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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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!

Shame on you, KHQ

A recognizable voice takes on a hostile inflection. Provocative questions are raised as questions appear on-screen. “More state funding is needed…but at what cost? And why does Spokane need this when STA routes are already in place?”

Barring the fallacious nature of that question (Who or what gives KHQ the authority to say that STA has sufficient route coverage? Isn’t that for STA and urban planners to decide?), it is clear the KHQ has overstepped its bounds with the promotion of this story. The role of the news media is to inform the public; not inform the public opinion. By taking a clearly anti-trolleybus stance in the run-up to Thursday, the station has chosen to pass judgment and deliberately influence the opinions of citizens. But their role as a news agency is not to tell viewers what is right or wrong. It is to tell viewers, clearly and precisely, the news. And only the news. Their job is to report, not to reflect.

Now, even if their main story finds that the trolleybus proposal is a good one that should be funded, a majority of their viewers, who do not watch KHQ Local News but do turn in for NBC primetime, will be under the impression that the plan is a bad one that should be tossed out. Simply because the promotional said as much.

We decry this shoddy communications tactic, and urge KHQ to make a full apology, post-haste. If you respect responsible journalism and envision a greater transportation future for Spokane than simply road improvements, we urge you to visit KHQ’s Facebook Page and leave a note in support of transit alternatives and opposing their ridiculous ad. And don’t forget to watch the story on Thursday and tell them what you think. The local media should not take sides in these critical debates about our city’s future. They should report the news. Only the news.

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