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

Spokane Valley is no Seattle, but it’s maturing away from its surburban roots

During the dedication and open house of the new Spokane Valley City Hall, Boy Scout Troop 464 honor guard, left to right Kaleb Frye, Joel Patrick, Mason McNeilly and Josh Stauffer, raise the American flag, Sat., Oct. 14 2017. The $14 million project was completed in September. Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Take it as a sign of progress that Spokane Valley City Hall moved from the Valley Redwood Plaza, an office building it shared with Painting with a Twist and Donna’s School of Dance and Music, to a new $11 million building.

The stately brick building, located a mile west of its former site in the old University Center Shopping Center location on Sprague, was constructed to be the “centerpiece of a civic center that contributes to a unique city identity,” according to the city’s website.

When city workers moved in last month, City Manager Mark Calhoun reiterated the notion that the Valley had transformed itself since incorporating as its own municipality in 2003.

“We went from being a product of urban sprawl to being an actual city. We looked like it, we felt like it,” Calhoun said.

But is it an actual city?

“They’re a classic urbanizing suburb,” said Kerry Brooks, an urban planning professor at Eastern Washington University. “They have certain initiatives going that are in the right direction. They created a nice bike and pedestrian plan a few year ago. If City Hall becomes the anchor institution and draws more activity, becomes a civic space of some sort, it’s definitely an improvement over what they had previously. On that part, they’re on the right track.”

But what about other parts? We all know a city when we see one. Tall buildings. Lots of people. And in the future, we’ll see more and more cities. Ever since 2010, more than half of the world’s population has lived in cities. It’s estimated that two-thirds of us will be citified by 2050.

Defining what a city is is a much more difficult endeavor, but there are some clear indicators of what makes a city a city: population density, a high proportion of people who live near work, people moving to town from somewhere else, and availability and use of transit, walking and bicycling.

So how does the Valley stack up?

When Spokane Valley incorporated in 2003, it instantly became the ninth-largest city in the state with a population 80,700. In the intervening years, it’s added 15,637 people within its 38 square mile area, giving it a population density of just over 2,500 people per square mile.

By contrast, the city of Spokane has more than 3,100 people per square mile, Seattle has 8,400 people per square mile and New York City has an astounding 28,300 people per square mile.

The density box is unchecked.

What about living where you work?

According to the Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics survey, about 22,800 Valley residents commuted out of the city for work in 2011, while 13,800 residents stayed in town to work. That means nearly two-thirds of the commuting population leaves town for work.

Again, no check in that box. However, nearly 39,000 people commute into the Valley for work everyday.

EWU’s Brooks said a city’s support of “all modes of travel” is another sign of urbanization. Though you wouldn’t guess it while driving down the five lanes of Sprague, Spokane Valley has a robust bicycle and pedestrian plan, bike lanes crisscrossing town and an uninterrupted stretch of the Centennial Trail along the Spokane River. Spokane Transit Authority serves the city with six routes.

Apparently, it’s not enough to persuade commuters to ditch the car. Despite such facilities built for non-automobile mobility, the vast majority of Valley residents use a personal vehicle as their primary means of transportation. More than 80 percent of people drive alone to work, and another 11 percent carpool. Just 2 percent take public transit and not even 200 people said they rode a bike to work in 2016.

In Spokane, the share of transit riders is double, at 4 percent, which is still paltry compared to Seattle’s 21 percent and Portland’s 13 percent.

And what about the diversity of its people?

In the Valley, more than 7 percent of people speak a language other than English at home, and 5 percent of the population is foreign-born. That’s close to the 9 percent of Spokane’s population that speaks a language other than English at home. More than than 6 percent of Spokane residents were foreign-born, mainly from European and Asian countries. Compared to Seattle, that’s not much. Almost 21 percent speak a language other than English at home in Seattle and nearly 19 percent of the population was born in another country, primarily Asian countries.

But, of course, it’s unfair and illuminates little comparing Spokane Valley to Seattle or Portland. Brooks, with EWU, suggested comparing it to something more its ilk.

Bellevue could be considered the Valley to Seattle’s Spokane. As an “edge city” or “boomburb,” Bellevue is like the Valley in that before 1940 it was a rural area with few residents. After the construction of the Lake Washington Floating Bridge, the area quickly became a bedroom community for Seattle commuters before transforming itself into today what is recognizably a city.

There are 1,300 businesses and 53,000 employees in downtown Bellevue alone. It has skyscrapers and less than two-thirds of its population drives alone to work, with 13 percent of commuters taking transit.

Brooks, who praised the Valley for moving in the right direction with urban policies, said he couldn’t imagine a future where it looked anything like Bellevue. Especially since the town has no center to speak of, with or without its new city hall.

“I don’t think Spokane Valley is going to get anywhere near” being a city as we understand it, he said. “Does everybody have to live downtown in America? Some people would say no. But do they have anything like that in Spokane Valley? No.”