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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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New Urbanism New Urbanism A Return To City Roots Historic Neighborhoods Offer Model For The Future

Second of two parts

It’s the American dream - a home in the suburbs, a two-car garage, a sweeping front lawn and a backyard patio for barbecuing.

At the end of the day, suburban homeowners pull into their garages and lower the door, closing out the world like a castle drawbridge.

As subdivisions sprawl farther from the city center and everyday services, the cost of the dream is growing in Spokane.

After 50 years, planners say it’s time to wake up.

A group of 200 Spokane residents has been meeting for a year, charged with developing the city’s new comprehensive plan.

Already a picture of the future is emerging.

The Spokane Horizons volunteers are talking about a planning philosophy called new urbanism. Planners say there’s nothing exotic, complicated, or even “new” about it. Rather, it’s a return to earlier, more traditional planning.

Historic Cannon’s Addition on the lower South Hill is an example of new urbanism. The neighborhood’s narrow streets are lined with trees. Porches, not garages, face the sidewalks.

“You have a sense of place, a sense of pride in the neighborhood,” said Louis Meuler, a city planner working with Horizons.

Consider for a moment where Spokane residents take visitors to show off their city. Most likely, it’s to unique places that capture Spokane’s personality, such as Browne’s Addition, the Garland District, or maybe Peaceful Valley.

Many of those neighborhoods have elements of new urbanism in their designs: high-density living, small lots, inviting front porches, and granny flats.

In the new urbanism philosophy, parks and community gathering places are within easy walking distances of houses, ideally not more than a quarter-mile away.

Pathways, lush landscaping, and inviting places to catch public transit tie neighborhoods together. There are no cul-de-sacs.

Communities are designed to give residents a chance to meet and know their neighbors.

These urban villages are not for everyone, but neither are sprawling subdivisions. The idea, planners say, is to offer choices.

American demographics are changing as the population ages. There are more single people and fewer two-parent, two-child households.

Horizons volunteers say some Spokane residents may be ready to consider the urban village lifestyle.

“I have four kids, I’m not moving to one of these places right away,” said Richard Kielbon, an architect on the Horizons land-use work committee.

“On the other hand, I love this idea to death and will definitely consider it someday.

“Right now I’d like something like this in my low-density neighborhood, a place to walk or ride my bike to. My kids are dying for those opportunities all the time. Low-density neighborhoods with liveliness, that would be terrific,” he said.

The Horizons group is looking at some of Spokane’s unique neighborhoods, seeking ideas for its new comprehensive plan.

Small neighborhood stores, similar to those in the Garland District would fill everyday needs for hardware, gifts and groceries.

Like in Browne’s Addition, there might be a coffee shop or hair salon next to a beautiful old house converted to apartments.

Every neighborhood center would include a transit stop, whether it’s for the bus or light rail.

Downtown would thrive with activity: families shopping, heading to the park, or to an event. Historic buildings might be renovated with shops or offices at street level and housing on the top floors. Perhaps like Carnegie Square at West First and Cedar.

Is this the direction Spokane should head as it enters the 21st century?

Horizons volunteers and city planners say now is the time to decide.

Visible success

New urbanism is cropping up in many cities across the country, including Portland, Milwaukee and Chattanooga, Tenn.

Portland began feeling the pain of rapid growth 20 years ago. More cars and an increased need for parking were costing the city its historic buildings.

Its 1972 comprehensive plan called for smaller house lots, mixed development, a revitalized downtown, and mass transit.

“It took us quite a while, a good 10 years before we saw the fruits of our plan, but the results have been very good,” said Bob Clay, Portland’s chief planner.

Portland’s light rail system brings shoppers, workers and fun-seekers downtown without their cars.

“Ridership is very high during the commute hours,” said Clay. “On the weekend, trains are close to capacity. It has far exceeded all expectations.”

James Kunstler, a nationally known leader of the new urbanism movement, blames automobile-oriented planning for the woes of most cities today.

During a visit to Spokane last summer, Kunstler wagged his finger at Division Street, calling it a “tragic, gruesome boulevard of commerce.”

He said the long strip of stores keeps people in their cars, preventing them from interacting as a community.

Logan resident Lucy Reiner agrees.

“The Division-Ruby couplet was an improvement for the automobile, not for people,” she said. “If it’s a real improvement, then it should be good for everyone, not just for cars.”

If a new urbanism-type plan is adopted by Spokane’s City Council, there would be less emphasis on widening streets, building freeways and paving massive parking lots for shopping centers.

“We know we have pollution problems, and we know automobiles are the No. 1 cause,” said Bonnie Mager, a Horizons volunteer who works at the Washington Environmental Council. “It only makes sense to tell people to get out of cars.”

There would be more emphasis on making public transportation easier to use and more efficient. Driving a car might become more inconvenient with slower, narrower streets or less parking.

“We can’t tell people to get out of their cars, and then float a bond to build a north-south freeway,” said Mager.

The changes will be subtle, planners say.

“It’s a matter of getting used to some of the concepts of new urbanism,” said city planner Meuler. “If just a few elements were changed, some people would hardly notice.”

Zoning’s legacy

Spokane, like most other cities, began to sprawl seriously in the 1950s, due to a combination of more people, more cars and zealous zoning.

While zoning laws protect homeowners from having factories and 24-hour fast-food outlets next door, it also forces them to drive to the store, to work and to school.

Horizons volunteers aren’t planning to wipe out zoning codes or bulldoze subdivisions, but they are determined that future development in Spokane be done with more thought and a “big picture” in mind.

“We can plan to grow efficiently, or we can plan to grow inefficiently,” said Spokane Planning Director Charlie Dotson. “We got into this without a plan, we need to get out of it with a plan.

“Ultimately, design review is the key,” he said.

In the future, proposed developments would be required to go through a more stringent review.

While some builders oppose the new urbanism philosophy, arguing that it drives up the price of housing or forces everyone into apartments, some are ready to embrace it.

Spokane developer Jim Frank has used some new urbanism elements - a mix of housing, bike paths and neighborhood parks - in his MeadowWood development at Liberty Lake. Most residents there are a bike ride away from shopping, school, day-care services and in many cases, their jobs.

“Some things, like a planting strip with trees between the street and sidewalk, are exceedingly simple, but will have a dramatic effect on what this community will look like in 100 years,” Frank said.

“The key is not to look backward,” developer Cliff Cameron said. “There are all-new ways of doing things. We have to let go of stigmas.”

Future developments, he said, will depend on homeowner associations caring for neighborhood playgrounds and other amenities without having to rely on the city.

“It gives the neighborhood a chance to be what they want to be,” said Cameron. “People are looking for communities.”

Revitalizing downtown also is a key component of the emerging comprehensive plan.

In the Spokane of the future, middle-income housing downtown would attract people with money to spend.

Helen Blackwell grew up in Peaceful Valley, then moved to the South Hill. Now retired, she lives in an apartment downtown.

“I’ve seen downtown change three or four times,” she said. “There used to be a lot of working couples and single people with good jobs living here.

“I don’t know how they are going to wipe out the bad reputation of this place,” she added.

But it’s already starting.

Banks are moving slowly toward lending money for projects to renovate old buildings and putting apartments on top of downtown stores.

Ron and Julie Wells are proving it can work in Spokane.

The husband and wife development team transformed one of the city’s most squalid street corners - First and Cedar- into one of its trendiest.

By buying and renovating old buildings, ousting drunks and drug addicts, and luring upscale shops and cafes, the corner and its surrounding blocks now thrive.

Is new urbanism realistic in Spokane?

“Not only is it realistic, the question is how fast will it happen?” said Ron Wells. “It has already happened in Seattle and Portland.

“I’ve never seen a more favorable climate than what we have right now,” he said.

But changes won’t happen overnight.

“It will take a long time - 30 or 40 years - to make a difference,” said Dotson. “We are doing this for our children and grandchildren.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo; Graphic: New urbanism

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