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

Spokane looks to relax parking rules for neighborhood businesses

Patrons walk from their cars to Wisconsinburger on Wednesday in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood. (Tyler Tjomsland)

There’s a house across the street from Wisconsinburger. And kitty-corner to it. And behind it.

The restaurant – known for its wide selection of mustards and deep-fried cheese curds – is ensconced in its East Central neighborhood.

“We have a pretty good following from the neighborhood. Now that the weather’s nice we get a lot of cyclists. A lot of people from Perry,” said Laura Paisley, who owns the burger joint with Jeff Nordval.

Wisconsinburger is in one of the many buildings in Spokane that seem to appear out of nowhere in a neighborhood. The city calls them streetcar business locations because they were largely built before the advent of automobiles. As such, the buildings usually lack parking.

A proposed change to parking rules that will affect the future of many of these buildings will be discussed Monday by the Spokane City Council. The changes will allow exemptions to parking rules for smaller buildings located in neighborhood retail zones, which are “neighborhood serving and pedestrian-oriented.”

Parking spots will no longer be required for buildings smaller than 3,000 square feet. Parking requirements for buildings with less than 5,000 square feet floor area will be determined after the 3,000-square-foot exemption is subtracted from its total area, reducing the amount of spaces they currently must have. Larger buildings will see no change.

The city has 72 neighborhood retail zones, and all will be affected by this change. In all, 313 parcels are zoned as neighborhood retail, but the city did not calculate how many individual buildings will be affected by the change.

Council President Ben Stuckart said he first heard about parking requirements impacting owners of small buildings during his first days in office, when the owners of Italia Trattoria in Browne’s Addition told him of their situation. They wanted to put a patio in their small parking lot, but the city blocked them, saying the law required the lot to remain open to parking. Stuckart and then-planning director Scott Chesney created a zone to do away with the parking requirement, which allowed the eatery to put in the patio.

Soon another zone was hatched for a small business district at East Fifth Avenue and South Ray Street. Then the owners of Wisconsinburger’s building sought a parking exemption when they wanted to expand.

“After the third one, it just became clear that it would be more efficient to look at this citywide,” Stuckart said.

The change in parking rules could help stimulate parts of the city that have been ignored, Stuckart said, calling small neighborhood stores “little places of convenience.”

“If you want your towns to be enlivened, we’ve got to create little mini-business districts,” Stuckart said.

Gail Prosser, a member of the city’s Plan Commission and owner of Wisconsinburger’s building, said relaxing parking standards is a “a trend across our country,” and will help make neighborhood business areas more walkable and “less car-centric.”

By relaxing parking rules, Prosser said, the city could bring unoccupied buildings back onto the books.

“To develop them they needed so much parking either they sat vacant, or they had to push over a house or two to have enough parking,” she said.

Prosser said the change would be a shift away from the last 60 years of urban development, which has been ruled by the automobile.

“That’s sort of what we’ve been doing since the 1950s, at the cost of other forms of transportation and the urban core. It’s just sprawl and sprawl and sprawl and sprawl,” Prosser said. “We’re still going to have all forms of transportation. But many of these retail centers have been around 100 years. It’s really about getting back to our old roots.”

In practice, however, having a popular restaurant in a neighborhood can cause problems.

Within a month of opening in 2010, the Flying Goat pizza restaurant on Northwest Boulevard faced an avalanche of complaints from neighbors about patrons parking in front of driveways and in every available spot, creating a snarl where before was a quiet residential street.

The popularity of Wisconsinburger has created a similar problem.

Paisley said a parking enforcement officer informed her of a number of complaints from the restaurant’s neighbors, and told her that an officer would be driving by twice a day to look for violations and issue tickets.

“Unfortunately, on Hatch there are quite a few driveways that don’t have curb cuts so they get parked in front of quite often,” she said. Servers at the restaurant are handing out little sheets of paper notifying customers of parking rules to help alleviate the issue.

Still, the parking struggles show that many people drive to – and require parking at – destination restaurants, despite efforts to make them less dependent on the car.

Tami Palmquist, an associate planner with the city, said code doesn’t mandate “pedestrian-oriented” businesses in neighborhood retail districts.

“As you can see, the word ‘encouraged,’ and not ‘required,’ is used,” she said.

But Prosser said the good outweighs the bad.

“Change is hard. There are definitely some trade-offs,” Prosser said. “The Flying Goat was zoned neighborhood retail. When you’re buying next to an area that has commercial in it, or next to a place that is zoned retail, you could one day be impacted by a change there.”

Stuckart echoed Prosser.

“There are winners and there are losers. No decision is neutral,” he said. “But I think we’ll look back at this in 15 years and say it was a huge success.”