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

South Hill neighbors push back against major housing development at 29th Ave. and Southeast Blvd.

When Greenstone Homes started building houses and business buildings in Kendall Yards, many people praised the work to finally fill in the vast vacant former rail yard in the West Central neighborhood.

Last week, with plans to do something similar on an old dairy and tree farm on the South Hill, the development company received a far less welcoming response.

At a community meeting last Thursday, Joe Frank and Ben Scandalis heard concern after concern about their company’s plans to build more than 230 residential units and upwards of 70,000 square feet of commercial space on 25 acres of vacant land southwest of the busy corner of 29th Avenue and Southeast Boulevard.

The Garden District, as it’s being called, will be a “small urban mixed-use neighborhood with a pedestrian focus and extensive trails and open space,” according to a Greenstone document. Housing will be “economically diverse” with stand-alone homes next to multifamily complexes. The new neighborhood will have a “strong public realm” that won’t be designed “around cars.” Instead, the development “will prioritize pedestrians centering on bike paths, pedestrian laneways and community open space.”

The development proposal fulfills the goals set out in the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

For many of the more-than 100 people who showed up to an afternoon meeting at the South Hill branch of the Spokane Public Library last week, filling in what acts as quiet, secluded parkland with hundreds of new neighbors – and their cars – is the last thing they want.

Jim Frank, Greenstone’s founder and CEO, said the idea is to recreate the company’s fast-growing marquee development.

“That’s our hope, that it will be a small version of Kendall Yards,” Frank said. “Kendall Yards is bigger in terms of the amount of residential and commercial, with 1,200 residential units and 500,000 square feet of commercial space. This is smaller, but we’re hoping that the neighborhood feels urban. We’ve tried hard to design that. We’ve got mixed uses on a fine scale.”

Fifty years of plans

The property has long been slated for development. It was owned for decades by the late John Sonneland, a doctor who ran for Congress numerous times in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. He died in 2016.

According to Andrew Sonneland, his parents bought the property in the 1960s with visions of something very different than what’s planned now, featuring “exceptionally large lots with architect-designed homes.” That plan never penciled out financially and the land remained undeveloped.

In the meantime, neighbors to the land “enjoyed many decades of access to a privately owned natural area in the midst of suburban development,” Sonneland said, adding that part of the reason his family is partnering with Greenstone is because the company plans to create walking paths and preserve open space.

By the time last week’s meeting started, Joe Frank and Scandalis were surrounded. The conference room in the library was at capacity. Twenty chairs had been put out, but more than 100 people showed up. People leaned on every wall, including at the front of the room. Others sat on the floor. Still more stood in the hallway as the crowd spilled into the library’s foyer.

Frank, the company’s vice president and son of Jim Frank, started the meeting with a pre-emptive, mollifying plea.

“Our goal today is we really want to be totally transparent,” Frank said. “I do want to remind everyone that an application has not been filed at this point. This is not a public hearing. Really, right now we’re trying to understand the community’s concerns so that we can look at how we can address those in our plan.”

But the crowd wouldn’t be so easily pacified, and their concerns were many. Increased crime, traffic and parking. Saving trees, basalt and a potential wetland. Safety for children and animosity toward bike lanes. Name it, they said, and the Garden District will make it worse.

Traffic snarls

John Hollett, who lives near the project, pointed to what he said was increased crime and traffic following the construction of hundreds of apartment units near 57th and Regal.

“The crime rate and traffic is unbelievable,” Hollett said. “So how is that going to be different than this?”

Joe Frank pushed back on the assertion that apartment buildings cause an increase in crime.

“We don’t see any increase in the crime rate from our multifamily projects,” Frank said.

“You can’t be serious. You can’t be serious,” Hollett said. “Well, if my house gets broken into, I’m coming to your house.”

Later, Joe Frank pointed to a traffic study done this year by Whipple Consulting Engineers that estimated the development would generate about 250 new car trips on surrounding roads during the peak morning commute, and about 200 during the evening commute. The report said the increased traffic would not adversely affect the surrounding network of roads, and recommended the project move forward with no further traffic analysis.

“I’m not saying there isn’t going to be an increase,” Joe Frank said. “I’m saying we’re trying to design the site to disperse the traffic in more ways than one.”

Jim Frank, in an interview, said the project is designed to not exclusively serve the automobile.

“From a land development perspective, when you’re doing a project that has to last 50 to 100 years, you have to design around autonomous cars and the changes happening around transportation,” he said. “You have to, otherwise you’re really going to suffer.”

The project is in one of the city’s designated Centers and Corridors districts, allowing Greenstone to take advantage of relaxed parking requirement rules for development. In these zones, the city allows for “shared and reciprocal parking” between buildings. Kendall Yards uses such an approach, and has about 50 percent the amount of parking spaces compared to a suburban mall with similar uses, Jim Frank said.

He noted that the development largely would maintain the property’s existing walking trails.

“It’s part of a strong mobility network that’s not dependent on everybody driving everywhere,” Jim Frank said. “Lots of those people are within walking distance of grocery stores, restaurants and doctors’ offices.”

Crestline extension

Richard Sola, who lives near the proposed project on Crestline, said he was worried about the development’s plans to extend Crestline to 31st, which would connect to Southeast Boulevard. Joe Frank pointed out that the city was requiring the “Crestline collector arterial” extension, which wasn’t originally part of Greenstone’s plans.

The city recently added Crestline as a main arterial road connecting 37th to Southeast through the Sonneland property. Greenstone’s plans show a road with a 30-foot width, bike lanes and crosswalk signals, aimed to “minimize traffic speeds.”

Sola was not appeased, saying he was concerned Crestline would turn into a “phantom highway.”

“Those are great concerns and what we like to hear,” Joe Frank said.

“And I’d like to hear some answers,” Sola replied, cutting him off.

“Right now, we haven’t looked at that, but new information has been brought up and that’s the whole point of this – the point of this meeting is to get those types of concerns,” Joe Frank said.

Jim Frank, however, suggested he agreed with Sola’s sentiment – to a degree.

“In my view, this maybe isn’t the best answer,” he said of the road extension. “I think Pittsburg is a better option, but politically that’s not going to happen.”

Frank pointed to the concrete medians on 29th preventing turns on to and off of Pittsburg, the result of an earlier outcry from residents there in 1993 who had the support of then-mayor Sheri Barnard. Unlike Pittsburg, Crestline runs next to an elementary school and has no sidewalks.

“People don’t want traffic on their street in their neighborhood. It’s fine if it’s some other street in some other neighborhood,” he said. “I think it’s wrong for the city to dedicate a street as an arterial, increase the traffic on it, and then don’t give anybody a place to walk, especially when there’s an elementary school on it.”

Frank said he’s spoken with city engineers about extending the sidewalks south of his development. He supports the Crestline connection to Southeast because, he said, it gives an isolated neighborhood another way in and out. He said he was confident the development wouldn’t overly increase traffic in the area.

“There is value in the connection of 31st out to Southeast Boulevard,” he said. “It’s complex and there are a lot of different situations, but nobody’s going to see a huge increase” in traffic.

Preserving nature

A handful of people said they were worried the development would destroy what natural features remain on the land, which include trees, a basalt ridge and a potential wetland that’s referred to as the “Sonneland Marsh” in the Lincoln Heights Specific Plan from 1990.

“That area you’re talking about is a wetland,” said Jim Flott, another neighbor. “It’s been filled in through development just like 44th and Regal was.” In 2006, the site that now hosts Target was “mysteriously” filled in, according to news articles, but the state Department of Ecology wasn’t able to find any penalties or enforcement action as of Tuesday.

Flott asked how the project would change if a wetland is found.

“If it is determined it’s a wetland, it will change the plan significantly,” Frank said. “At that point, the project might not be feasible.”

Frank noted that two studies, in 2014 and 2006, have been completed and found “no wetland and there is no shallow water table or ground water present on the site.”

The most recent study, done in 2014 by GeoEngineers, identified a semi-permanently flooded wetland, requiring a 60-foot setback for any development, but it is not within the boundaries of the project. The wetland does sit on other property owned by the Sonnelands, where there are no plans for development.

Greenstone is partnering with the Sonneland family on this project.

If the company goes ahead with the project, they will seek permission from the city to draw new property boundary lines within the property limits owned by the Sonnelands. Greenstone also is seeking a planned unit development designation, allowing a mix of uses within one defined development, including residential, commercial and retail uses.