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Spokane giving smaller home lots a tryout

FRIDAY, AUG. 22, 2014

Affordable homes on smaller, urban lots. That’s how Jim Frank is succeeding in the coveted mixed-use Kendall Yards development on the north edge of the Spokane River gorge.

Frank said the price for the smallest 1,000-square-foot townhouses has jumped $30,000 since the first homes were sold in 2011.

The wait list and leap in price is simple supply and demand economics; a lot of people want one, and only one place is offering them.

Frank, the CEO of Greenstone, the company developing the former railroad property on the north bank of the Spokane River, showed up at this week’s City Council meeting to advocate for a change in city law allowing for homes to be built on smaller lots.

In other words, Frank wants Kendall Yards to spring up all over the city.

On Monday, the council approved a pilot program allowing three existing cottage housing projects to divide up the land under the dwellings and sell them separately. The project aims to allow for a “new form of ownership” in Spokane: small homes on small lots that more people can afford. Frank told the council they should expand the program to include the entire city.

“The fact that it is so restrictive is a serious mistake. I honestly believe there is almost nothing to learn from it because it is so restrictive,” Frank said. “If you’re looking to whether this works or not, you don’t have to look any further than Kendall Yards.”

Frank’s development can build “nonconforming” homes because it’s in a “Planned Unit Development” district approved by the city in 2006 that allows for such homes.

“I’m very interested in encouraging homeownership in West Central, and in all neighborhoods,” Frank said later by phone. “The type of townhouses we’ve built in Kendall Yards can’t be built across the street. That’s the problem I’m trying to address.”

In Frank’s telling, the idea seems simple and sure to succeed.

The city is not so confident, and is interested in only letting a few existing developments try it at first to test if there’s a market for smaller homes in Spokane.

Council President Ben Stuckart supports the experiment, but says it’s just that: a trial.

“We’re just seeing if it works on these existing ones,” Stuckart said at the council meeting. After the meeting, Stuckart said he’d support expanding the project to include entire neighborhoods that lie close to downtown, such as West Central, East Central and lower parts of the South Hill and the North Side.

Currently, minimum lot size for residential single family homes is about 4,300 square feet. On the other hand, minimum lot size for a residential multifamily – one unit in an apartment complex – is about 1,400 square feet. The city’s zoning code doesn’t allow residences that are built on multifamily lots to be sold separately. This experimental ordinance changes that.

“Why can I build it as a rental but not for home ownership? Why would you restrict that?” said Frank, noting that West Central’s renters outnumber its homeowners by almost 2-1, opposite of the rest of the city.

Ron Wells, who owns a 10-cottage development on Coeur d’Alene Street in Vinegar Flats that is part of the pilot project, said the program is worthwhile but he agreed it should be expanded.

“It’s the right way to encourage infill housing in urban areas,” Wells said. “Rationally, it shouldn’t make that much difference if it’s existing or new. … The reality is people want smaller, more efficient homes than large, inefficient houses.”

Frank said the city was struggling with contradictory rules on the city books. The city’s Comprehensive Plan calls for “the efficient use of land by the use of … density and mixed-use development in proximity to retail businesses, public services, places of work, and transportation services,” something generally referred to as “infill.” In contrast, Frank said, the city has a development code “that is very suburban,” which restricts home ownership on anything other than large lots.

Stuckart said there wasn’t necessarily a contradiction in city code, but rather a recognition that different neighborhoods have different characteristics.

“There are two things nobody likes: sprawl and density. There’s a constant tension,” Stuckart said. “People in Five Mile bought those big lots because they don’t want little tiny lots around them. I don’t think neighborhoods like Rockwood are okay with these tiny, tiny lots.”

Frank rejected even that, saying many people had a “misperception” about smaller houses.

“People think if a small house is in their neighborhood, it’s going to change their neighborhood. It’s just not true. There’s nothing to support that,” he said. “What’s coming out of this is the idea that there are some people on Rockwood who don’t want their house values to go down, so we’re not allowing investment in West Central. How in good conscience could you support that?”

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