A lonesome, weed-strewn row of empty parking lots and vacant buildings east of the former U-City Mall got the nod from city leaders Thursday that could turn the area into a new 20-acre city center that many residents have envisioned since the city was formed.
“If you’ve got to have a starting point, this makes sense,” said Councilman Rich Munson at a joint meeting of the City Council and Planning Commission.
“It pretty closely echoes what we’ve heard from the community in the last few years,” said Councilman Mike DeVleming before the group reached a consensus to tentatively plan the center on a site sandwiched between Sprague and former railroad right of way set aside for the extension of Appleway.
Thursday was the council’s first take on a study it commissioned earlier this year to redevelop the neglected Sprague strip.
“The corridor presents a highly negative image of what the city really is,” said architect Michael Freedman, who is leading the team of urban-design and transportation experts conducting the $400,000 study.
“The idea is, always begin at the city center and plan from the city center outward,” he said.
The study eventually will call for new zoning and new development patterns along the entirety of Sprague and Appleway.
Phyllis Wardle is one of the only people left who lives directly off Sprague. Her front yard now ends at a long stretch of parking lot that once served a theater near where the city is talking about creating a city center.
Her family has lived and done business on the street for the last 70 years, she said. They’ve also felt the effect of almost every planning and transportation decision made concerning the commercial strip.
Wardle had to deal with business traffic and trespassing when the theater was there, then transients and crime when they left. And while she’s wary of the city and government agencies she holds responsible for the business impacts of the Sprague-Appleway couplet and other decisions, Wardle said she’d be happy if Spokane Valley did something about the decaying properties outside her window.
“I hope they develop them. I’d be willing to move,” she said.
Elsewhere in the county, new city centers like the one proposed are built less like a traditional downtown than an outdoor shopping center designed to look like one. Civic buildings, public areas and apartments are included in the mix of carefully planned property.
According to a presentation by the consultants, the economic formula to build a center usually involves finding one or more retail anchor stores to place along a slow-moving street about 1,000 feet long. Smaller chain stores and local businesses rent attractive storefronts nearby that open onto the street, and customers park in lots behind the rows of stores. Office and residential uses are restricted to floors above the retail area and ensure a consistent number of people are coming and going from the area every day.
“City centers are the hottest development type in the shopping industry,” Freedman said at a community meeting Wednesday night.
In the previous months, his team mapped the footprint of existing buildings on Sprague. They then identified which properties would be the most susceptible to sale if someone offered to redevelop them.
The city center project requires at least 15 acres, and only two areas that size met all of the requirements – the dilapidated U-City Mall and a string of unused properties just east of it.
The city initially wanted to build the city center at the former mall, but last year its owners indicated they weren’t interested.
In a recent focus group, though, property owners east of University Road, which include the owners of U-City, indicated that they would support a city center there if Spokane Valley made a commitment to the site, Freedman said.
Issues surrounding how to finance a city center, what it would look like and planning on the rest of the corridor will be the subject of future meetings and council decisions in the coming months.
Thursday, Freedman laid out three ways that cities develop city centers the council will have to consider in the future.
The most expensive, but also most effective, option, he said, is for the city to buy the land to ensure nothing else is built on it and then sell it to a developer who will develop it according to the city’s goals. Another way is to set up regulations that specify what the city wants built there, then build a civic building or other publicly funded structure to entice developers to invest there. The third option is to enact the zoning and regulations and wait for investors.
A meeting on the redevelopment of large portions of Sprague outside the city center is scheduled for Oct. 11. Transportation and street design issues will also likely be discussed. A separate meeting on those topics is scheduled for Nov. 30.