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Students to offer plans for Riverpoint growth

The idea of developing a university district surrounding the Riverpoint campus has drawn a lot of discussion, planning and support in recent years.

Now some college students are trying to push the idea closer to reality.

Students from Washington State University and Eastern Washington University will present proposals for “smart growth” in the university district at a public forum tonight. The event comes in advance of a planned January visit by a team of Environmental Protection Agency officials who will further promote mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development in the district.

“The way we saw it was an hors d’oeuvre before the main meal,” said Bob Scarfo, associate professor in the Interdisciplinary Design Institute at WSU in Spokane.

Scarfo’s design students have collaborated on the project with graduate students in urban planning from EWU. They’re looking at ways that development might meet the tenets of smart growth – an emphasis on mixing residences and businesses, higher density and more efficient designs, and a walkable, neighborhood approach. Such developments could include buildings of two to four stories, with commercial or light industrial uses on the lower floors, and living spaces on the top.

Supporters of such design point to high-profile examples like Seattle’s Pike Street Market, and say smart growth benefits communities by reducing energy and water use, increasing social interaction and providing health benefits by encouraging walking.

But such development goes against the grain of tradition, and cities often use zoning regulations to keep businesses and housing separate. Though the university district area was rezoned recently to allow mixed-use projects, smart growth remains unfamiliar to many developers and lenders who might finance it.

“The hard part is how do you get projects?” said Dick Winchell, professor of urban planning at EWU. “How do you make it work?”

Tonight’s presentation and the EPA visit in January are designed to help get over that hurdle. Spokane is one of five cities in the country that have received EPA grants to promote smart growth.

The Riverpoint campus has grown significantly in the past several years, with a WSU classroom building opening last fall and construction on a nursing building under way. EWU is considering a new facility at Riverpoint once it sells its downtown building.

But business development and housing around the campus are still catching up. Tonight’s forum will include presentations of student proposals for developments along the Sprague Avenue business district between Division and Sherman.

Scarfo said there are signs Spokane is ready for smart growth, including the recent boom in downtown condominiums. That indicates that there are people interested in living downtown, which could help spur development in a university district.

“We’ve got Eastern, we’ve got WSU, we’ve got Gonzaga literally within walking distance of downtown,” he said. “This isn’t an academic exercise. This is real.”