July 8, 2008 in City

South Hill big-box decision praised and criticized

By and The Spokesman-Review
 

Local leaders are hailing an intensive series of talks between neighbors and developers that led the Spokane City Council last week to approve a cluster of major retail developments on the South Hill.

But some neighbors involved in the process dispute that the meetings – some lasting hours or days – created true compromise.

Would-be developers of the three parcels around South Regal Street and the Palouse Highway ultimately agreed to about a dozen concessions, such as preserving views, restrictions on cutting down trees and creation of a storm water collection system.

“For us it seemed like a way forward,” said Spokane Mayor Mary Verner a few days prior to the council vote. “In other areas of town, if we have a really adamant positioning – posturing by developers and neighborhoods – maybe we can use this same model to resolve those in the future.”

Southgate Neighborhood Council President Teresa Kafentzis, however, said the process circumvented thorough neighborhood input.

“It wasn’t a negotiation, and it wasn’t neighborhood planning,” she said. “The neighborhood felt that it set a very bad precedent in that neighborhood planning will now be directed by the Planning Department, and they will say this is what you will plan.”

Concerned about that issue, the board of Seattle-based responsible-growth advocacy group Futurewise will consider appealing the decision, said Dan Cantrell, executive director. An appeal would go before the Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board.

Before the negotiations, neighbors for months had fought the proposals to allow big-box stores on land designated only for homes and apartments. Developers say one of the stores will be a Home Depot and have indicated another might be a Target.

Spokane’s long-term growth guide – the comprehensive plan – says a change like the one made by the City Council last week requires drafting a neighborhood plan that is much more detailed than what was discussed in the negotiations last month.

Instead, members of the Southgate neighborhood and developers focused on three parcels while an independent consultant crafted concepts for the properties in search of a compromise.

“It’s been a very progressive process, and it’s been an innovative one for the city of Spokane,” said Bill Grimes, the planning consultant hired by the city.

Grimes’ company, Spokane-based Studio Cascade, has done similar work around the state in situations where local governments wanted help resolving issues that could be “difficult politically if they’re not discussed openly,” he said.

In the South Hill case, neighborhood leaders wanted commitments by developers to set aside land for streets to ease congestion, arguing that the area is served only by two- or three-lane streets. They also wanted guarantees that building fronts would be placed adjacent to sidewalks with parking in back to promote pedestrian usage and an urban feel. Those requests were rejected in negotiations.

Planning Director Leroy Eadie said developers made important concessions. For instance, they wanted zoning that would have had no restrictions on the size of buildings or how many could be built. The three parcels likely could hold four or five big-box stores with more than 100,000 square feet each, but the deal approved by the City Council only allows three, Eadie said.

It was “really kind of a remarkable process to get developers who in some ways could be considered competitors” to work together and with the neighbors, said Spokane architect Gary Bernardo, who was hired by a Home Depot representative.

“A lot of projects in Spokane, there’s a mistrust between developers and neighborhoods, and probably some of that is warranted,” Bernardo said. “In this situation, both parties realized the risk in not collaborating was far greater than the risk in collaborating.”

The process may have been smoother, however, if it happened earlier, Bernardo said.

That’s what neighbors wanted, too, Kafentzis said, contending they did not receive support from the city. Neighbors sent a letter last summer to try to initiate neighborhood planning and were the ones who pushed to meet with developers, she said.

For Councilman Michael Allen, who pushed for compromise, the process “might be a template to help other neighborhoods and other developers find a resolution that works for everyone,” he said prior to the council vote.”I think the long-term applications could be very positive,” he said.

Yet Kafentzis also worries the council decision sets a precedent for misusing comprehensive-plan amendments for “spot zoning” – designating small areas for commercial use – in other high-growth neighborhoods under the premise of increasing the city’s tax base.

“We aren’t the only open land on the edge of town,” she said.


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