Elayna Burrows-Gust was 5 when she tried to cross North Monroe Street with her mom and her 7-year-old brother.
There are five lanes on the mile-long stretch of North Monroe between the crest of the hill at Kiernan and Indiana avenues, a 30-mile-an-hour-zone that drivers sometimes treat like a 40. There's only one stoplight, and only one crosswalk is clearly marked.
It was dark that night in October three years ago. And Elayna and her family weren't crossing at a crosswalk.
A car hit all three of them. Her brother and her mother survived. Elayna didn't.
"The girl was 5 years old, and she went to kindergarten at my daughter's school," former City Councilman Jon Snyder says. He says he talked with her dad after it happened. "Just the saddest, saddest, saddest thing. What really made me upset, there was all this focus on whether the mother was doing drugs or not and where they crossed, and what time of day it was."
Five times in the span of five years, pedestrians were struck crossing this section of Monroe, each time resulting in injuries or death. In that same five-year period on the same 1.12-mile stretch, there have been 23 angled collisions, three sideswipes and four collisions with stationary objects.
Snyder, a champion of the Complete Streets initiative, fought for funding for the entire stretch of the North Monroe Street Corridor. The city got it — two state grants totaling $4.1 million to improve the corridor. The plan, which aims to not only make this stretch of Monroe safer, but more economically vibrant, hinges on stripping out two of the street's five lanes. In a city like Spokane, altering such a major arterial is bound to cause controversy.
Megan Kennedy, a Monroe Street business owner, was vice-chair of the Emerson-Garfield Neighborhood Council when it drew up its neighborhood plan. She knows well how the five lanes of traffic impact local businesses.
"Make sure you park on our side of the street and don't try to cross," Kennedy tells customers planning to visit. "It feels like you're taking your life in your hands."
"The sidewalks in many places are exceptionally thin, where you feel the breeze of the car brushing beside you as you're walking by the business's wall," Kennedy says. "Even parking on the street, there's just not enough room. We have stories from other businesses whose customers have had mirrors ripped off from passing traffic."
The plan the Emerson-Garfield Neighborhood Council approved in 2014 proposed reducing the five lanes to three. The state-grant-funded project makes that proposal official. Last month, Kennedy was appointed to a city committee of neighborhood residents and business owners tasked with working out the details.
Yes, a big part of the project would be to reduce the street to one lane in each direction, with a center-turn lane between them. (The only exception would be the northbound route uphill, which would have two lanes.)
That would buy Monroe Street a whole lot of breathing room. It would mean wider sidewalks and wider street parking. It would also mean more street parking — 25 percent more. The project would add decorative street lighting, new transit shelters and trees along the now-barren sidewalk. The intersections would get sidewalk bump-outs to reduce crossing distance. The street wouldn't just get painted crosswalks; three to four "pedestrian islands" would be added to the middle to make crossing safer.
Construction is scheduled to begin in 2018, but Kennedy says there's already a sense of momentum building in the corridor.
In the past year, hip businesses like Bellwether Brewing, Prohibition Gastropub, and Vessel Coffee Roasters have all opened on Monroe.
"It feels like a lot of the stars are aligning," Kennedy says. "We're waiting for a resurgence."
On a Friday around noon, the crowd of middle-age drinkers at Moezy Inn Tavern erupts in a chorus of jeers and chuckles when the proposal to reduce Monroe's lanes is mentioned.
"I think it's stupid. To 'beautify the street' apparently. Stupid shit," says Ron LeBlanc, a bar patron with a white mustache. "It's going to raise havoc. It'll really tick people off."
This place, too, is a Monroe Street institution. It's been open in the same spot, with the same name, since the end of World War II. Co-owner Jason Huston has been leading local skepticism in response to the proposal.
"We're not Perry," Huston says, referencing the east side neighborhood's transformation into a thriving, pedestrian-friendly center. "Perry District isn't a major corridor."
He raises the prospect of being stuck behind buses, or a car trying to park, during rush hour. He's concerned about the impact of construction on area businesses. He says he's in favor of improving pedestrian safety, but wants it to be done in ways that avoid eliminating lanes, like adding flashing crosswalks. Last year, he went down the street gathering signatures from businesses for a petition opposed to the lane change. He says that most were opposed to it.
Snyder says the skeptics are flat-out wrong.
"Those people have this weird idea that if you get more traffic moving faster past your business, it somehow increases your amount of business," he says. "I can't find any proof, anecdotally or statistically, of what they think it's true."
In fact, Snyder says, research suggests the opposite.
"Traffic studies have consistently shown that road diets will not worsen congestion under the appropriate conditions," a paper out of Los Angeles County concluded about lane reductions on roads with the same traffic volumes as Monroe.
Over the past few decades, the goals of city planners nationwide have shifted away from simply trying to get drivers from point to point in the fastest time, focusing more on how roads affect the communities around them.
Nevertheless, last year the news of the proposed "road diet" proposal sparked a flurry of angry letters to the editor. They called the project "ludicrous," naively "utopian" and "one of the dumbest ideas to come out of City Hall." They warned of the "demise of North Monroe," "repeat unnecessary idling and backups," and that "Spokane would become like Portland."
The city says that slowing traffic is part of the point. Fast and furious drivers can't weave in and out of lanes if there's only one lane. It also estimates that the amount of traffic would actually fall by about 15 percent during rush hour as drivers seek faster routes.
Traffic on the North Monroe Corridor has actually declined during the past two years, according to city counts. And plenty of three-lane arterials do just fine. Country Homes Boulevard, for example, already carries more traffic than Monroe.
"Look at Sprague," Snyder says, referencing a similar lane reduction on East Sprague Avenue a few years ago. "Did we all of a sudden see terrible traffic and things back up? No. We actually saw some new investments."
At this point, it may be too late for the critics of the plan to stop it. While nothing is truly set in stone until the concrete starts pouring, the plan is already solid.
"We've accepted the grant dollars," city spokeswoman Marlene Feist says. " It's a project that's moving forward."
For now, the five lanes of traffic flow as fast and treacherous as ever. A single, small, pink-and-blue sneaker lays tossed just off the curb near the intersection of Monroe and Chelan Avenue. Cars, trucks and minivans zoom by, some coming within inches of crushing it. ♦