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.

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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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City Council working on changes to Centers and Corridors guidelines

In the South Perry District, Wollnick’s and Perry Street Brewing offer an upscale, but properly-scaled experience for the neighborhood. South Perry is zoned CC1 under Spokane’s innovative “Centers and Corridors” guidelines. (PHOTO: Amy Graff)

Introduction

There’s a great book written by Jeffrey L. Pressman and Aaron Wildavsky called Implementation. It’s a dense read, used mostly by upper-division undergraduate and graduate students in political science and public policy, but more than any other text, it does an excellent job of explaining how policy so often becomes divorced from its implementation. In it, Pressman and Wildavsky argue that such a separation can cause policy failure.

Spokane’s dealing with such a problem right now. Enter the official City of Spokane document entitled Initial Design Standards and Guidelines for Centers and Corridors.

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TONIGHT: Summit for Neighborhood Fairness, Part II

The South Perry District is frequently cited as one of the “most livable” or “best” or “coolest” neighborhoods in Spokane. Will future development follow the pattern of South Perry or Garland, or degrade into surface parking and big-box stores? (PHOTO: Spokesman-Review)

Tonight, join community leaders, elected officials, and smart growth advocates at Part Two of the Summit for Neighborhood Fairness. Futurewise Spokane will convene a diverse group of representatives and stakeholders for the second of two public fora on empowering our neighborhoods and prioritizing denser infill development in accordance with existing planning documents. As you’ll recall, the dialogue over smart growth and land use reached a fever pitch last month when it was discovered that Scott Chesney and the Planning Department had approved a building permit for a drive-through-only McDonald’s restaurant on north Hamilton, and that Dave Black had violated Centers and Corridors zoning and the 2009 Developers’ Agreement at his Target development on the South Hill.

Part One of this summit focused on possible policy proposals, while Part Two will focus on choosing the best solutions and crafting a plan toward implementation. It’s clear that land use policy and neighborhood development has quickly become the number one issue in Spokane’s political system. It should be interesting to see where this planning and policy proposal process leads.

  • Join us at the Summit for Neighborhood Fairness, tonight from 5:30p – 7:30p at the downtown branch of the Spokane Public Library. Neighborhood representatives, community leaders, activists, legal experts, and other stakeholders will all be represented.

KXLY land grab at South Complex?

This conceptual site plan for the KXLY site at Regal and Palouse Highway on Spokane's South Hill was presented by KXLY representatives at a Land Committee meeting of the Parks Board.

This draft/conceptual site plan for the KXLY site at Regal and Palouse Highway on Spokane’s South Hill was presented by KXLY representatives at a Land Committee meeting of the Parks Board. Note the plan to build a large mixed-use facility on land currently owned by the Parks Department and relocate the soccer fields to the rear of a new big-box store. Please note that this document is in the public record.

Following up on a tweet from last week, The #spokanerising Project can now report that KXLY representatives are in discussions with the Parks Board for a land swap that could result in a significant change in the recreation and parks facilities offered in the Southgate District, as well as the second of three major big-box developments that have been planned for the area. Please note: these plans have not been submitted to the Planning and Development Office. They represent conceptual drawings for the site that were presented by KXLY at a Land Committee meeting of the Spokane Parks Board in December of 2013.

That meeting resulted in a Letter of Intent, specifying broadly that the Parks Department would enter into an agreement with KXLY to swap land in order to ensure shared access and potentially shared parking. Essentially, the City would agree to swap a piece of land in order to create a shared driveway where the current South Complex parking lot is located, and potentially including the entire east end of the complex, if KXLY chooses to build a mixed-use building. In exchange, KXLY would grant to the Parks Department replacement soccer fields on the west side of their proposed big-box development, near and underneath their AM radio transmitter tower on the site.

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Why Complete Streets are so important

The relative amount of space used by pedestrians, personal vehicles, and buses.

The relative amount of space used by pedestrians, bicyclists, personal vehicles, and buses.

Personal vehicles take up a lot of space. (Just look at the 700-space parking lot currently under construction on the South Hill at Regal and the Palouse Highway that will serve the new Target store.) In the case of parking, that becomes wasted space, unused space, a heat island in a sea of urban and suburban development. On streets, the increased space necessary for vehicles means additional traffic lanes.

So how do we calm traffic congestion if we don’t want to increase parking space or traffic lanes? We encourage pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit. We decrease the “opportunity cost” (in time, in money, in convenience, etc.) of walking, biking, or using transit. This gets more people in alternative uses and decreases the use of costly personal vehicles.

This is why Spokane must commit to Complete Streets. We’ve passed the ordinance, and now’s the time to commit to implementing it. The first test will come in the Southgate District, where the suburban-style Target development has only further congested Regal. Hit the link to see a really well-written description of the issues caused by Target.

What are your thoughts? What are the benefits of “complete streets”-style investments? Does the Southgate District have a case for traffic mitigation above and beyond the light at Regal and the Palouse Highway? Share your thoughts in the comments and on social media. We love to hear from you.

If It Had Happened, Part 5: South Hill Walmart

Walmart's south Spokane store would have been built up to the street and would have featured rooftop parking. Please excuse the potato-esque quality of this image. (PHOTO: Spokesman-Review)

Walmart’s south Spokane store would have been built up to the street and would have featured rooftop parking. Please excuse the potato-esque quality of this image. (PHOTO: Spokesman-Review)

Today we delve into the politics and concerns of a local neighborhood as we revisit perhaps the single most controversial development project in the history of the South Hill. In 2006, big-box retailer Walmart proposed building a massive 186,000 square foot multi-story store at 44th and Regal at Spokane’s outer edge. It was a large project considering the similar developments that had taken place nearby in recent years (Shopko and Albertson’s come to mind) but fascinatingly, the store would have been a first for even Walmart. It would have been smartly-designed to serve what the conglomerate called the neighborhood’s more “upscale” clientele, incorporating design features that few Walmart stores incorporate: windows, streetfront retail, structured and rooftop parking, and the simple addition of building it up to the street.

Understandably, the proposal attracted massive opposition driven by concerns about traffic, crime, property values, and the wholesale effect of adding a mega-store to one of Spokane’s least-developed neighborhoods. 600 people showed up to a traffic planning meeting at the Ferris High School auditorium, where a vocal majority were opposed to the proposal and many chose to direct their anger at representatives seated on-stage. Of course, there was no resolution until the next year, when officials announced that Walmart had abandoned the project, ostensibly due to “interference” from the nearby radio towers on its computer and radio equipment.

But why was the opposition so sharp? Why could Walmart not build, when Target now has a store under construction not far from the 44th and Regal site–especially when the Target being developed is a “prototype,” no-frills store that is not built to the street, features no design and architectural embellishments, and features a 700-vehicle surface lot devoted to the temporary storage of cars?

The answer lies in two dichotomous effects which I will call the Walmart Effect and the Target Effect.

The Walmart Effect refers to a neighborhood’s and an individual’s tendency to oppose Walmart at all costs. Part of this arises from Walmart’s labor practices. The company is well-known for refusing to provide healthcare coverage for its employees and for cutting employees to part-time in order to wiggle its way out of providing healthcare for them. Part of this arises from the well-documented effect that Walmart has on local communities. Walmart, as the poster-child for big-box development, increases crime, decreases neighborhood vitality, decreases property values, increases blight, and overall harms the communities in which it locates.

But here’s the thing: In general, all big-box retailers cause increase crime, decrease neighborhood vitality, decrease property values, increase blight, and harm the communities in which they locate. It’s not limited to Walmart. Walmart simply receives the brunt of the blame because it is the poster-child for big-box development.

Which brings us to the Target Effect. This counter-effect arises as a direct result of disdain for Walmart. People like Target because they think it provide a more upscale product than Walmart (it doesn’t), because it benefits communities (it doesn’t), because it is more willing to provide architectural and design changes (it isn’t), and because it provides better compensation and healthcare to its employees (it doesn’t). Target is no better than Walmart, but receives less opposition simply because it isn’t Walmart.

As such, the South Hill is poised to gain a true big-box store in Target when Walmart, by contrast, was more than willing to work with the neighborhood on a more civically-minded, urban-designed store. This would have set a crucial precedent for other stores interested in locating in the area. Work with the neighborhood or fail. Period.

Paradoxical (and theoretical) Conclusion: If the proposed-in-2006 Walmart had been built, then South Regal and the Southgate District might just look today more like Kendall Yards than Northpointe. Or at least, its development plan might look more like Kendall Yards than Northpointe, or perhaps an amalgamation of the two. Really. If it had been built, developers would be less able to compromise with the neighborhood. The Target site would have been developed in a more urban-designed fashion with buildings up to the street and structured or underground parking. Housing might have even been in the mix. And we just might have seen a neighborhood designed not just for profit, but with at least one foot in the figurative door of new urbanism. Shame it couldn’t have happened differently.

Do you agree? Do you think that the more carefully-designed Walmart store could have served as a model for other retailers locating in the Southgate District? What about the Target Effect and the Walmart Effect? Are they fair descriptions? Share your thoughts on this story by commenting, tweeting, posting, and hashtagging away!