of last year:
"The Plaza is, again, just a vehicle by which these people are getting to and from. It isn't a cause of their behavior,” he said then. “I think personally, and I think the majority of the board feels, is that the transit authority Plaza is really just a convener of people. It doesn't create negative behavior necessarily, it just convenes people, some of which maybe don't look like you and I.”
“We can either kick ‘em from corner to the other by hiring a bunch of security and thinking they’ll go away, or we can begin to connect these dots to driving money to solve these problems,” he added.
Many people in the Plaza these days say they don’t have many other places to go. When I interviewed some of the homeless men and women at the Plaza back in June, they said that the city’s ordinance that barred sitting or lying on the sidewalk from 6 am to midnight was one reason they spent time at the Plaza.
Don Perrewe, a homeless man with a bristly mustache, called the Plaza a “place to sit down... just a place to wait until City Gate opens up to eat dinner.” He blames his recent heart attack on the sit-and-lie ordinance forcing him to spend the entire day walking around downtown without a place to sit.
But Richard doesn’t buy the idea that the sit-and-lie ordinance has increased problems at the Plaza.
“I would say this issue has been in existence since the Plaza was built, long before the sit-and-lie ordinance," Richard says.
Yes, he says, ensuring there’s enough shelter for the homeless is important.
"We as a community need to have that conversation and talk about whether there are adequate facilities, and if not, we need to invest in them,” Richard says. “Is there a shortage of daytime shelter for the homeless and those in need? If so, we need to talk about it. To have it in the heart of your financial center, a block away from your largest retail hub is not a good strategy.”
But he says that’s a separate conversation from the Plaza renovations.
"We’ve got to be thinking about providing additional housing and resources, rather than providing them a four-seasons indoor climate-controlled [place to hang out],” he says. “The Spokane transit facility is not a housing agency or a shelter.”
On the STA board, however, there remained bipartisan concerns that the request for more time could turn into yet another attempt to move the Plaza entirely. Several members worried that the delay could turn less into a design discussion, and more into targeting a certain class of citizen.
“We’ve got to be careful this doesn’t turn into restricting civil rights,” says the very conservative Spokane Valley Council Member Ed Pace. “Let’s face it, I’ve been in a lot of downtowns in my life: New York City, Chicago, Munich, Frankfurt, Saigon, all over. Downtowns are downtowns – they’re scummy, face it. We have to be careful we don’t try to get too prissy.”