An obsession with parking is destroying downtown Spokane

The Parkade was the original downtown parking garage. Built to help drive redevelopment during and after Expo 74, the Parkade features a bizarre architectural style and garish, unsightly skywalks, but mercifully, a much better pedestrian environment than the skywalks of today. (And even at the Parkade, it’s not great!) In order for Spokane to succeed, this needs to change. Fast. (PHOTO: roadarch.com)

(Because I know this is going to be a controversial post, let’s just get this out of the way. No, I am not anti-parking. I am, however, opposed to parking which takes no account of the real or perceived impacts of its existence. Parking which holds no regard for public space deserves to be ridiculed.)

Built in 1967 for $3.5 million ($25 million in 2015 dollars), the Parkade was a transformational building for Spokane. With space for nearly 4,000 vehicles, it met the needs of the city during Expo 74, and continued to drive development in the downtown core well into the 1980s. It even included many at-that-time “modern” features, like the skywalks, the entrances, and the sloping floors which have become commonplace in modern parking design. While changes in American automobile buying habits and modifications to the interior of the structure mean that it can now play host to “only” 1,000 cars, the Parkade remains an important anchor to the downtown community.

Importantly, however, the Parkade includes certain features which recently-built parking structures in Spokane conspicuously lack. Amenities like street-front retail (including downtown’s most important retail store, Rite-Aid). A unique (albeit polarizing) architectural style. Wide sidewalks, which in this case are covered, due to the unfortunate skywalk system. There’s even a public plaza on the south side of the structure (which has admittedly seen better days and could use some activation). To be sure, the Parkade is perhaps Spokane’s best-designed parking garage. (That isn’t to say it couldn’t use some investment, but it’s still holding up quite well for a fifty-year-old structure.)

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the parking garages and surface parking lots which have been constructed or proposed since the Parkade’s heyday. Instead, we have been given a patchwork of uninviting, drab, and utilitarian pedestrian environments which do nothing to activate public space and sidewalks. In some areas, such as the area near the railroad viaduct, this has resulted in crime and vandalism. In other areas, such as two parcels on the south side of Spokane Falls Boulevard across from Riverfront Park, surface parking has been allowed to fester where catalytic development would otherwise be possible and incredibly impactful. In still other areas, such as West Main at the Davenport Grand, parking garages have paid no attention to the impact that they have on the pedestrian and even the vehicular environment. The following is a list of sites which have seen (or in one particularly distressing case, will see) decreased potential for urban activation and excitement and a depressing pedestrian environment due to improper parking design. And then we’ll look at a solution.

THE SEVEN MOST EGREGIOUS PARKING DESIGN FLAWS

(PHOTO: Oldcastle Precast)

7. Wells Fargo Financial Center. Sure, there are street trees. And maybe a wider-than-normal sidewalk. But this site now has a drab, utilitarian pedestrian environment, and will for many years unless retail fills in the first floor. There’s literally no reason for a pedestrian to be in the area, other than to get to somewhere else. That’s simply unacceptable for our public right-of-way.

(PHOTO: Oldcastle Precast)

6. Davenport Hotel. The fact that Walt Worthy would choose to so disastrously waste his square footage is beyond me. But he did. The self-parking garage for the Davenport Hotel and Tower illustrates a fundamental disconnect: the first floor of a downtown environment should always feature something interesting for pedestrians. It could be as simple as an art installation, but ideally it should be retail. In this case, Worthy abdicates his responsibility with use of public sidewalks.

(PHOTO: Jesse Tinsley of The Spokesman-Review)

5. Bank of America Financial Center. The Bank of America Financial Center has, at the very least, some windows on the first floor of its large parking garage in downtown Spokane But there’s still not that much pedestrian activation, and there isn’t much in the way of retail. One side of the structure is more open than the other, despite the fact that only the entrance and exit need be open. And the architectural styling adds no interest to the downtown environment.

(PHOTO: Jesse Tinsley of The Spokesman-Review)

4. Rookery Block. When the parking lot is still referenced using the name of the building which preceded it, you know that its destruction was a mistake. There’s some pedestrian interest here that isn’t typically seen on surface parking lots, but at the end of the day, simply recall what the lot replaced. It shouldn’t be possible to tear down a building to build surface parking. But in Spokane, it is. You should know better, folks.

(PHOTO: redbuilt.com)

3. Davenport Grand. Can we just admit that it was a mistake to allow Walt Worthy to construct a parking garage without any retail on Main Avenue? Yes, there are windows. And there are meeting rooms on the interior. But you can’t even enter the building from the Main Avenue side. There are doors, but they’re mostly for show, since only employees have access. It’s such a gross oversight that the City of Spokane should be ashamed. Sidewalks are a benefit to projects! Where developers don’t acknowledge that, it is the job of the City to enforce rules and regulations regarding retail. There should be retail along Main. Period.

Here's a view of the proposed

Here’s a view of the proposed “Falls Tower” as it would look from Spokane Falls Boulevard. Note the large parking garage and comparatively narrow building. (PHOTO: Spokane Permits)

2. Falls Tower. This is only a proposal right now, and it hasn’t even been submitted for plan review. But it’s worth noting regardless that just about the entirety of this building’s Spokane Falls Boulevard frontage would be comprised of an empty concrete wall. That’s simply unacceptable. Moreover, what’s the point of having the added height on this building in the tower when the parking garage hollows out the urban environment, especially in a growing biomedical campus like WSU Spokane? Just build a mid-rise building that includes frontage on both Division and Spokane Falls, and tuck the parking garage in the hidden southeast corner of the lot.

(PHOTO: kendallyards.com)

1. Kendall Yards. Yes. This is the new site plan. Yes. They are seriously proposing a sea of surface parking with islands of office buildings inside it. Obviously, compared to Marshall Chesrown’s original plan for the site, this is a ridiculous step backward. But even compared to Greenstone’s original plans, it’s an step back. This is one situation in which a parking garage (preferably underground) would be preferable. Originally, Greenstone spoke of co-constructing a parking garage with Spokane County, which operates a campus nearby. But clearly that plan’s been tossed in favor of making pedestrians walk through a massive parking lot to access office buildings. I thought that Kendall Yards was supposed to be the ultimate pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, Greenstone? Seriously, just bite the bullet and build a parking garage. Your residents and the Spokane community will thank you later.

TWO POSSIBLE ALTERNATIVES

(PHOTO: OAC)

1. City of Billings, MT Empire Parking Garage. This is how you construct a parking garage. Streetfront retail, significant architectural interest, lots of glass, and two-toned concrete. There’s even a plant growing up the side of the building at the lower right. The cost might be incrementally more in the beginning, but the long-term pay off is immense in terms of the public benefit. The sidewalk remains a place for people, rather than a place for walking to the next place. And this type of parking garage typically lasts longer as well. Consider that a parking garage with no ancillary amenities becomes dated quite quickly. But one with streetfront retail not only generates greater revenue. It also enables a longer lifespan for the building.

(PHOTO: San Pedro Squared, San Jose Downtown Association)

2. San Pedro Squared. In San Jose, there’s this super ugly parking garage on the same block as one of the downtown area’s hotspots: San Pedro Square. It really destroys the vitality of one side of the street. So the San Jose Downtown Association and other groups put together a grant proposal and sent it to the Knight Foundation. The project, San Pedro Squared, will create pop-up retail spots on the ground floor of this particularly large parking garage. The slots will rotate every six months or so, but the energy won’t. In Spokane, this could work in certain areas where parking garages create issues in the pedestrian environment. Because unfortunately, the parking garages, which have already sapped our sidewalks of so much life, will not be going away anytime soon.

CONCLUSION

Of course, those are only two options which could move us beyond our obsession with parking. Or at least make our obsession with parking more bearable in terms of creating spaces which are human-scaled, vibrant, and exciting. But while adapting to our environment would certainly be one path forward, the more exciting possibility is reducing our need for parking in the first place.

While many locals scoff at the idea of constructing a residential building without any associated parking, the reality is that in most cities, this forms the basis of a downtown urban environment. It’s a direction in which we must move if we want to stay competitive with the other great urban areas of North America. It’s time to move past cars and toward public transit, walking, bicycling, vanpooling, and ridesharing using services like Lyft and Uber. Spokane should be at the forefront of that revolution, not the chronic laggard that it so often becomes.

The City Council, for example, should look at reducing parking requirements downtown. They should ensure that new developments comply with the guidelines and standards for the downtown core zoning area. Local leaders should also look into purchasing lots which have been stagnant as surface parking lots for many years, in effort to entice developers. If parcels cannot be purchased, then a list of property owners should be compiled in order to allow clarity for potential developers. Even mid-rise buildings would be an improvement at this point. Specific sites, such as those across the street from Riverfront Park near Auntie’s and the Bennett Block, should receive incentives for investment and development, especially as the Riverfront Park revitalization kicks into high gear. But perhaps most importantly, they should enforce a moratorium on new parking. We’ve talked about this issue many times before. We have a huge surplus already. We don’t need more, but less.

It’s up to our leaders to ensure that we don’t overdevelop our parking supply, but they’re currently failing miserably. It’s not about increasing prices or constricting supply. It’s about ensuring that parking environments work not just for cars, but for the people that they also serve. It’s about building an environment which encourages the use of public transit in order to reduce carbon footprints and reduce the need for parking, which is the least efficient use of space possible in a downtown core. (Imagine the value of that square footage.) Mayor David Condon constantly refers to a desire to fashion Spokane into a “City of Choice.” But being a “City of Choice” requires making choices. Do we want dead urban spaces with no place for human activity? Or do we want a vibrant, exciting downtown environment that welcomes all with open arms and projects a hopeful, positive vision for the future of our community?

I know which one I’d pick.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: What do you think? Is there a space for additional parking garages in the new downtown? Do you think that the obsession with parking is destroying the City of Spokane? And what of that Kendall Yards site plan? Do you think that the most recent proposal aligns with Greenstone’s vision of the most dense, most pedestrian-friendly neighborhood in the inland Northwest? Share your thoughts in the comments below, on Facebook, on Twitter, or in person. We love to hear from you!

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18 thoughts on “An obsession with parking is destroying downtown Spokane

  1. I’m pretty sure the Falls Tower proposal has storefront retail filling the entire Falls BLVD side of the 1st floor of parking. it’s not shown on that image but is in the site plan’s 1st floor.

  2. Also, I couldn’t agree with you more. I’d love to see that Rookery Block turned into a city square/park with a great outdoor event setup. Farmer’s markets, Bazaar, outdoor music festivals, etc.

    While I do think the parking garage situation downtown is not attractive or useful for pedestrians, Spokane would need to dramatically grow in retail demand to fill new retail spaces. I could see someone building a huge parking garage with retail space on the bottom floor, but then it sitting empty for years. I think the amount of surface parking downtown is the saddest part.

  3. Love your thinking on this. And, your efforts to identify possible solutions to the problem. I’d add that consideration be given to the fiscal part of the equation too, as it seems landowners find it more profitable to raze buildings or retain existing surface lots than developing buildings. It’s my understanding that our tax structure helps contribute to this – and perhaps could be adjusted to complement revised policies and regulations.

  4. I soooo totally agree. I owned Spazzo’s Espresso on N12 Howard on the sidewalk level of the Rookery. There was also Big MaMu’s Burritos’, Davids Pizza, The Bliss girls clothiers, Moon Shadows Drums and I believe on the corner a clothier thrift store. I thought this was the beginning of something great downtown; our own little inner city Pike Street market thing. I think things have moved from the inner area to the fringes of downtown now. Anyway, your insight was on target. Nice article!

  5. They also let the motel hotels destroy the convention business. The Grand Hotel was built to helpout , but as it is woth parking and the other d.t. hotels they have left the cab industry out. There are no taxi stands at the convention center or the hotels.
    17 years ago it was decided to leave out the taxis and conventions have deminished since. No places to shop near the parking and no way for conventioners to get to the places they want to go. The Canadians stopped coming as well. This used to be a busy exciting town with lots of folks spening lots of money all season long. Not any more

  6. Two words. Market. Forces.
    Look, if the demand for downtown retail was there ALL new structures would have street level retail. It’s not there…yet. I would love to have a more pedestrian friendly downtown, but truthfully, ours is not bad. I have been all over the country and Spokane, while lagging other west coast cities, is better than a lot of cities this size. When street level retail demand peaks many of these structures can be easily converted. The Kendall yards plan has too much surface parking..for now. Demand will change that. Building an underground structure there would be cost prohibitive btw, it’s all basalt a foot down. The revitalization of Riverfront park will help a tremendous amount in strengthening the downtown retail core, but for now being able to park downtown is just to valuable. I do miss the Bennet Block though. That one was tough to lose.

  7. My grandfather Bill Fordik was an Iron Worker (& WWII Navy CB) who helped build the Parkade. Though I was very little I can remember going down there with my grandma Mary to see it. I moved to Seattle in 1988 and still to this day every time I come home to visit I park there. I think about my grandfather and how proud I am that he helped work on it. I bet there are others here who’s friends and families worked on the Parkade and in the Parkade. I think of begging my mom to park at the very top Yellow so we could wind all the way down after. All of the fun places that were there. Can I get a show of hands how many others remember birthday parties at the Ice Creamery? Haha
    Anyway to me, the Parkade is “home”. ❤️

  8. It is kind of hard to tell in this picture but the parking garages in the Kansas City Plaza shopping center are all integrated with the businesses. It was all designed at the same time as a planned outdoor shopping mall (1960s?) but shows that parking can be successfully designed to be wrapped by retail if the density demands it.

  9. I appreciate your solution-orientated comments. At the same time, the parking issue is larger than the Spokane downtown core. Spokane is a regional city. In fact, it is the largest city west of Minnesota and services the entire east side of Washington, all of Northern Idaho, all of Montana, north east Oregon, as well as BC Canada (border region). The New Urbanism of which you are alluding to has its advantages. Mixed use design with street level retail, and parking moved underground, or greatly reduced, presupposes a city that has adequate multi-modal transportation options in place, which I think most people who have attempted to bus from the upper South Hill/Glenrose area, can tell you is simply not the case. People coming from Airway Heights and Medical Lake can also tell you that the 30 minutes spent driving their car is more efficient than the total 3 hours per day it can add to a commute to take the bus.

    Now, yes, the STA and SRTC are working to create rapid bus lines from those towns, and neighborhoods outside the Spokane City limits. I have seen the proposed plans and a lot of the issue is that we have very poor connectivity. For example, even if one could take a rapid bus line from Glenrose to downtown, one would still have to drive their car to the park n’ ride, which in turn necessitates another parking lot. True connectivity would be that one could walk, or ride a bicycle from their residence, to the bus stop, and then reverse that commute at the end of the work day. Unfortunately, Spokane also became a victim of the suburban sprawl design aesthetic, an auto-oriented design, and, as such, we have the parking garages. Therefore, we need the parking garages.

    Currently, Spokane has way more parking available than what is needed. At the same time, a cultural/social shift will need to happen concurrently with a mature, well-designed multi-modal transportation option before developers can be convinced that adding more parking garages is not a revenue generator. The city codes would also need to back off of their so many parking spaces per square footage of development requirement.

    Your comments do touch upon one crucial aspect of walkability, and that is pedestrian perception. In point of fact, I am the person who designed and implemented the walkability study for the Lincoln Heights neighborhood (see the city’s website for a PDF of the report) and those findings are being used for planning purposes in the City’s redevelopment project. Sometimes, it is not that there is too much parking, it is that the current parking garages make a block unappealing and gives the impression that it may be unsafe to walk on that side off the street. Sometimes, a huge overhaul to a parking garage isn’t necessary, but, you are correct in that human scale elements such as street trees, lighting, pedestrian rests, and public art can be a mediating influence.

  10. I appreciate the thought behind your post and in general we can do a better job of dealing with parking in urban neighborhoods and Downtown. The are really two issues: (1) the amount of parking; and (2) how the parking is designed to enhance the street and contribute to a sense of place. Most projects are over-parked, a result of regulatory standards and a stand alone culture. The typical city standard for parking is 4-5 spaces per 1000sf of building area. In Kendall Yards this has been more than cut in half. Parking is provided at 2 spaces per 1000sf of space. It works well because we require each building to participate in shared and reciprocal parking and we encourage walkability and create a disincentive to parking consumers ( a fee for anyone parking more than 90 minutes). The City has taken a step forward by reducing the parking required in neighborhood commercial districts. Buildings smaller than 3,000 SF not longer require off street parking. Design is more complicated and not simply a function of surface parking versus structured parking or putting a retail facade on the ground floor. You have stated incorrectly that the Kendall Yards plan has changed and now includes more surface parking. Further you characterization of the plan as a “sea of parking with islands of office buildings inside” is wrong, a result of not taking the time to ask questions and understand the plan. About 200,000 SF of commercial space in Kendall will be served by approximately 400 surface parking spaces. The parking you see today on the site includes about 200 spaces. The design of the surface parking provides for parking structures over the surface lots as densification occurs over time. The balance of the site (and most of the land south of Summit Parkway which will accommodate between 300,000 and 400,000 SF of commercial space will be constructed primarily with underground parking structures that will not be visible from the street. You don’t see these on the plan because your are only looking at the street level uses. The key to parking design is to keep parking (surface or structured) off of the street. The parking garages you show in Billings and San Pedro, while a marginal improvement, are still parking garages and detract from the vitality of street life. The lack of people or business above the street level contributes to a lack of vitality on street regardless of the fact there is “a plant growing on the side of the building”. At Kendall Yards the parking is removed from the street. The commercial buildings…restaurants, offices, retails, storefronts and residential units all face the street with the parking at the rear. This is the key design principal for parking, surface or structured. This is a serious subject and deserves more than a cursory approach to solutions.

  11. There was another critical element of the original Parkade design: offsets. There was outdoor space carved out for the first floor restaurants to gather and eat. Because of the windshear factor, Seattle has done a great job of breaking the ‘sidewalk only’ delineation of building profiles. More public space and less ‘building’ is required for each block’s profile.

  12. I drive an F250 with a kayak rack…so what exactly is a parking garage?
    City Ramp started this mishegas way back when the three piece suit professionals who worked downtown wanted indoor parking…at some point the perspective evolved that you can provide “more” for retail by building these “hives” for more consumers. Otherwise people (drivers)would say why go downtown to shop when I can park for free at the mall…luxury and convenience is why these monuments to the car exist…but who knows…as time goes on and mass transit and walking become the preferred method of urban travel maybe the first floor of these bunkers will be remodelled …just don’t hold your breath

  13. Pingback: Unless we take action to improve transit now, 2040 in Spokane will be like 2015 in Seattle | Spokane Rising

  14. Spokane still yearns for the 60’s dream of “urban renewal” where everyone loved driving their cars.

    Until Spokane makes their downtown and routes to and from downtown bike friendlier, and makes their downtown attractive to young people to live…spokane will be a ghost town for trump refugees.

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