On this side of the Cascades, we don’t often hear much about transit in Spokane. That’s a shame, because Spokane is not just Washington’s second most populous city — and perhaps Washington’s most beautiful city — but it’s a place built around transit, whose center has survived the ravages of mid-century suburban flight, urban renewal and freeway building to become the slowly-regrowing urban center of the Inland Northwest. Its downtown is sprinkled with stunning railroad-era architecture (some of which would turn heads in San Francisco), its street grid is mostly complete, and the city and its suburbs are served by Washington’s most efficient transit agency, the Spokane Transit Authority.
Unfortunately, much of the transit news from Spokane has been bad, lately. One of the STA’s signature accomplishments is an attractive, modern bus station and customer service center in the heart of downtown, known locally as the Plaza. Photos of the Plaza are shown around the world by Jarrett Walker as an example of the kind of civilized, humane waiting-place that transit customers should expect, and which can be built even by not-lavishly-funded agencies. Such facilities are especially important to small-city transit agencies like STA, where there is no rapid transit system around which to organize the rest of the transit network, nor enough money to run a full grid of frequent routes out to the limits of the service area, and thus many customers need to make connections through a single central hub.
Recently, a handful of well-connected downtown Spokane property owners have tried to force STA to move this flagship facility out of the downtown core. The events involved in the lead-up to this are a little complicated: there’s a recently-reactivated plan to refurbish the plaza, the removal (and then replacement) of a smoking area for plaza patrons, and a sudden flare up of concerns about crime, vagrancy and indigence in the retail core. The opposition’s stated reasons will be depressingly familiar to anyone who’s been involved in any major expansion of transit out to suburban areas: Putatively, transit facilities are full of ne’er-do-wells and criminals, loitering around waiting to rob or beg someone of their money, and the solution is to make these people disappear by making the facility disappear — and besides, all those buses are empty anyway. Of course, none of these things are actually true.
More after the jump.
What really ails Spokane’s retail plutocrats is not the people of the Plaza, but their own ignorance: First, of the geometry of transit, and why transit hubs, to be most effective, must be located in walkable activity centers, like the heart of downtown; second, of the difference (seemingly inapparent to many who view the outside world exclusively through a car window) between someone who is loitering to cause trouble, versus a frazzled minimum-wage shift worker, waiting a few minutes between buses on their ride home (or to their second job); and third, of the basic fact that downtown isn’t a mall and that not everyone you will encounter on the sidewalk is someone from your social strata, and some of the people you encounter will be saying or doing things you’d prefer they didn’t. People who want an aseptic shopping experience are already at the expensive out-of-town mall: The urbanity and shared space of downtown is its primary asset.
The people trying to banish transit from downtown do have one big thing going for them, however (and here the story becomes distinctly small-town). The chief opponents of the Plaza, the Cowles family, owns the local newspaper, the Spokesman-Review. On Sunday, the SR ran an article which began as follows:
Signs point to dim future for STA Plaza
Spokane’s business community likely will succeed in pushing the region’s central bus plaza out of downtown, a former transit board chairman predicts.
“We were doing everything we could to appease the concerns about ‘problem behavior’ … and it was never enough,” said Spokane Valley City Councilman Chuck Hafner, who serves on the Spokane Transit Authority’s board of directors and chaired the panel in 2013. “This issue has been discussed for years and I finally had to tell the board that appeasement isn’t going to work because the downtown interests don’t want us there.”
Skimming that headline and first paragraph, you might think it was curtains for the Plaza, but if you actually read the text of the article, no facts are presented that would lead an independent observer to think such a thing. In fact, Hafner directly rebutted that characterization in an article published yesterday by the Inlander:
That flew in the face of what Hafner, former chair of the Spokane Transit board of directors, and other board members have been saying for years. Reached by phone today, Hafner directly contradicts the Spokesman’s characterization of his views.
“To me, the STA Plaza has a future downtown,” Hafner says. He says he can’t understand why the Spokesman headline called the future of the Plaza “dim.”
And in an subsequent email from STA Board Chair Amber Waldref, published in the same Inlander article:
“I woke up on Sunday morning to a Spokesman Review headline that I believe inaccurately represented the views of this Board and the direction we have been taking in working with stakeholders regarding the STA Plaza. I hope the other Board members feel, like I did, that the headline was not reflective of the information shared to the reporter.”
Several things seem to be going on here. First, a few powerful downtown business owners are trying to sideline transit riders, on the basis of ignorance and lazy stereotyping. That’s unfortunate, but in a political and media environment where people are free to speak their minds, and a basic deference exists to the rules of intelligent debate, those things can be countered with facts. But, second, one of principals in this debate happens to be a local family whom few locals can afford to offend, which in turn prevents many from speaking their minds. Third, and most perniciously, it seems that the owners of the SR may be using the news-gathering side of its operations to falsely shape public opinion, by creating a “fact” in the minds of casual readers that the expulsion of the Plaza is a done deal.
It’s my hope, of course, that STA’s board keeps the Plaza right where it is, and moves directly ahead with renovating the Plaza, to make it an even more inviting and successful place. STA has done great work restructuring their system and consolidating stops in response to the Great Recession, and I want to see the agency and the city — and yes, even the properties owned by the Cowles family — thrive together. It’s not an accident that Nordstrom’s flagship store in Seattle is built on top of Westlake Station, probably the busiest bus and light rail hub in the city, with direct access into the store for transit riders. Someday, I hope that Spokane’s retailers and hoteliers will realize what Seattle’s have realized — that transit, like downtown, is good for people, and good for business.