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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane neighborhood groups strive for urban renewal

The drizzle last week did nothing to discourage Grayson and Megan Bjork from one of their regular visits to the South Perry commercial district.

The young couple, taking turns holding their infant son, strolled among the vendors at the Thursday Market before heading off to check out the other nearby shops and restaurants. They had looked for a home in the trendy neighborhood just a couple of miles from downtown before choosing one elsewhere on the South Hill, but they still make it to South Perry as much as possible.

“It’s unique for Spokane,” Megan Bjork said. “It’s got the old-fashioned charm of a small town.”

A short distance away, an East Central neighborhood is hoping for a similar transformation. The neighborhood recently won approval from the Spokane City Council to waive off-street parking requirements for commercial establishments along a two-block stretch of Fifth Avenue lined with mostly deteriorating and empty 1950s-era storefronts.

Residents are hoping that a small revitalized retail area, with curbside stores that people feel comfortable walking or bicycling to, will help improve the overall health and safety of the neighborhood by encouraging greater activity. The lack of available off-street parking, which the city requires for commercial establishments, was identified as one of the key impediments to attracting new development there.

“We know this is a long-term project,” East Central neighborhood activist Heather Wallace said. “But we also know that what people want is this nostalgic kind of neighborhood retail that’s vibrant and walkable … and we can’t have that if we all have to drive to a central location where big commercial centers can be built.”

Is this the new Portland?

Other neighborhoods are in various stages of similar efforts, even as a political divide widens at City Hall and elsewhere over how growth in Washington’s second-largest city should best be guided or managed.

“What we do in the next year matters,” said City Council President Ben Stuckart, who has clashed with Spokane County commissioners and Mayor David Condon recently over land-use issues. “How do we move forward? How do we want to grow as a community? How do we want to live?”

Quaint neighborhood retail hubs. Mixed-use downtown developments. Residential produce stands and backyard livestock.

Councilman Mike Allen jokingly wondered aloud recently if Spokane had unknowingly been cast in an episode of the hipster TV sketch comedy “Portlandia.”

Kidding aside, the city is drawing some surprising attention.

The in-flight magazine for British Airlines, for example, recently put Spokane atop a list of must-see places, describing it as an earthy little brother to Portland and Seattle: “In just 15 minutes, you can get from whitewater to wood-fired pizza, bike trails to cocktails and climbing rocks to concerts.”

Closer to home, the Seattle-based environmental advocacy group Futurewise, which has sued Spokane in the past over controversial land-use decisions, now is lauding it as one of the state’s top “smart growth” cities. It cited the city’s commitment to bicycle and pedestrian paths serving a growing urban corridor, which includes the mixed-use Kendall Yards development being built atop a reclaimed industrial brownfield.

The big-box conundrum

Traditional challenges remain, however.

Along the city’s southern edge, the Southgate neighborhood feels steamrolled by developers and city planners after agreeing to drop a lawsuit challenging proposed big-box retail in exchange for assurances that the project would comply with zoning requirements for pedestrian-friendly design and architectural elements that would complement the neighborhood.

The new Target is expected to open this summer, and residents are angry that almost nothing they were promised has been delivered.

“It’s really no different than any other Target store,” said Ted Teske, showing how the site plan for the Target complex on the South Hill is almost identical to the one built along the busy north Spokane commercial corridor.

“We have the same zoning requirement as South Perry and there’s no way this project would be allowed in South Perry,” Teske said.

In the Logan neighborhood near Gonzaga University, residents who also have been promised South Perry-style zoning protections are in an uproar over a drive-thru McDonald’s that city planners approved despite what were supposed to be ironclad requirements that commercial development along Hamilton Street would complement the surrounding community.

The City Council last week imposed an emergency moratorium on similar projects to give neighborhood leaders and city planners time to put the finishing touches on a new zoning and land-use code for the area that’s been in development for a year. It can’t stop the new McDonald’s drive-thru, though.

Politically, development has become one of the city’s most divisive issues.

Condon, who enjoys broad campaign support from the development industry, favors greater urban infill to unnecessary sprawl on the city’s outskirts but tends to side with business interests that warn too many zoning restrictions can harm economic development.

Last month, he used the first veto of his mayoral term to block a City Council plan that would have prohibited the extension of water and sewer services into potentially disputed urban area expansions outside city limits. The prohibition was aimed at curbing the use of what some consider a loophole in state law that allows development to continue even when legal challenges prevail in overturning improper zoning changes.

Carrot vs. stick for infill growth

The mayor instead worked out a deal with county commissioners to hold off on any new expansions for at least a year while working out a better way to coordinate land-use decisions along the city’s borders.

Condon is expected to provide the first big update on the effort this week.

Critics contend the county’s continued expansion of urban growth areas outside city limits forces Spokane to keep extending services outward while ignoring the needs of existing residents, though developers point to studies suggesting the Spokane region is one of the least-sprawling communities of its size nationwide.

The mayor and conservatives on the nonpartisan City Council want to find ways to make urban infill more attractive to developers through incentives and inducements rather than limiting their options with zoning and land-use restrictions that leave them no choice.

Councilman Steve Salvatori believes a fiscally conservative case can be made for encouraging urban infill over suburban sprawl.

The basic infrastructure such as streets, water and sewer already is in place, Salvatori notes, explaining it costs about the same to plow a street serving a neighborhood of single-family homes as it does one lined with mixed-use commercial buildings filled with apartment and condo dwellers.

He’s studying whether an adjustment in how sewer fees are assessed could promote development of more apartment units in existing downtown buildings.

Currently, the city charges a basic monthly sewer service fee for every residential unit, which adds to the amount landlords must charge for rent, while commercial buildings pay just one basic monthly charge. It means a building with apartments in it pays a basic monthly service charge for each separate unit even though it all goes to the same hookup, Salvatori said, while a building filled with commercial offices or even hotel rooms is charged just one monthly fee.

Separately, the mayor is preparing a proposal for council consideration that’s expected to include tax incentives and fee waivers.

But for a council that’s still smarting over Condon’s veto, the mayor’s expected developer package likely will become just the next flash point.