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Spokane leaders look to lift restrictions on building height near Riverfront Park

A shadow can be seen partly cast over Riverfront Park late Friday afternoon from the River Park Square parking garage in downtown Spokane.. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
A shadow can be seen partly cast over Riverfront Park late Friday afternoon from the River Park Square parking garage in downtown Spokane.. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Downtown business boosters want Spokane to rethink rules put in place to prevent large buildings from casting long shadows in Riverfront Park.

“We think it’s a reasonable tradeoff,” said Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership. “I think timing is of the essence. We know that Spokane’s economy cycles, and we know we’re in the midst of a boom in development.”

City Council President Ben Stuckart said late last month he intended to introduce measures that would do away with requirements that buildings taller than 100 feet along Spokane Falls Boulevard require stair-steps for additional stories. The configuration, commonly called a “wedding cake” for its tiered appearance, was written into city planning codes following the development of a downtown building plan in 2009 calling for minimal shading in the core’s signature attraction.

Stuckart said the need for development downtown to replace existing surface parking lots bolstered the argument to remove the wedding cake restriction.

“In my overall opinion, getting buildings in our downtown is a more important value than having no shade on some of Riverfront Park,” Stuckart said.

To bolster their argument, the Downtown Spokane Partnership and Stuckart asked Kerry Brooks, a professor of urban and regional planning at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, to model the shadows that could be cast into the park if further development occurred on three parcels across Spokane Falls Boulevard. One is the existing Wheatland Bank building, and the other two are surface parking lots used by visitors to the Bennett Block shops and Liberty Building businesses.

The undeveloped lots are owned by Dru Hieber through a limited liability corporation named for the family, which has owned that area of downtown for generations. Hieber also owns the Bennet Block. The total assessed value of the lots is roughly $3.6 million, which puts pressure on any developer to squeeze out as much square footage as possible in a development to get a return on their investment, Richard said.

“If you’re buying dirt next to the park, to make it pencil out, you’ve got to have a perfect amount of space,” Richard said.

The real estate firm Goodale & Barbieri Co. also petitioned the council to ease its setback requirement. David Peterson, the company’s executive vice president, wrote a letter to the council saying they were “deeply concerned” the setback provision was hindering development in the downtown core.

Brooks, a former Plan Commission member, volunteered his time to the project. Using geographic information system (GIS) and sun altitude data, Brooks created three-dimensional renderings showing that 200-foot-tall structures on those lots likely would not cast shadows into the park area during peak summer months, an observation emphasized by the Downtown Spokane Partnership.

“It’s a great communication tool with the community,” Brooks said.

City staff created similar renderings in 2009 while the downtown plan was being finalized. Their findings didn’t differ much from the models created by Brooks, said Louis Meuler, a principal planner with the city who helped prepare documents for the downtown plan.

“We had all the surrounding buildings. It helps to have all of it on there,” said Meuler. “So you can kind of see the cumulative impacts around downtown.”

The final downtown plan, which has since been updated and is scheduled for another review later this year, leaves room for interpretation on how height rules should be codified in the city’s zoning codes. It calls for the city to “maintain maximum exposure to sunlight in significant public open spaces, such as Riverfront Park, by promoting buildings designed to reduce shadows.”

That language led to the current zoning code classification, which requires 15-foot step-backs for every additional story of building height, but only along Spokane Falls Boulevard. A developer would be allowed to build without a step-back along the south side of the lot abutting Main Avenue.

Council members expressed some concern efforts were underway to alter development standards near Riverfront Park at the same time a massive redevelopment is underway. City Councilwoman Candace Mumm asked Stuckart if the Spokane Park Board had been informed of the proposed changes, and how they might affect developments near the Rotary Fountain and Looff Carrousel.

“I think we need to do that sooner, rather than later,” Mumm said.

Chris Wright, president of the Spokane Park Board, said the full body hadn’t been briefed on development changes along the boulevard, but park staff are aware of the proposal. Construction is well underway near the Carrousel, and it’s unlikely designs could change at this point, Wright said.

“We’re not going to change anything to accommodate what may be going in there,” Wright said.

Board members overseeing the $64 million redevelopment of the park have been focused on what areas of the attraction are shaded, Wright said. The decision to build the outdoor ice ribbon adjacent to the River Park Square garage was made in large part due to the shadow cast by the mall, keeping the ice surface out of direct sunlight in the winter months.

No ordinance altering the existing height setback requirements has been introduced. Stuckart said he planned to bring a proposal to the Plan Commission, which meets later this month. If that panel gives the OK, a proposal could make its way to the City Council next month, Stuckart said.


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