It’s time to put a moratorium on new skywalk construction

SpokaneSkywalks

Spokane’s skywalk system was once the second-largest in the United States. It served its purpose for almost fifty years, but recently their presence has been more of a hindrance to the success of downtown than a benefit. (PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons)

Spokane’s venerable skywalk system has served the city and the region for almost fifty years, allowing pedestrians the ability to cross between buildings without braving the elements. At one point, the system was the second-largest in the United States. Today, it features around sixteen of the above-street passageways. But while the system once received significant use (one 1984 study found 43,200 crossings in a single July day) and allowed small businesses to thrive in the second floor of downtown buildings, the skywalks today sit with minimal use.

Moreover, the skywalks harm downtown vitality, because they pluck pedestrians from the street, where they would improve the sidewalk environment. There are two major issues with this. First, more eyes on the street tends to lead to less crime and certainly less perception of crime. If you talk to some people, crime is the number one issue they refuse to go downtown. Second, because access to the skywalk system is controlled largely by the owners of the buildings that they connect, the skywalks at a certain level may separate well-heeled professionals and shoppers from the urban poor, the homeless, and the lower class. This creates a perception of vagrancy on the street level, and of course, it’s a huge ethical and social justice concern. The magic of the sidewalk is that it encourages social mixing, creating a public sphere which allows for interaction, communication, and learning.

But here’s the thing: we’re still expanding the skywalk system, despite the fact that it’s outlived its usefulness. Walt Worthy and the Public Facilities District in 2014 constructed a new skywalk to link the Davenport Grand and the Convention Center. And now, Cowles Company, the owner of the Spokesman-Review, KHQ, and River Park Square, intends to replace two sets of skywalks in the Macy’s Building, which it recently purchased. The second-floor skywalks to River Park Square and to the Parkade Building will be removed and replaced on the third-floor.

Why?

It’s great that Cowles Company intends to expand the downtown Spokane commercial district to the east, but we need to have a conversation about the skywalks. Especially in this case, they irreparably damage the beauty of a historic structure with many decades of history in Spokane. They harm downtown vitality. And especially in the case of the Parkade skywalks, which are not air conditioned or heated, offer no additional utility to pedestrians. It’s time for them to be removed.

So let’s have a conversation. Let’s issue a one-year moratorium on skywalk construction. During that time, we’ll have a long-term discussion about the future of the system. Will they be gradually removed over time? Will some of the skywalks, such as the skywalk from River Park Square to the Macy’s Building, or from River Park Square to the Crescent Court, be retained? Is there anything we can do to enliven the skywalks, or alternatively, encourage people to explore the street level?

We hope to see this conversation, but it’s only going to happen with swift action. Contact your City Councilmembers and ask them to consider a temporary skywalk construction moratorium.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: Do you think we need to have a long-term discussion about the future of Spokane’s skywalk system? Do you use the skywalks? Do you think there’s a way to retain the skywalks but also improve downtown vitality on the sidewalks? And what do you think about the ethical and social justice implications? Share your thoughts on Facebook, on Twitter, in the comments below, or in person. We love to hear from you!

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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Idea #7: Public Squares

Seattle’s Westlake Park offers a signature gathering place for the city’s residents, tourists, and businesspeople. (PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons)

Spokane should invest in a public downtown gathering place, a public square for its people. Seattle has Westlake Park, shown above. San Francisco has Union Square, below the fold. We believe that a public square should be a priority for downtown as it continues to work to cast off the seedy image of its past.
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