The Spokane City Council’s vote on Monday to ban stand-alone surface parking lots in the core of the city was understandable, under the circumstances. But with a major parking study coming up in 2010, it shouldn’t be considered the final word.
Even when mitigated with strips of grass and a smattering of trees, surface parking lots are aesthetic dead zones in the urban landscape and the fewer the better. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the Spokane Plan Commission would recommend the ban as part of an updated Downtown Plan and the council approve.
But a mere edict, while appealing, does nothing to correct the underlying economic factors that make surface parking the use of choice for some property developers and owners. Old, vacant, boarded-up buildings are eyesores, too, as well as hazardous. But they’re expensive to renovate, and building anew is a dubious strategy in a market where rental rates don’t justify construction costs. If property ownership in downtown Spokane is that risky, who will invest here?
Meanwhile, some observers fear a rush of demolition permits before the ban takes effect.
For now, the city is pinched between conflicting values. While property rights must be respected, free-market decisions that damage the character of downtown are not an acceptable solution either.
Spokane has a rich architectural heritage, so one obvious goal is to preserve older buildings as affordable commercial and residential space rather than level them. For a vibrant future marked by active street life, we also need a core that accommodates pedestrians, bicycles, transit and other means of mobility besides acres of personal vehicles.
Which is where the Downtown Spokane Partnership’s next parking study comes in.
A similar effort five years ago continues to be widely used by developers making plans about how to use their property. But much has changed in downtown Spokane since then and a new study promises valuable updated information to guide not only developers but also civic and government leaders as they map out the urban vitality Spokane wants in its future.
What we don’t want is a barren downtown that offers abundant places to park but little to entice anyone to go there.
The 2010 parking study is expected to draw on successful strategies practiced by other cities while filling in details about how and when downtown Spokane’s 9,000-plus parking spaces are used. Out of all this, city leaders ultimately need to formulate plans and strategies that will discourage the misuse of core-area properties for stand-alone surface parking while creating incentives for construction and preservation.
It’s not likely that such lots will disappear anytime soon, but their spread must be stemmed. A simple ban isn’t a lasting answer, but the one passed Monday buys us time to meet the challenge.