Is the smoking ban at the Downtown Transit Center a public health measure or an effort to get the riffraff out?
Starting Wednesday, the entire City Hall block, including the Downtown Transit Center, will go smoke-free, along with
all city-owned bus shelters and covered bike racks in Corvallis.
Violators risk fines ranging from $50 to as much as $500 for a third offense in a 12-month span.
It’s the latest salvo in a long-running local campaign to ban smoking in public places.
But is it really about protecting public health, or is it an attempt to force homeless people, street kids and other social outcasts to move out of a downtown gathering spot?
Both factors may be in play.
The smoking ban proposal was brought to a City Council subcomittee by the Public Works Department in response to complaints from transit riders and business owners about people smoking at bus shelters and bike racks.
But Human Services Committee discussion on the issue also included concerns about rowdy behavior at the transit center, which has become something of a hangout since the city bus service went fareless in early 2011.
Citizen testimony at the committee’s May 21 meeting referred to an “intimidating” atmosphere at the Transit Center created by people loitering at the bus mall and smoking, spitting, littering and creating a disturbance.
Police and city officials say those problems are real — but they also deny the smoking ban is part of any sort of crackdown aimed at a particular population.
The Downtown Transit Center opened in 2002 on the south side of Monroe Avenue between Southwest Fifth and Sixth streets. The rest of the block is occupied by City Hall, a small city office building and a parking lot.
It’s the hub of the Corvallis Transit System, served by all city bus routes, with a half-dozen shelters and additional open-air benches for waiting riders. There are also secure bike lockers for cyclists.
In many ways it’s an ideal location. It’s on the edge of the downtown business district, close to government offices, right across the street from Central Park and kitty-corner from the library.
It’s also within a block of a homeless drop-in center and soup kitchen, the local parole and probation office, the county jail, a drug and alcohol rehab center, a youth shelter, and a halfway house for convicts recently released from prison.
All those benches make the Transit Center a handy place to sit and pass the time, even if you’re not waiting for a bus — and that sets the stage for a culture clash.
Action and reaction
That clash is apparent to the Corvallis Police Department, which has seen a sharp rise in calls for service in the vicinity. From the first of the year to mid-April, police fielded 240 reports of criminal behavior downtown, nearly half involving Central Park or the Transit Center.
“Those are places we continue to get complaints about,” said Capt. Dave Henslee, a department spokesman.
The calls ranged from littering to assault. Six fights were reported, along with seven cases of vandalism, 17 drug or alcohol violations, 25 thefts, 32 instances of trespassing, 45 disturbances and a host of miscellaneous breaches of the peace.
In an effort to curb the complaints, police drew up a document known as a tactical action plan, a blueprint for focusing enforcement efforts on a specific problem or in a particular area. It’s a tool the department uses about a dozen times a year.
Dubbed TAP 9, the plan called for heightened police presence and enforcement efforts in Central Park, the transit center and downtown from April 22 to May 22.
It included increased vehicle and bicycle patrols by uniformed officers as well as foot patrols by plainclothes detectives from the Street Crimes Unit. While officers were encouraged to use discretion in issuing citations, they were also directed to strictly enforce all laws when dealing with known repeat offenders.
During TAP 9’s 30-day run, officers documented 61 patrols resulting in a dozen citations: four for smoking in the park, four for open containers, two for marijuana possession, one for minor in possession of tobacco and one for littering.
There were also two arrests, one for marijuana possession and one on an outstanding drug warrant.
“This effort isn’t something new — we’ve had some targeted enforcement efforts in Central Park before,” Henslee said.
“We’re there because there’s a problem in a geographical area, and when there’s a problem it makes sense for law enforcement to be in that geographical area.”
Some of the people who hang out at the transit center feel like the target is on their back.
Doyle Franklin, who lives in an apartment complex designed to get chronically homeless people off the street, spends a lot of time at the bus mall. Known around town as “Pops,” he sits and smokes on the benches, plays dice with friends and offers advice to the young people who gravitate to the area.
He got a $50 ticket in April for tossing a cigarette butt on the ground at the Transit Center, which has no ashtrays.
“They talk about targeting, they got a target on me,” Franklin griped.
Justin Tipsword was cited for littering last month while he was hanging out with friends in Central Park. He claims he didn’t do anything wrong.
“I guess (the officer) figured the social class we were in, he would write a ticket because he figured we were doing something,” he said.
“On sunny days the cops will roll through three or four times through Central Park, just trying to catch somebody doing something.”
Both see the targeted enforcement efforts, as well as the Transit Center smoking ban, as part of a larger push to drive teens and homeless people out of the area.
But Henslee, the police captain, insists his department is not playing favorites.
“Who somebody is is absolutely irrelevant — the behavior of people is what we target,” he said.
“We get complaints from people who say, ‘I’m tired of the homeless.’ We don’t respond to that,” Henslee added.
“We spend a lot of time educating people about the fact that it’s not a crime to be homeless.”
Skip Hamilton, who owns a print shop across the street from the Transit Center, said he’s watched problems mushrooming at the location since the city bus system went fareless.
Cigarette butts and food wrappers litter the ground, he complains, and it’s not unusual to have to step around puddles of vomit. Cursing and yelling are common occurrences, sometimes erupting into physical altercations.
“I see conduct I think is reprehensible on a routine basis,” he said.
“The foul language that comes out of there ... we’ve seen several instances when there have been fights.”
That kind of behavior, Hamilton said, has created an atmosphere that many people, especially families with young children, find intimidating.
“Because we have a fareless bus system ... it’s given mobility to people who want to hang out over there,” he said. “Now they’ve sort of taken ownership of that area.”
Many of the people who are part of that group smoke, Hamilton said, and he thinks the smoking ban could force them to find a new place to hang out.
He doesn’t really care where that is.
“That’s their problem,” he said, “not mine.”
But that makes no sense to Renee Maughan, who comes to the bus mall to meet her friends.
“I don’t see the problem of why people can’t smoke here. It’s the most open place — it’s better than the park,” she said.
“They’ve already banned it everywhere else. There’s really no place else to go.”
Smoking bans are nothing new in Corvallis, which made it illegal inside any building open to the public — including bars and restaurants — in 1998. That was four years before the Legislature passed a similar ban statewide, and bars remained exempt from that measure until 2009.
Next came outdoor smoking bans. Corvallis outlawed smoking in all city parks in 2006, Samaritan Health Services and The Corvallis Clinic nixed the habit on their grounds in 2009, and Oregon State University made its campus smoke-free in 2012.
Benton County went them all one better at the beginning of this year when it forbade the use of any tobacco product in county parks, natural areas, boat ramps or parking lots.
All of those prohibitions are fairly broad. But the Corvallis City Council ventured into a much more targeted realm in 2011, when it passed an ordinance making it illegal to smoke anywhere on the block occupied by the main library.
That ban followed a spate of complaints about disruptive behavior by teenagers hanging out on the building’s front steps, smoking, cursing and generally making library patrons nervous.
City officials acknowledge fielding complaints about the undesirable element hanging out at the bus mall and admit that the smoking ban could have the effect of pushing some of those people out of the area.
But they deny that the ban intentionally targets the homeless, street kids or any other specific population.
“I think the larger issue the (City) Council was discussing in considering this ordinance is helping to ensure that people — all people — feel safe and comfortable in using city transit services,” Mayor Julie Manning said.
But Manning — who works for Samaritan Health Services — also said that concerns about inhaling secondhand smoke in open-air environments are becoming more prevalent.
She noted that Corvallis is far from the only city where outdoor smoking bans have gone into effect.
“It seems to be a larger trend in that regard,” she said.
Tim Bates, the coordinator of the Corvallis Transit System, said his agency has seen a spike in complaints about “undesirables” since it became free to ride the city bus.
“We knew this was a possibility if we went fareless,” he said. “It’s a problem we deal with.”
But complaints about secondhand smoke also are on the rise, he said. Nonsmokers exposed to tobacco fumes while sitting in a bus shelter or retrieving their bike from one of the city’s covered racks feel that their rights are being violated.
It’s possible that the new smoking ban will have at least some impact on both problems, Bates said. But the bus system already has a code of conduct in place, and that’s the proper tool to use if people are behaving badly.
“I guess we’ll see once the smoking ban takes effect if that’s enough to drive people elsewhere,” he said.
“But if you’re at the Transit Center and you’re not smoking and you’re not violating the code of conduct, you have every right to be there — it’s a public place.”
Contact reporter Bennett Hall at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 541-758-9529.