Spokane’s latest Comprehensive Plan punts on major land use issues, guts Complete Streets

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Last year, Seattle City Council voted to approve Seattle 2035, that city’s largest Comprehensive Plan update in decades. The document has been cited as a bold, visionary model for other regions. (PHOTO: City of Seattle via The Urbanist)

Last year, Seattle adopted a bold, transformative Comprehensive Plan they called Seattle 2035. In addition to recommitting to a growth strategy that places most new housing and jobs in mixed-use urban villages, Seattle’s new Comprehensive Plan makes transit-oriented development near future Link light rail stations a policy priority and begins a transition toward parking maximums and the use of new, more relevant, and transit- and pedestrian-focused metrics to evaluate new projects. In many ways, despite taking nearly two years to write and pass, the document expresses a strong, cohesive vision for Seattle’s future––one that recognizes its status as a city that will welcome 120,000 residents by 2035. It also adopts racial and social justice standards that have already become a national model.

Spokane is not Seattle, but it too has been revising its Comprehensive Plan through what it calls the Shaping Spokane process. In fact, the City is at the tail end of the process, and City Council is expected to vote on the update next week. Unlike Seattle 2035, however, despite four years of deliberations––almost twice the time it took Seattle to write a model Comprehensive Plan––the Spokane equivalent, Shaping Spokane, punts on most of the major development and planning issues facing our city. And in at least one case––that of our hard-won Complete Streets ordinance––it does critical damage.

THE GOOD

First, let’s acknowledge that the Shaping Spokane plan does some good things. For example, it adopts a housing policy which clarifies existing rules on accessory dwelling units (ADUs), encourages mixed-income housing opportunities where possible, and clarifies existing language on housing quality. The document even includes an “affordable housing requirement” policy which essentially encourages the City to develop a mandatory inclusionary zoning program. Many pieces of the Transportation chapter contain strong endorsements of public transit and frequent transit in particular.

THE BAD

First, let’s note that this is not a full-scale update; city staff call it a “mid-cycle revision,” and a more in-depth process will have to wait until the next update. But given that this revision took four years, I would have expected stronger progress from City Hall. As has been typical of recent Spokane history, the Shaping Spokane document does not set out many major steps toward implementation, preferring instead the passive route of “whatever happens, happens.”

Centers and Corridors, for example, have languished despite being Spokane’s attempt at pedestrian-oriented urban districts. Jim Frank of Greenstone, the developer of Kendall Yards, has famously said that the type of development underway in that urban district would not be possible without the Kendall Yards Planned Unit Development agreement. Indeed, some developments flout the zoning guidelines to such an astonishing degree that casual observers have to wonder whether developers think they’re getting away with some clever ruse. The Target in Southgate, the first implementation of Centers and Corridors on a greenfield development, is a sea of surface parking surrounding a single use––big-box retail. And another development on the KXLY site across Regal is set to get underway soon. Are our City’s planners considering these high-profile land use planning failures when writing Shaping Spokane?

Shaping Spokane doesn’t make a serious effort to place Spokane at the forefront of livable cities across the country. No major actionable objectives and metrics for success (i.e. 100,000 sq. ft. of new affordable housing development) on core issues. No real talk of parking maximums, of reductions of parking requirements which make projects exorbitantly more expensive for little real benefit. No changes that could make affordable rental housing easier and less costly to build. No discussion of municipal fiber, despite much of our city lacking access to affordable internet service due to the Comcast monopoly. No big push for policy aimed at the future of transporation technology (driverless vehicles). Nothing aimed at reducing setback requirements, no major updates to the development code. No bold pushes––they’ll have to wait until the mid-2020s(!), by which time we’ll be well behind our peer cities.

Perhaps most critically, under the guise of economic development, the Comprehensive Plan attempts to gut our hard-won Complete Streets ordinance. Under the Shaping Spokane plan, City staff would be allowed to essentially submit projects at their sole discretion to the 6-Year Street Program, where they would jump the list over other qualifying street projects and would not be subject to Complete Streets requirements. Under this Comprehensive Plan update, City staff vaguely assert that “[these projects] will typically address only the most pressing transportation elements first with other integrated elements added over time.” In other words, features like sidewalks, transit elements, and bike lanes would not be constructed as part of a “Roadway of Significance”––they’d be added at a later date.

The only problem? Shaping Spokane sets out no metrics or guidelines for this provision’s use. The wording is so vague that nearly any project with some form of economic benefit (the provision does not set a dollar amount or number of jobs such investment would support) could be named a Roadway of Significance, and there would be no timetable for full build-out of Complete Streets elements. Even if current City staff may care about sidewalks and bike lanes, and fully intend to construct them at later dates for these projects, we don’t know what future City staff would do. The Comprehensive Plan is meant to transcend staffing changes and personnel moves. That means that effectively, this provision could eliminate Complete Streets––and all the sidewalks, bike lanes, transit stops, and ADA curb cut-outs it requires––entirely. It is so poorly written that the only solution that would completely eliminate the risk of abuse on the part of City staff would be to strike it entirely.

MOVING FORWARD

So here’s what you can you do to voice your concerns with this process, express a desire for a bolder, more comprehensive strategy in the next Plan Update, and support Complete Streets/oppose “Roadways of Significance.”

  1. Attend the next City Council meeting. The Comprehensive Plan update hearing will take place Monday, June 19th at 6:00pm PT in the City Council Chambers at City Hall. Attend the meeting, voice your concerns, and speak your mind with Council.
  2. Email City Council with your thoughts. Locate your City Councilmember here. Share your thoughts on this Comprehensive Plan update––in particular consider the gutting of Complete Streets in this draft.

Shaping Spokane will pass in its current form if there is no major opposition from the public. But we hope that you will consider attending the Council meeting or emailing your Councilmember––at the very minimum to eliminate the absurd “Roadways of Significance” provisions in this Comprehensive Plan update.

At the end of the day, most of Shaping Spokane is status quo for Spokane, which isn’t a tragedy. But it is a major abdication of regional leadership and a significant missed opportunity to lead the way into a more urban, walkable, and mixed-use future. If we don’t step up soon, and lead the way on sustainable planning, affordable housing, walkable urban districts, and convenient transportation, we will continue to watch other cities pass us by––and sadly, we will fall further and further behind.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: What do you think? Is this Comprehensive Plan a step backward or forward for Spokane? Do you think we should be thinking more boldly about the future of our city? Do you think we need updates to Centers and Corridors or to Complete Streets? Share your thoughts in the comments below, on Facebook, on Twitter, or in person. We love to hear from you!

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Almost one quarter of downtown Spokane is occupied by surface parking

There are 295 acres of surface parking in Spokane’s urban core.

There are only 1,250 acres of land in the urban core.

That means that 23.6% of all of the land in Spokane’s urban core is occupied solely by the temporary storage of motor vehicles.

If we assume a ridiculously-conservative average density of 25 units per acre, we could infill these parking lots with as many as 7,500 housing units. To put that in perspective, the full build-out of Kendall Yards will include just 1,000 units. (Just 300 housing units have been built in that neighborhood to-date.) Now, not every available block will be occupied by residences; other uses, like office, retail, public squares, civic spaces, are necessary as well. But it’s a useful thought exercise.

This is the next frontier of Spokane development. There’s more space available downtown for redevelopment than three Kendall Yards (which is an 83-acre site). With this much available space, there’s ample opportunity for creativity and innovation in the local development team.

Among other strategies, perhaps we could at the very least compile a comprehensive database of potential infill sites. This database should include information on the ownership of the various parcels, incentives available for redevelopment, and various statistics, like median income in the area, information on available utilities, and nearby amenities. In addition, include information on the planning and development process for these parcels. What type of permit review would be necessary? Would a SEPA application be required? Think of it as a more in-depth version of a site-selector. The result would be a much clearer development picture for developers and investors.

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Spokane is a city of districts. Here’s how to realize their potential.

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The Garland District, in Spokane’s North Hill neighborhood, is one of its oldest urban districts, and one of its most beloved. But what could be done to highlight the many and varied urban districts which make up our city? (PHOTO: Garland District)

Spokane is a city of districts.

Garland. South Perry. Browne’s Addition. North Monroe. University District. North Bank. Hillyard. East Sprague. Lincoln Heights. Southgate. Indian Trail. Northwest. West Central. Peaceful Valley. Rockwood. Logan.

In more ways than one, Spokane is more of a city of districts than we realize. Perhaps it’s a result of the way they developed. Some of the neighborhood districts began as separate cities, like Hillyard. Perhaps it’s a result of their present situation. Some of the “urban” districts don’t seem “urban” at all. Many of them are seas of surface parking, wider-than-necessary streets, and near-to-nonexistent pedestrian facilities. Occasionally there are crime issues, or little in the way of retail, or no transit service. Almost always, these urban districts are purely commercial; they don’t contain any residential units. And there’s rarely a “there” there. The urban districts don’t seem to be anything special because they aren’t yet seen as places in their own right.

But we can change that. Here’s how.

1. Mix up the uses. As noted above, most of Spokane’s urban districts are, in essence, commercial districts. There’s little in the way of housing, aside from the single-family residential areas which often surround them. For these districts to thrive, they need more people, and that means apartments, condos, and townhomes. There’s certainly enough space. We know that Spokane will see demand for 3,000 more units over the next three years. Let’s make sure that as many of those units are in urban districts as possible.

2. Get rid of parking minimums. Parking minimums essentially require a certain amount of parking per square foot. They’re in place in most urban districts, but they should be abolished. These regulations result in more parking than is necessary, and parking takes up valuable space that otherwise could be used for more housing, retail, or other development. And perhaps most importantly, they harm urban vitality and walkability, and they make the districts driving destinations, rather than walking destinations, which relates to the next point.

3. Feet first. Develop these urban centers with a focus on walkability first. These areas should primarily serve not the entire Spokane community, but the local neighborhoods. That means that there should be a strong sidewalk network, curb bulb-outs, and street trees. Traffic calming, combined with pedestrian improvements, will improve the sense of place and make the district more desirable.

4. Build a sense of place. Beyond those strategies can be above, this can be achieved with relatively simple steps involving minimal investment. Things like trash cans, a fresh coat of paint, better crosswalks, benches, bike racks, and lower speed limits can go a long way. Beyond that, wayfinding and entry signage can better distinguish the area from its surroundings. For more money, a district could opt for streetscape enhancements, public squares (Garland has amazing potential for this!), or perhaps signature features, like neon lighting.

5. Let businesses band together. East Sprague recently created a Business Improvement District (BID) as part of the City of Spokane’s Targeted Investment Pilot program. The BID will essentially organize and tax local businessowners to provide services, like street tree maintenance, graffiti removal, wayfinding, and other maintenance improvements. It will also advertise and market the district, both to developers and to Spokane residents. Other districts, like Garland and North Monroe, should have the opportunity to create their own business improvment districts. That way, businesses will be able to take on more of their own revitalization. And even if these organizations aren’t BIDs, simple associations could unify the districts’ messages and marketing.

6. Create sub-area plans for each district. The Logan District on the Hamilton Corridor recently completed planning for the Hamilton Form-Based Code, which essentially is a subarea plan for the area around Mission and Hamilton. We need to develop subarea plans for each of the urban districts, highlighting plans for the next twenty-five years in Garland, the North Bank, West Broadway, and Hillyard. Some areas already have these plans in place. Others don’t. In all cases, however, there hasn’t been much in the way of implementation. Let’s fix that.

7. Work with developers. It’s time for Neighborhood Services to develop a clear, coherent strategy for partnering and finding or creating incentives for developers. Ideally, this would focus on multifamily apartment units with streetfront retail. Incentives need not be large. Even “fast-tracking” the planning process can be an incentive. But the fact is that we need to work with developers to revitalize our urban districts. Neighborhood Services, because it has deep experience in each neighborhood, would be well-placed to act as this bridge between residents and investors.

8. Grow small business. South Perry wouldn’t be South Perry without The Shop, or South Perry Pizza, or Perry Street Brewing. Garland wouldn’t be Garland without the Milk Bottle. North Monroe wouldn’t be North Monroe without the Boulevard Mercantile. And West Central wouldn’t be West Central without Batch Bakeshop. Many of these businesses were catalysts in their respective neighborhoods’ revitalizations. In order for the districts to thrive, we need to make things easy for small, local business. Can you imagine if we offered microloans or other incentives? Can you imagine if we eased businesses in urban districts through permitting processes, making opening a business faster and less expensive? We need to find a way to concentrate local business in these centers. This could be how.

9. Triage potential infill sites. Develop a comprehensive database of potential infill sites within urban districts. Include all of the relevant information: current ownership, zoning, associated incentives, property value, property tax rates, infrastructure maps, median incomes, (in some cases) daily traffic, and area vacancy rates. Make the database public. But hire a staffer or two at the City of Spokane to maintain the database and work with developers to negotiate and develop properties. You know, economic development work. Ideally, this work would come with a budget and the ability to create new incentives. Limit the work at first to the urban districts. Call it a pilot project. In the future, it could be expanded city-wide.

Revitalizing and recapturing every urban district in Spokane will take an extreme level of vision, foresight, and cooperation on the part of all stakeholders. It will also take some risk-taking on the part of private individuals and developers. But if it pays off, even in just a few areas, the result will be a more vibrant, more exciting Spokane for everyone.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: What do you think? Is Spokane a city of districts? Do you think that any of these strategies could help recapture and reinvent our urban districts into vibrant, exciting urban places for all? Would you live in an urban district? Which one’s your favorite? Share your thoughts on Facebook, on Twitter, or in the comments below. We love to hear from you.

UPDATE: Land use shenanigans continue as annexation could bring another sea of surface parking to Southgate District

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The conceptual site plan for the South Regal Lumber site from South Regal Street includes a mess of car-oriented retail and another veritable sea of surface parking in an already saturated Southgate District. It’s neither mixed-use nor consistent with a vibrant urban neighborhood district. (PHOTO: Spokane Planning)

Last week, we posted about an absurd land-use situation in Indian Trail that could result in a 1,500-unit housing complex. The post went crazy-viral all over social media. Now we’re back with a similarly-absurd situation at the opposite end of our city, in the Southgate District.

Here, Spokane Housing Ventures, an affordable housing developer with a laudable goal to provide living space to lower-income folks, proposed to annex and re-zone a chunk of its property into the City of Spokane. Spokane Housing Ventures would develop its site into affordable units. Great!

But here’s the problem: the City Council expanded the annexation proposal to include the former South Regal Lumber property. Local developer Cyrus Vaughn would develop this area into several pads for car-oriented commercial spaces, such as fast-food restaurants and coffeeshops, medical offices, and a grocery store space likely focusing on organic products. (Important Update: Despite recent rumors that the proposed grocery might be Whole Foods, this would not square with that retailer’s recent trend toward smaller, more compact, more pedestrian-oriented stores. Whole Foods also tends to prefer more central locations within urban areas. Alternatively, it appears that the retailer in question is actually Natural Grocers, which has recently expanded into the Spokane market with a Northside store.)

In all respects, the Cyrus Vaughn project at the former South Regal Lumber property is a vehicle-oriented development. This despite the fact that the development is located just a block or two from a City of Spokane-designated District Center.

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This 1,500-unit suburban apartment complex would hollow out Spokane’s urban core

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This 1,485-unit apartment complex, seen here in a conceptual site plan, has been proposed by developer Harley Douglas for the North Indian Trail neighborhood. It should be opposed at all costs. (PHOTO: Spokane Planning)

Every so often, a developer proposes an amendment to the Spokane Comprehensive Plan. It’s an involved process which involves agency review and comment, SEPA review, public comment, Plan Commission hearings, and City Council briefings. It can take as long as a year. And it’s designed to be difficult. The Comprehensive Plan serves as the roadmap for the future development of Spokane, so it’s not meant to be easily bendable to the whims of developers or special interests. It’s meant to guide development in a manageable way that serves social, economic, and environmental interests.

In North Indian Trail, a developer (Morningside Investments, LLC and Harley Douglass) has proposed one such Comprehensive Plan revision. The action would allow a suburban apartment complex of 742-1,485 units in the area of Windhaven Lane in what’s now a ghost subdivision. Neighborhood representatives and advocates are concerned about impacts on crime, traffic, and quality of life. But there’s a much bigger concern that threatens our entire city, and could alter our development patterns for years to come.

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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.

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POST-MORTEM: Who killed Proposition 1?

Proposition 1 would have provided millions of dollars in additional transit funding, including over 200,000 additional yearly hours of bus service. It seemed like a no-brainer. So why did it fail?

Proposition 1 would have provided millions of dollars in additional transit funding, including over 200,000 additional yearly hours of bus service. It seemed like a no-brainer. So why did it fail? (PHOTO: Yes for Buses)

Proposition 1 was a reasonable, balanced transit package that funded system improvements across the STA network. It eschewed big projects in favor of smaller-scaled, bus-centric investments, and it sunset after ten years in order to give voters a sense of accountability over the small 0.1% sales tax hike. So why did it fail? Several theories have been floated in the past few weeks, and I think that I might have a few answers.

THEORY #1: The “Yes” campaign did not sell the package strongly enough to people who don’t regularly use transit.

A former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Penalosa, famously remarked that “a developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

It’s clear that the “yes” campaign did not do a strong enough job of selling the measure to those who do not regularly use transit in the Spokane area. Instead, a large emphasis was placed on the “elderly, low-income, and disabled” riders who currently avail themselves of STA services. That’s great, and transit is certainly important for those groups. But what about everyone else? Certainly there would be benefits for everyone else?

Consider that perhaps advertising for the “yes” campaign should have emphasized that Proposition 1 would make transit available for more people, including the middle-class and wealthy, giving even those groups the ability to use transit. Perhaps ads should have focused on the traffic reductions that strong transit service can bring. Many drivers in Indian Trail, Five Mile, and the Moran Prairie have noticed wildly increased commute times, especially during the mornings, as new residential and commercial developments have been approved. Numerous WSDOT and federal studies have found that traffic congestion in the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene metropolitan area is set to double by 2030 as the population grows and streets and freeways struggle to pick up the slack. Sell transit to traffic-minded drivers! Transit means reduced traffic congestion. Moreover, by connecting transit to the ongoing talks about urban expansion in the Spokane area, a better conversation would have been started about the issues that lead to traffic in the first place. All of these issues are connected, and it felt at times like the “Yes for Buses” campaign neglected to drive this narrative home with voters.

THEORY #2: The package was too timid, meaning that voters could not distinguish the difference between current STA service and promised future service under Proposition 1.

This certainly applies to some individuals who see the benefits of transit but did not see real improvements in the STA system. And this could be either a fault of the STA Moving Forward plan or a fault of the advertising in the Yes for Buses campaign. By the end of 2014, the original proposal for the Central City Line, a streetcar, had been scaled back to a battery electric bus, for example. Well, what’s the improvement in terms of comfort or service of a battery electric bus? Not much. Certainly the streetcar proposal would have had a greater “distinction” factor that would have clearly offered a contrast with existing service. Some have even called for a resurrection of the South Valley Corridor light rail plan. And overwhelming 2014 passage of the Riverfront Park Bond proves that area voters are willing to spend money on flagship projects.

On the other hand, perhaps voters simply didn’t see how the package would benefit them. What would the sales tax increase mean functionally for me as a young person, for example? Easy. New weekend bus service would allow a Gonzaga University student to catch a bus back to campus as late as 1am or 2am. That’s far cheaper than shelling out cash for a Lyft or Uber ride. And that’s just one example. We could also talk about a high-performance line on from South Regal to North Monroe or the West Plains Transit Center. Either one would have produced material benefits to riders, but they weren’t the focus of the “yes” campaign’s advertising.

THEORY #3: Uncertainty and misinformation from elected officials (especially David Condon and the Board of County Commissioners) and local media (especially the Spokesman-Review and local TV stations) contributed to lack of public understanding of the measure.

Finally, outside of the Spokane City Council, most area elected officials were lukewarm at best on the proposal. Al French of the Board of County Commissioners was famously in favor, but his compatriots were less sympathetic. Spokane Valley officials decried the proposal. And David Condon was absent from the debate altogether, which certainly should become a campaign issue this fall as he looks toward re-election.

In the media, the proposal faced sharply negative billing. The Cowles-owned Spokesman released a negative editorial, and KHQ started trashing/editorializing on the Central City Line almost a year before the package hit the ballot. Other news outlets were slightly less critical, but failed to properly print facts, often conflating the Central City Line with the larger Proposition 1 package, despite its relatively small $17 million appropriation as part of the measure. Sometimes the modern electric trolleybus or streetcar study renderings were used as part of reports, despite the fact that they had been eschewed in favor of the battery electric bus. One breathless KHQ report even called the Central City Line a “light rail” system. Of course, this attracted the ire of conservatives and confused even more independent-minded voters.

CONCLUSION

It is clear that Proposition 1 failed largely as a result of ineffective campaign tactics on the part of Yes for Buses, but also due to its confusing lack of distinction from existing service and an absence of support from more conservative elected officials and editorial boards. Hopefully the proposal can be resurrected in the future, perhaps as a Spokane-only package a la Seattle’s similar arrangement to essentially “purchase” bus service from King County Metro within its city limits. In the meantime, we await an appropriate solution.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: What do you think caused Proposition 1 to fail at the polls in the Special Election? Are voters tax-weary? Was the package improperly or incorrectly sold to the public? Did lack of public official support create a vacuum for conservatives to pounce? We love to hear your thoughts. Be sure to share your ideas, thoughts, and concerns below in our comments section, on Twitter, on Facebook, or in person. We love to hear from you.