The Spokane City Council stays connected through one of the city’s best-kept secrets: the Community Assembly.
“City Council is on our schedule every month,” said Andy Hoye, Southgate’s liaison. “They are the first people to speak.”
The Community Assembly’s monthly roundtable collects, collates and shares information from City Hall to the city limits. And back.
“It’s a bridge between the neighborhood council system and the city council,” said Greg Francis, Rockwood’s CA liaison. “It’s a good mechanism for the city to share concepts and ideas back to the broader group, rather than having to reach out to each individual neighborhood.”
Kathryn Alexander represents the Bemiss neighborhood. “We have real-time input into lots of decisions that are being made by the city, at almost every level,” she said. “The neighborhood council and the Community Assembly are a direct line to city government.”
The issues currently in front of the Community Assembly are many. “The meetings are over two hours long,” said Audubon/Downriver liaison Fran Papenleur. “It’s a firehose of information.”
Among the hottest topics are infill, traffic, community development and community engagement.
Whitman liaison Charles Hansen explained the logic behind infill housing. “It’s much less expensive for our city to provide services to one of our vacant lots, than to provide it for somebody that is half a mile outside the city limits someplace,” he said. “The services are already there.”
To promote infill housing, the Spokane Plan Commission is proposing a series of text amendments to the Unified Development Code. Among the proposed changes are smaller lot sizes and taller buildings.
“You couldn’t build on a 40-foot lot,” Hansen said. “The new infill regulation allows them up to 35 feet now.”
The current height limit for multifamily structures is 30 feet. “They are talking about maybe raising it to 35 feet, where they can have three stories,” said Hansen.
The Plan Commission will likely hold a public hearing on the proposed changes in June 2018.
“No neighborhood that I know of is against development,” said Chief Garry Park liaison Colleen Gardner. “But we don’t want them to change the landscape of the neighborhood.”
Traffic is a docket regular, whether it’s downtown or along residential streets. Downtown traffic topics include brainstorming about Riverside Avenue and the planned Central City Line. Current residential traffic issues mostly revolve around speed limits.
Speed limits around parks are a contentious topic. While school zones limit speeds to 20 mph, most parks do not. “There are 99 parks in the city,” said Hansen. “Ten of them have (permanent) 20 mph signs around them.”
One of the liveliest discussions centers around a recent state-level law revision that allows 20 mph speed limits on nonarterial streets.
Hansen said one worry is that different agencies have different ideas of what an arterial is, but he has a bigger one.
“How are you going to enforce it?” he said. “We have six traffic cops in the city.”
Hansen has heard a variety of ideas about what to do on Riverside, including bus stops down the center of the street, a lane reduction similar to the Monroe Street project, and bicycle lanes.
Central City Line still faces at least one obstacle. “So far they don’t even know if they are going to get the money,” Hansen said. “The money they are applying for is in the 2019 federal budget.”
Spokane is unique among U.S. cities. “Spokane is the only city in the United States that allocates funds specifically to neighborhoods,” Gardner said. “Every other city … the city decides.”
The Community Assembly sorts and distributes the annual HUD Community Development Block Grants. Beginning next year it will allocate funds at the district level to make possible larger projects.
“We could do some really dynamic stuff,” Papenleur said. “The more you work together, the greater impact you have.”
Prioritizing projects within each district will be the tricky part. “That’s a good test for the CA,” said Hoye. “Can the district neighborhoods get together and agree on something?”
The districts won’t have to dictate funding by drawing straws or asking for a show of hands. District 1, which covers northeast Spokane, developed a matrix to determine priorities and help guide the decision-making process.
District 1 has taken the lead,” Hoye said. “We probably need to follow (them).”
The council also administers the neighborhood engagement budget. Neighborhoods can apply for up to $550 apiece, and another $300 if funds are available after the first round of applications. “The objective is to build participation and outreach in the neighborhoods,” Hoye said.
The grants come with strict guidelines. Neighborhoods submit a plan, track expenditures and use the city’s printing process. “I think it’s done very well for the taxpayers,” Hoye said. “We watch it real close.”
Like the rest of the neighborhood council program, the Community Assembly is all-volunteer.
“If you have an interest and if you care, I don’t think there’s a better use of your time. You get to see the difference you make,” Alexander said.
The Community Assembly operates far from the partisan tug-of-war gripping national politics.
“Most of us are really optimistic,” Papenleur said. “I am, anyway.”