August 14, 2009 in City

South Hill group bows out of fight against big retailers

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A neighborhood vote this week smooths the way for the biggest retail center the South Hill has seen in decades, if not ever.

The Southgate Neighborhood Council ended its long battle to prevent big box development along Regal Street near the Palouse Highway. Members of the council said they will give up their legal fight to focus on holding developers to a series of agreements, which they approved Wednesday 15-0 with two abstentions. The same agreements are expected to be approved Monday by the Spokane City Council.

“Most of us were pretty much opposed to a big box development, but we lost that battle,” said Pat Hickey, Southgate’s chairman.

The approval clears the way for construction of three stores up to 105,000 square feet – or up to 135,000 square feet for a Target. One site had been planned for Home Depot, but the retailer backed out late last year, citing the poor economy.

Smaller stores, up to 50,000 and 55,000 square feet, also will be allowed.

Neighbors at the meeting continued to question how Regal Street, part of which is only three lanes, can handle traffic from large stores. They also cited storm water concerns and said suburban-style big box development isn’t compatible with a city neighborhood.

Supporters of the projects argue that the South Hill is woefully underserved by retail stores, sending south side residents – and their money and sales taxes – to Spokane Valley.

Stan Schwartz, an attorney for some of the property owners, said the agreements, which require the projects to go through the city’s Design Review Committee, create bike and pedestrian links and meet other conditions, make possible development that is “integrated into the community fabric.”

“Will there be a 105,000-square-foot box? I don’t know. Respectfully, it ain’t going to look like Shopko, if for no other reason than (this) agreement will not allow that,” Schwartz said, referring to the nearby store that neighbors have criticized as blight.

Last year, city leaders worked with developers and the neighborhood council to find compromises in plans for big box stores on the 45 acres owned by Black Development, KXLY and others.

The City Council voted last summer to change zoning to allow big box stores, with restrictions. The neighborhood challenged the decision.

Rick Eichstaedt, an attorney for the neighborhood council, said fighting the zoning change may not yield much more than a “paper victory,” because developers could submit an application and begin construction, even if a court later rules the zone change was illegal.

Catalyst for activism

Southgate is one of a few development hot spots in town that, in part, sparked the creation of Envision Spokane, the group that placed a controversial set of rights on the November ballot, including the right of neighborhoods to veto development under certain circumstances.

Brad Read, president of Envision’s board, said it was the proposed Wal-Mart at 44th and Regal, which has since been abandoned, that led him on a path to work on Envision’s Community Bill of Rights.

Southgate is one of five neighborhood councils that have representatives on Envision’s board. Others include Peaceful Valley, which organized in the past few years against a condo tower, and Five Mile, where residents have long argued that development has overburdened roads and other services.

“It would give us a chance to have input into what goes into our neighborhoods,” said Ginger Patano, vice chairwoman of Southgate and an Envision board member.

No elected city leader or anyone running for City Council in next week’s primary has endorsed Envision Spokane’s plan. Council candidate Jon Snyder, for instance, said the proposal goes too far, potentially endangering private property rights.

Candidates weigh in

Incumbent Councilman Mike Allen voted in favor of the Southgate zoning change. He said creation of retail center in the Southgate area would be good for Spokane.

“There’s also a lot of population density around that center which should make it very vibrant and successful,” Allen said.

Two of Allen’s opponents said they would have voted against the zoning change.

“The whole Southgate matter is and will be a sad chapter in the history of the development of a livable Spokane community,” said former City Councilman Steve Eugster in an e-mail. “Quite honestly, it is senseless.”

Snyder, publisher of Out There Monthly, cited the city’s comprehensive plan – its long-term growth guide. Neighborhood leaders argued that the city couldn’t make the zoning changes until a more intensive city planning process for the area was completed. That process is under way.

“There’s just not adequate reason to amend the comp plan to allow more big box stores in Southgate, especially without doing the neighborhood planning process as called for in the comp plan,” Snyder said.

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