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!

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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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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Mobile Murals site at 3rd and Division apparently set for pseudo-strip mall

The proposed development at 3rd and Division eschews any attempt at an "urban form," instead falling back on more suburban-style amenities and features, such as 46 parking spaces. (PHOTO: Spokane Planning's Citizen Access System)

The Santillanes’ proposed development at 3rd and Division eschews any attempt at an “urban form,” instead falling back on more suburban-style amenities and features, such as 46 parking spaces. (PHOTO: Spokane Planning’s Citizen Access System)

First, the good news: it appears that the Mobile Murals won’t need to be around 3rd and Division for much longer, as a local developer plans to break ground on a new project there. Now, the bad news: said project will eschew any semblance of urban form in favor of a more suburban, strip mall-esque design.

Recall that local hoteliers Rita and John Santillanes, planning to build a Best Western Peppertree, purchased the lot in 2008 and moved quickly to demolish the existing Lutheran church that was on the premises. Funding fell through late in the year when Bank of Whitman collapsed. It never returned. Last year, the Downtown Spokane Partnership, City of Spokane, and Spokane Arts partnered, and along with other community groups like Spokane Rising, built temporary murals to create a more vibrant and exciting gateway to downtown than the rebar and concrete that had plagued the site for the preceding six years.

Now, Santillanes says she’s ready to restart development at the site. It won’t be a hotel; the nearly-complete Davenport Grand scuttled those plans. Instead, the two have planned a $2 million two-story mixed office/retail building, which will become the home of operations for their four Best Western Peppertree Inns. Office space will occupy the second floor, while Brooke Baker, of the presumed contractor, Baker Construction, hopes to find a fast casual restaurant (a la Chipotle) to occupy one of the several ground-floor retail slots. Great news, right? After all, now the lot won’t be filled with ugly urban decay and the Mobile Murals can move on to another unsightly empty lot.

Wrong. See the above tentative site plan from the Pre-Development Conference hosted with the City of Spokane’s Planning & Development Services Department. Note that the building is set back from the corner at 3rd and Division, features an obscene 46 parking stalls, includes a drive-through window, and includes few if any urban design elements. Now, we have not yet seen renderings, but as it stands, the design is “standard” in every sense of the term. Moreover, it conflicts with the principles set forth in the Division Street Gateway project, which seeks to improve pedestrian access/safety and beautify Spokane’s most important intersection. We can’t help but feel that this project flies in the face of those goals.

Luckily, there’s a simple fix. All Santillanes must do to improve the building, create a better pedestrian experience, and ensure that downtown Spokane does not become an extension of East Sprague or North Division, is construct this building to the corner, with parking in the rear. It’s a simple fix, but it’s one that would work, and it’s one that would make a difference for times to come in visitors’ first impressions of Spokane. Construction is anticipated to begin in May. Can we make a difference? Shout loud and clear to your nearest City Councilperson (click on the name of yours for contact information) that you think downtown Spokane deserves better. Contact the Planning Department directly. Or, better yet, the developers, Rita and John Santillanes. We can build a better downtown. The first step? Refusal to accept continued mediocrity.

The Value of Public Space in Urban Environments

“Pocket parks” like this one in New York City can create vibrant urban gathering spaces that entice passersby and residents alike. And they pay long-term economic dividends too! (PHOTO: Sustainable Cities Collective)

Urban Land reports on the importance of public spaces in making livable communities work. Specifically, the article focuses on the value of parks, gardens, rooftop gardens, and other spaces in urban environments, as well as the return that they generate. The High Line, in New York City, for example, cost the city $115 million in public funds and $44 million from the private sector, but increased boosted property values around the 1.5-mile elevated former freight rail line by as much as $2 billion and added 12,000 jobs to the local economy. That’s a killer ROI.

In addition, the article notes that safety and accessibility are key, as is adaptability. If the park or public space cannot be used for other purposes, then in many cases it may as well not be built. Hopefully the planners of the Riverfront Park Master Plan will keep this in mind when working on designs. We’ve also heard that the South Hill Coalition has some pocket parks and other small urban spaces up their sleeves as well, so perhaps we could see some nice urban spaces in neighborhoods in our future.

What do you think? Could Spokane use more urban spaces? What does the ROI for the High Line tell you about the economic potential of open space and public space investment? Share your comments here, on Facebook, on Twitter, or in person. We love to hear from you!

Boise adds “bicycle boxes” to its urban street grid

Boise is adding “bicycle boxes” as a better way to give cyclists the necessary space and comfort at red-light intersections. (PHOTO: Ada County Highway District)

The Ada County Highway District in Boise (their downtown street grid is managed by a highway district?) has announced that it is installing “bicycle boxes” at intersections on several major downtown Boise streets. These simple green markings have been used in cities like Portland and New York City to try to reduce vehicle-versus-bicycle collisions. They’re also experimenting with “buffered” bike lanes, in which lanes are separated from vehicular traffic by about a lane’s width of empty space.

This could be a quick, inexpensive, and bicycle-friendly solution to the problem of bike-vehicle collisions in downtown Spokane. It would be pretty cheap to implement, and could be completed as part of ongoing restriping and maintenance efforts (perhaps when Main is finally two-way?).

What do you think? What would it take to get Spokane to adopt this simple, yet elegant solution? Share your thoughts below, on Facebook, on Twitter, and in person. We want to hear from you!