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New Urbanism On The Horizon Volunteers Create Comprehensive Plan For Future Of Spokane

First of two parts

They postpone vacations for meetings, pass up a grandchild’s softball game for a session on congested roadways, and skip dinner parties with friends for slide shows on urban design.

For the past year, 200 Spokane residents have traded their spare time to work on developing a new comprehensive plan for the city.

It’s a daunting task.

Their assignment: find room for a projected 54,000 new residents in the next 20 years while curbing sprawl and improving quality of life.

They’re working to answer numerous questions. Where will those newcomers live? Where will they park their cars? How many new roads, water lines and sewer pipes will have to be added for them?

Already they’ve developed almost 2,000 suggestions for ways to improve the city, done months of research and become experts on planning and design. Phrases such as “single occupancy vehicle” and “208 swales” slip into their daily vocabulary.

If all goes as planned, this winter they will present to the City Council a blueprint for 21st century development.

“Spokane is at a crossroads. I want to play a part in the direction it goes,” said attorney Kelly Nolen, one of the 200 volunteers working on the Spokane Horizons project.

“These committees are obsessed with the idea of a better living style for Spokane,” said Richard Kielbon, an architect who joined the group.

“We are determined not to do this in a … merely practical way. This has the opportunity to strongly enhance the quality of life in this city. It is exciting, that’s what it is.”

When the Horizons group pictures Spokane in the future it sees a place designed for people instead of cars. Preliminary proposals call for a vital downtown, close-knit neighborhoods and a lot more trees.

“There is a fascinating pattern that is developing, like a tapestry,” said volunteer Laura Ackerman, a Garry Park neighborhood activist.

The ideas for Spokane are part of a planning philosophy called new urbanism. Several cities across the country have used many of the principles. Planners embrace the philosophy as a way to control sprawl and encourage higher-density - but livable - neighborhoods.

“This is a national trend, we are just putting it out on the table to look at in Spokane,” said city planner Steve Franks.

In the group’s emerging plan for the city, Spokane might look more like it did in the 1920s and less like it looks today.

There would be compact communities and villages instead of subdivisions. Neighbors would walk or ride bikes to shopping areas that blend into neighborhoods, such as the tree-lined Garland shopping district.

Instead of parking lots, there might be sidewalk cafes, shaded streets resembling West Riverside in front of the Spokane Club, and lots of landscaped mini-parks.

Commuters would catch convenient buses, ride bikes - even step onto a glistening, electric monorail that would whisk them to work.

Today’s large lots and sprawling subdivisions would still exist, but many people would live in cozy neighborhoods or spacious modern flats and townhouses downtown.

“All of this is controversial,” Franks said. “In the end, we have to make sure we have something that is realistic and viable.”

Comprehensive plan

Involving the public in the design of a new comprehensive plan is required by the state’s 1990 Growth Management Act. The new plan will replace the one created in the late 1970s.

State law requires cities and counties to plan ahead for growth, where it will occur, how services and facilities will be paid for, and at the same time protect forest and agricultural lands.

Few cities have gone to the lengths Spokane has to involve citizens.

“We’re smart enough to know we, as planners, don’t represent the full value system of the community,” said city planner Chris Hugo, who is leading Spokane Horizons.

Already $1.5 million has been invested in the grass-roots planning project, about half from the city’s general fund, the rest from a state grant. The money pays for a staff of 10 part-time and fulltime planners, publications, computer programs and consultants.

Spokane Horizons received a top award from the American Planning Association last year for its efforts to include citizens.

Horizons started in 1995 with a series of community meetings to collect ideas on issues important to city residents.

Volunteers have been meeting for a year. They’re divided into 10 work groups, each assigned a topic such as land use, transportation, historic preservation or the environment.

“The tough part is getting past today and seeing where we want to be in the long haul. We’re planning for the next generation,” Hugo said.

“Historically it was possible to ignore the comprehensive plan, but under growth management it is a strong tool, it has teeth,” Hugo said.

Planners will winnow the group’s 2,000 suggestions into four or five proposals that will be presented to the public in early fall. Included will be information on the economic impact of each.

City officials still haven’t decided how the proposals will be presented to citizens, but the top options may be included in utility bills, introduced at community meetings or discussed at neighborhood councils.

“A little selling is going to have to go on,” said committee member Kielbon.

The most popular proposal will be the basis for a more-detailed comprehensive plan considered by the Plan Commission. Public hearings will then be held before the plan reaches the City Council for final approval sometime this winter.

Once adopted, it becomes the city’s blueprint for the next 20 years. Under new state regulations, the comprehensive plan can be amended only once a year.

Trouble spots

Horizons volunteers started work by studying Spokane’s problems: growth in every direction, from Moran Prairie to Five Mile Prairie; strip shopping centers; air pollution from cars; traffic congestion; and potholed streets.

They defined other deficiencies, including a shortage of parks and wildlife habitat, a decaying downtown, ugly apartment houses and a sagging economy.

Volunteers said an image began to form of a sprawling, faceless Spokane that’s difficult to maintain. Basic services, including fire, police and road repairs, are getting more expensive to provide.

Already the City Council is considering borrowing $6.2 million to fix 13 city streets because voters defeated a street bond last fall and the city is out of money.

The culprit is the car, volunteers say.

The way Spokane has developed in the last 50 years forces residents to drive almost everywhere, and to drive farther. Even a dash to the store for a gallon of milk means jumping into the car.

“We are building to serve the needs of automobiles, not people,” said city planner Franks, assigned to the transportation committee.

For some, proposals coming out of Horizons are practically un-American.

“Everything they do is anti-car, and that isn’t realistic,” said Suzanne Knapp, governmental affairs coordinator for the Spokane Home Builders Association.

“We have to recognize that we live in a diverse community. I live in a condo downtown, but that’s not what everyone wants,” said Knapp, who attends some of the Horizons work groups and reads the newsletters.

“Their proposal shows a lack of respect for other people’s needs.

“It’s a lot of hype and propaganda to get their personal agendas across. We need good planning in Spokane, not Utopian ideals.”

Horizons volunteers acknowledge conflicts are inevitable as they begin fine-tuning a comprehensive plan.

“There are not enough people involved with a wider scope of ideas,” said B.J. Sparling, a survey technician for Inland Pacific Engineering in Spokane.

“We are getting some personal preferences, for example, that we should all ride bikes to work, or live in quaint apartments. The Browne’s Addition-type thing. I have a different temperament. I wouldn’t enjoy living like that.

“I don’t want to discourage anyone from the process,” added Sparling, who worked on the land-use committee. “My biggest concern is that people don’t get involved until the last minute.

“Get involved now, when it’s still a child. Don’t wait until it’s a grown-up document.”

Voices missing

Many Spokane residents still haven’t heard about Horizons.

Planners say they’re stymied.

To spread the word, the planning department has held open houses, mailed newsletters, even printed yard signs warning: “It’s 11 p.m. … do you know where your future is?”

The lack of general interest may be because comprehensive plans just aren’t sexy. Talk of traffic counts, sewers, growth boundaries and density puts some people to sleep.

Some simply haven’t heard of the project, like Tina St. Marie, who walked past a large, brightly colored “Spokane Horizons” poster in the lobby of the downtown library recently.

After pausing to read, the Emerson-Garfield mom called the project a “good idea.”

“This city has a lot of problems, and so many people are moving in,” she said.

South Hill resident Craig Beaumont walked past the same poster and said he is “somewhat” familiar with Horizons. He definitely cares about parks, traffic, safety and other issues facing the city, he said.

“It’s a good question. I don’t know why I haven’t taken the time to get involved,” he said.

Many volunteers and city planners say the project has drawn scant media attention. Lack of information may have kept some potential participants away.

Those missing or underrepresented include: business and ethnic groups, young people, the poor, builders and developers.

Some who haven’t gotten involved said grassroots planning is a waste of time, and that city officials won’t listen. They say the end result has already been decided, and holding workshops is patronizing.

“I’ve been to one of their get-togethers,” said Bill Mote, who lives in the Indian Trail neighborhood.

“Spokane Horizons is more front than meat; more for appearance than for accomplishment.

“I feel it’s not designed for individuals like me to really have a voice. I thought I should spend my time elsewhere,” he said.

But boosters say it’s a rare opportunity.

“This should be an exciting time for the whole community. It’s an opportunity to participate in what you want your city to be,” said George Nachtsheim, the city Plan Commission representative on Horizons’ executive board.

“It means incorporating values - the good things people remember about their neighborhoods where they grew up, and places they’ve visited,” he said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)