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!

Four items on our wishlist for the recently-purchased former Wonder Bread Building

The former Wonder Bread Factory is a gorgeous brick building primed for redevelopment located on the North Bank of the Spokane River. It recently changed ownership, and the new owners are interested in a new use for the building. (PHOTO: Multiple Listing Service)

Fresh off the news of a new residential mixed-use complex on the East End of downtown Spokane, and the release of the first renderings of a redeveloped Macy’s Building, the Spokesman-Review reports that the Wonder Bread Building on the North Bank of the Spokane River has changed hands. The handsome, historic brick warehouse has obvious character, which is why we named it our favorite block in Spokane, and the block with the most obvious potential for adaptive reuse.

The building, first constructed in 1909 and extensively remodeled in 1947, sold to an investment group named Wonder Spokane, LLC. Investors include Pete Mounsey, a Spokane native and resident of Denver, Colorado who most recently remodeled the Lincoln View Apartments on the lower South Hill with local architecture firm Nystrom + Olson. The group has no specific plans, but notes that mixed-use is a strong possibility. Zoning code would allow up to twelve stories on the site.

In the spirit of our recent Facebook post, jump after the break for our redevelopment wishlist.

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BREAKING: Massive 250,000 square foot Jensen-Byrd District promises adaptive reuse, space for tech/biotech companies

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If everything goes as planned, by 2018, the Jensen-Byrd Building in Spokane’s University District will grow into a mixed-use area of its own, featuring tech/biotech offices, retail, retaurants, and an athletic center over 250,000 square feet. (PHOTO: jensenbyrd.com)

 

Earlier this year, WSU Spokane awarded a contract for remodel and reuse of the Jensen-Byrd Building to a partnership of Seattle developer Wally Trace and the local office of design-build energy efficiency firm McKinstry. We knew that the partners had significant plans for the site, but now we’re getting our first look at the project.

And it’s absolutely spectacular.

Not content to simply remodel the historic Jensen-Byrd warehouse, JB Development will develop a massive, 250,000 square foot adaptive reuse of the main building and the Pacific Produce Building and construct a new 442-space parking garage, a 50,000 square foot retail and fitness center, and an 84,000 square foot mixed-use tech/biotech office building. The result will be what they are calling the Jensen-Byrd District. Aimed at tech and biotech companies, the buildings will feature the large floor plates, modern data connections, and retail amenities that large companies expect, but which don’t exist at this point in our city.

In other words, if marketed correctly, these two buildings could help Spokane land a major tech or biotech tenant. It’s a dream that’s been building for a while, with significant investment in the University District (including the Pedestrian Bridge, expected to be complete in 2018) in pursuit of attracting private companies. With the right targeted action and marketing, now we have a specific site that could accommodate those demanding tenants.

Jump after the break for more discussion and renderings.

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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.

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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Idea #26: Incredibly simple and easy-to-use “night bus” service

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London’s “night bus” service is internationally renowned, becoming somewhat of a cultural icon. Spokane could operate a simpler, more streamlined service at relatively low cost. (PHOTO: Doug Wheller on Flickr)

Right now, if you go out on a Friday or Saturday night in downtown Spokane, you have relatively few decent transportation options at your disposal. While most bars close at 2am, STA service ends at 11pm, leaving you with the difficult choice between an expensive taxi/Uber/Lyft and a designated driver. That discourages people from going out, especially considering the hassles associated with parking and choosing a designated driver. The simple fix? Night buses on STA.

Such a system could model itself after similar successful programs in Europe, which have reduced traffic deaths and DUIs and increased economic activity. While London manages a large-scale night-time operation (and will soon introduce 24-hour Tube service on select lines), smaller cities (like Freiburg, Germany, where I lived last fall) make use of a more streamlined shuttle-esque model with a fixed route and the same starting point for all routes. Spokane could learn a lot from these systems as it works to develop extended weekend service.

  • Simple routes. All routes could start at the STA Plaza, for simplicity and convenience. Limit stops and use park and rides and transit centers as terminuses. Consider two north routes (including via Gonzaga University), a South Hill route (via Browne’s Addition), and a Valley route, at the bare minimum. Don’t do pickups; this is outbound service for those out downtown Friday and Saturday late nights.
  • Simple timetables. Assuming this service would be operated mostly on Friday and Saturday nights, cater to the audience. Make the departure times super simple. All routes could leave the STA Plaza at the same time. Use easy-to-remember departure times. In Freiburg, the five night bus routes left the Central Train Station at 11:11pm, 12:12am, 1:11am, 2:22am, 3:33am, and 4:44am. Spokane could use a variation of this model.
  • Simple fares. To simplify the fare structure, charge a $5 flat rate for everyone, regardless of whether or not they have a monthly or daily pass. This further separates nighttime service from daytime commuter service.
  • Simple connections, if necessary. Last-mile connections to taxis or Uber/Lyft drivers should be made as uncomplicated as possible; allow these operators to create a stand in park and ride/transit center lots.

Sure, Spokane isn’t Europe. But we do have a strong downtown late-night scene, especially in the Globe/Borracho/Nyne/Zola area. A super-simple night bus would allow these revelers to enjoy the night a bit longer and hopefully reduce instances of DUI. It would also be cheaper than a more complicated solution, and would offer far better fare recovery for STA. And what better way to introduce improved service than with one that would be so easy to use?

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: Would you use such a “night bus” system as described here? What holds you back from going downtown on a Friday or Saturday night? Would better nighttime transportation make it easier for you? What’s your vision for the future of later service on STA? Share your thoughts below in the comments, on Facebook, and on Twitter. We love to hear from you!