When road crews begin tearing up asphalt, there’s usually one inevitable question: Why didn’t somebody tell me about this?
As anyone with any experience dealing with City Hall can attest, street repair comes after months or years of planning, and there’s at least some opportunity for the public to voice concerns.
All too often, though, it seems Douglas Adams had it right when his main character in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is told the plans he wanted to see were “on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.’ ”
In the last couple of years, the city of Spokane has made efforts to seek wider input through the use of online surveys while a street project is still being designed. Surveys were taken before the work on North Monroe Street, East Sprague Avenue and Riverside Avenue, as well as during the ongoing city process looking at height restrictions for buildings fronting Riverfront Park and the city’s snow removal program.
Friday marked the deadline for the city’s most recent survey, the second regarding renovation of Riverside Avenue. Just hours before the survey closed, it had drawn more than 700 responses, according to the city.
The first survey had established that people wanted bikeways, fewer travel lanes and parking. The second survey drilled down on those preferences for greater clarity, said Marlene Feist, director of strategic development for the city’s Public Works and Utilities Department. And the survey’s results may deliver a protected bike lane, also called a cycle track, to Spokane.
“Right now we’re asking people if they want a cycle track or bicycle lane,” Feist said of the two types of bikeways. “Right now, cycle track is winning. That’s something our engineers probably wouldn’t have thought to put in.”
So far, the surveys have worked to hear people’s thoughts before a project and to supplement more traditional ways of soliciting public feedback, such as a town hall or during a City Council meeting.
“How do you get people in their space? They’re on the phone, they’re on their laptop, they’re at work,” she said, noting that town halls don’t generally draw hundreds of people. “If they can spend 15 minutes on the presentation, and tell us what they think, that’s great.”
The city began the surveys because policymakers realized the work being done surprised some people. Still others had outsized voices, and the city had difficulty measuring if those voices represented a few or many. That was the case with the Monroe project, in which a vocal group of business owners on the street attempted to derail the city’s work.
“Monroe was our biggest, first survey, where we tried to supplement the public input we were getting through typical sources with actual, countable responses,” Feist said. The North Monroe survey was sent out in December 2016.
“We had to figure out how to get all those voices heard and we had to figure out a way to count them,” Feist said. “The survey helped us determine if it was one loud voice or everybody’s voice.”
The city’s Monroe survey found that nearly 69 percent of respondents approved of the project. The opposing business owners, under the mantle of the Monroe Business Association, said 90 percent of businesses on Monroe disapproved and filed a $15 million tort claim against the city, which has since been abandoned.
The online surveys are just one part of a “decision matrix” used by the city to help guide the planning process. In 2017, the City Council approved a resolution creating the matrix to “balance” public input with feedback from property and business owners, and adjacent neighborhoods, as well as with planning needs, engineering requirements and principles and rules set out in the city’s various planning documents, such as the comprehensive plan, the downtown plan, various neighborhood plans and the bicycle and pedestrian master plans.
According to the resolution, the matrix will help “gauge” support for the project and, after weighing the many concerns, must deliver a 60 percent or better “yes” for the project to move forward.
The online survey, which can be taken by anyone and is only allowed once for each device, such as a smartphone or computer, is just one of the matrix’s inputs. Another is a certified letter sent to business and property owners affected by any city project.
Some Riverside owners disagree
Penn Fix and Debra Schultz own Dodson’s Jewelers, which has been on Riverside for 130 years. If Fix, whose great-grandfather opened the store in 1887, could look through his forebears’ eyes, he’d see Riverside change again and again over the years. He’s ready to see it change again.
“Anything is going to be better than what it is now,” he said.
Schultz, his wife, said the city has “been very, very proactive” about speaking to business and property owners about the work and listening to their concerns. A year or so ago, a city staffer came to the store to verify ownership. Since then, Schultz and Fix have spoken to council members and other policymakers at the city. They received the city survey via certified mail, filled it out and sent it back.
“We’re very supportive of the plans for Riverside,” she said. “I’m leaning towards the idea of protected bike lanes. We have to be a little forward thinking.”
Despite their support, they are concerned about the construction schedule and financial toll it may take on their business, and worry about losing some of the street’s loading zones and parking. Otherwise, they’re ready for change and ready, even, for the Central City Line, a proposal for an electric bus that will circulate between Browne’s Addition and Spokane Community College via Riverside.
“We need to increase the accessibility and opportunities for people to enjoy the city. We still have a really viable downtown,” Schultz said. “As much as I have big questions about the central line, I’m supportive of the idea.”
Chris Batten, a principal at the real estate firm RenCorp Realty, which owns a number of buildings on Riverside, said he has “significant concerns regarding parking, reducing the lanes of travel and overall congestion,” and believes the surveys are given inappropriate weight in city decisions.
“We’ve been involved in the process more or less since day one. We’ve taken the surveys,” he said. “We’ve been pretty active in the conversations and I don’t think there’s consensus on what is acceptable or not. I think we’ve been heard, but I don’t believe we’re necessarily satisfied.”
Batten, who is a member of the city’s Plan Commission, said too much weight is given to the online survey, which anyone can take, and not enough to the opinions and concerns of business and property owners.
“The surveys are not necessarily weighted properly to the business owners and property owners on Riverside,” said Batten, who is part owner of the Numerica building, also on Riverside. “You can get a lot of various responses that are favorable to the project, and the business and property owners don’t necessarily agree and are out-weighted. We need to be weighted toward the business owners on Riverside.”
Feist, with the city, pointed to the decision matrix and noted that the city has many things to weigh when designing a project. She did say that a person who lives downtown and a business owner are given similar consideration, more than someone who lives in Colbert. But, she said, the people of Spokane get to weigh in just as much as someone who owns a building.
“All stakeholders have a voice,” she said. “The council has the ability, and the mayor has the ability, to weigh in if they think the information is awry. If it (the survey) is inconsistent with everything else, it still doesn’t win the day.”
As for worries that the online surveys are skewed by people trying to game the system, Feist said the city had built in some protections against that, like limiting one vote per one IP address, but wasn’t overly concerned.
“We find that people are pretty honest about it,” she said. “When you get to 600 votes, I think it’s more than, ‘That’s just a bicycle group and all those people think the same.’ ”