The fault line in the race for a City Council seat representing southern Spokane is at Palouse Highway and Regal Street.
Last year, Councilman Mike Allen voted to change rules to allow construction of big-box stores near the intersection.
That decision and development requirements approved with it are “an opportunity for the city to really have a great urban center with a very vibrant atmosphere,” Allen said recently.
But his opponent in the November election, Jon Snyder, describes the decision as “reckless” and says it will promote urban sprawl, create traffic headaches and drain opportunity from existing business centers.
If the primary vote is a hint about the competition in the contest, the race between Snyder and Allen will be close. In the August tally, Snyder topped a list of six candidates with 31 percent, compared with Allen’s 27 percent. Since then, Allen earned the endorsement of third-place finisher Kristina Sabestinas, while the fourth-place finisher, former City Councilman Steve Eugster, has backed Snyder.
Snyder also won the support of the Spokane County Democratic Party for the nonpartisan seat and has raised twice the money that Allen has. The Republican Party decided against making a recommendation in the race, a decision Allen said reflects his moderate views on social issues. Allen, like Snyder, supports domestic partner benefits for city employees, for example.
Allen was appointed in December 2007 to the District 2 seat vacated by Mary Verner when she became mayor. When he got the job, Allen said he likely wouldn’t run when the term ended. But earlier this year, he said he liked the work so much that he gave up his job as Eastern Washington University’s corporate and foundation relations director to focus on city duties and running for election.
Last year, Allen was one of two council members who voted against a contract with the city’s largest employee union. He said the city couldn’t afford 5 percent annual pay increases called for in the agreement. This summer he voted to support Verner’s plan to address an expected $7 million 2010 deficit. That strategy includes closing half the shortfall by securing concessions from labor unions representing city workers.
Snyder said he would have voted in favor of the labor contract last year but approves of Verner’s budget strategy. “She has the credibility with the unions to be the lead negotiator on the labor contracts and get them to produce the concessions when we need them,” Snyder said.
In May, Allen voted for Verner’s Sustainability Plan for reducing the city’s negative effect on climate change after inserting language stressing that the council was accepting a report, not adopting the measures.
Snyder said Allen’s insertion indicates he was trying to placate critics of the plan – some of whom cited the United Nations in their opposition.
“I will listen to the U.N. folks and then I will see that what they’re saying is ridiculous and move on and try to prepare the city for the future,” Snyder said.
Allen said he “listens very carefully to everyone’s input,” and that he inserted the language to make sure everyone understood that the plan was full of recommendations, not changes in law or city funding.
The addition was a signal to supporters “that they need to stay engaged,” Allen said.
While environmental and labor issues have surfaced in the contest, questions on development have caused the most passionate debate between the candidates.
In conversations about the Southgate big-box controversy, Allen points to efforts made to win concessions from developers and said the final agreement approved by the city ensures quality design, protects the neighborhood from problems with storm water and mandates that developers will help pay for traffic upgrades and a community plaza.
“The neighborhood was more involved during that six months leading up to the discussion of what was going to happen with Southgate than probably any other neighborhood potentially ever had,” he said.
But Snyder, the publisher of Out There Monthly, argues the city’s so-called “charettes” – planning negotiations held last year among city officials, neighbors and developers – was little more than window dressing to development that will change the character of Southgate for the worse.
“The neighborhood was promised a full planning process and what they got was a couple-day charette and then they got the rug pulled out from under them,” Snyder said. “I don’t know how we can look at this as a positive for Spokane.”
Snyder, who remodeled the former Cowley School into a three-unit apartment building where he and his family live, said he often shopped at Ace Hardware on Regal Street during construction and worries the business will be hurt by new big-box stores.
“I don’t know how you can go in there and tell them that we’re going to allow three 100,000-square-foot-plus big-box stores … and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to favor these new out-of-town big-box stores.’ ”
But Allen questioned why the city would protect Ace from competition when the city didn’t protect Miller’s Hardware – a longtime neighborhood institution – from competition from Ace.
Snyder said the new stores at Southgate “suck the lifeblood” out of neighborhood centers like South Perry and Manito Shopping Center.
“Those types of neighborhoods don’t get a chance when this kind of development happens,” Snyder said. The City Council is “reacting and not leading on these sorts of development issues.”
Allen said he strongly supports efforts to improve commerce in the smaller business districts but that barring construction of big-box stores in Southgate would have pushed developers and their tax dollars elsewhere – causing even more sprawl.
“Just saying no, I don’t think, was part of the solution,” Allen said. “I try to find solutions that are business friendly, yet still add services and help our community and neighborhoods.”