The Lives on the Bus

Can the STA redesign the Plaza in a way that makes everyone happy?

Controversy over the STA Plaza isn't new: Sift through the past two decades of newspapers and you'll find scores of complaints about the Plaza's central location, frowning about the "riff-raff" who gather there, fretting about whether Plaza sidewalk loiterers drive away customers or scare pedestrians.

"The offensive language; the blocking the sidewalks; the individuals who are inebriated, the small gangs with their face covered with the bandannas," Downtown Spokane Partnership President Mark Richard said in August. The worst offenders don't even ride the bus — they just hang out in the Plaza.

It's why DSP, Greater Spokane Inc. and Visit Spokane asked the STA Board in July to delay implementation of the $5.8 million Plaza renovations. The STA Board agreed. On Saturday, Nov. 15, a task force from the three business organizations will publish its official thoughts on the Plaza redesign, and at its Nov. 20 meeting, the STA Board will decide how to respond.

Some are worried. "There's a concern, perhaps, that STA will capitulate to whatever it is the downtown business groups will recommend to us," STA CEO E. Susan Meyer says.

It's no secret that some businesses, like River Park Square, would prefer the Plaza be relocated. It's why STA has received a flood of 300 letters, pleading with the authority: Don't move the Plaza.

After all, the Plaza has a massive impact on Spokane: STA estimates people step on or off the bus 21,000 times at the Plaza every day. And not just low-income people. "Go to the plaza at commute time," Meyer says. "You'll see lawyers and journalists and engineers, streaming off the bus."

Meyer points to a YouTube video that fast-forwards through 16 hours of Plaza sidewalk footage from a single Wednesday in late August. College students in T-shirts. Moms with strollers. Food-service employees with name tags. Riders waiting with shopping bags, children, bicycles, longboards, canes and wheelchairs.

STA leadership is clear: For at least the next decade, the Plaza is almost certain to stay put. "At this time, it's the heart of our system, and the heart of all our future planning too," STA Board chair Amber Waldref says. No one on the board is arguing otherwise, she says, and ultimately it's entirely up to the STA Board what to do about it.

At the same time, STA needs to maintain community support: To pay for a new "Central City Line" route between Browne's Addition and Spokane Community College, and a slew of other service improvements, the STA Board will consider asking voters for a tax increase next year.

Ideally, the Plaza redesign will improve things for riders and the surrounding businesses simultaneously: The first floor would be filled out with restaurants, bookstores and other retail joints. For the right business, all that Plaza foot traffic isn't a nuisance — it's a gold mine. Real-time bus tracking screens and an expanded waiting area would allow people to wait inside for their bus, keeping riders warm and the sidewalks uncrowded.

"[The business groups] like our design for the lower floor," Waldref says.

A rendering of proposed first-floor retail in the Plaza. - ALSC ARCHITECTS
ALSC Architects
A rendering of proposed first-floor retail in the Plaza.

The second floor is where it gets more complicated. Waldref says the business groups agree with STA's plan to wall off unused second-floor space, preventing loitering. Yet while some businesses urged STA to create meeting spaces on the second floor — and STA added it to their design — lately other businesses have objected.

"We thought it would be useful for the neighbors and the public," Waldref says. "But if now the business owners say somehow that competes with other meeting spaces, we're happy to listen to that."

Much of the discussion between the business groups, however, has taken place in private, without the input of STA or its board. Until each of the three groups votes to approve their final conclusions, they won't talk about their impressions. "We will refrain from commenting until we can deliver the findings to the STA Board," says Richard.

Of course, no matter what changes, some Plaza patrons will still be a nuisance to businesses. Some will still loiter. But Meyer points out that people loiter in parks too. They loiter at the library. To restrict public spaces, she says, would change who we are.

"As a community, we need to make a decision about what kind of place we want to be," Meyer says. "I think we want to be a place where everybody can enjoy the community and what it has to offer." ♦