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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: As housing market tightens, French calls for city to revisit planning priorities

In a letter sent to city officials Feb. 4, County Commission Chairman Al French urges a rethinking of the city’s comp plan, with an eye toward finding “new avenues to address a growing shortage of housing for our citizens.” Downtown Spokane is seen looking east on June 4, 2018. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
In a letter sent to city officials Feb. 4, County Commission Chairman Al French urges a rethinking of the city’s comp plan, with an eye toward finding “new avenues to address a growing shortage of housing for our citizens.” Downtown Spokane is seen looking east on June 4, 2018. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A quarter-century ago, the city of Spokane set off to develop an overarching set of principles to guide future growth.

In a nutshell, these principles encourage denser urban development over growth at or outside the city limits, and focusing that denser growth in neighborhood centers that emphasize walkability and mixed-use development.

The upside to the ideals built into the Comprehensive (land use) Plan, adopted in 2001 and amended periodically in the years since, can be seen all over Spokane, from thriving Perry and Garland districts, to a dramatically evolving East Sprague neighborhood, to city investments in Hillyard. Each of those projects evolved and was approved in different ways, but all reflect those goals: denser development, walkability, smart infrastructure, mixed use.

And yet we also have a housing crisis, one that affects all different levels of housing – from single-family homes to affordable apartments. County Commission Chairman Al French argues that part of the problem is a disconnect among the dense-development values of the comp plan, a resistance to those principles in neighborhoods and regulations that don’t support the underlying values.

In a letter sent to city officials Feb. 4, French urges a rethinking of the comp plan, with an eye toward finding “new avenues to address a growing shortage of housing for our citizens.”

French was involved in the comp plan process as a neighborhood council member for Nevada-Lidgerwood. He said resistance among neighborhoods has been a issue from the start – everyone supports dense development generally, but not next door.

“Nobody on the City Council today was there when we were going through all of the process to put the comp plan together,” French said Thursday. “Next year is the 20-year anniversary of the comp plan, and I just wanted to ask: Have we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish?”

In particular, French is challenging whether the goals of focusing denser growth along key “centers and corridors” throughout the city and encouraging “infill” development rather than growth on the suburban outer borders have been effective.

“The growth projections in housing associated with the Centers and Corridors and Infill Development have not been realized, thereby resulting in a housing shortage that is driving up prices,” French wrote in his letter to Mayor Nadine Woodward and members of the City Council. “This has also negatively impacted our collective goal of housing affordability.”

Critics will see this as a call for sprawl – for expanding jurisdictional boundaries or supporting the large developments at or beyond the edges of town that are so expensive for cities in terms of infrastructure and service costs. But French argues sprawl is an irrelevant term for where we are now – a housing market so tight that many people looking for a home can’t find one, in a community with a good record of smart growth.

He acknowledges that he thinks expanding jurisdictional boundaries to create more buildable land might be needed, but said he’s not focused on that alone.

He points to one development as an example of the disconnect he thinks should be addressed by elected officials. There is no better specimen of comp plan values in town than Kendall Yards – which marries retail shops with apartments, condos and some homes. Walkable as heck. Mixed-use as it comes.

And yet it had to be built as a Planned Unit Development, because city zoning regs are not in concert with comp plan values, he said.

“Why don’t we allow projects like that to be the norm, instead of having a special process that allows it to happen?” French said. “I’m hoping to spark a conversation.”

City officials say they’re open to having a conversation, but remain committed to the values in the comp plan. Opening up the plan for revisions would be a process that would take years of public hearings and bureaucratic machinations.

“I’d say, as a city, we are still very committed to more density in the city and especially in the core of the city,” Council President Breean Beggs said. “We’re very committed to that.”

The alternative, he said, is development on the edges, which is incredibly costly to the city for providing services and infrastructure, and does little to touch upon one of the biggest needs we have: affordable housing.

Woodward is also not eager to restart the comp plan process, said spokeswoman Marlene Feist, who cited the developments in Perry, Hillyard, East Sprague and Monroe as evidence the comp plan is working.

“We believe the Centers and Corridors approach is yielding results,” Feist wrote in a message.

Urban planning may be the driest subject in the universe, but it’s one whose consequences, with time, become clearer and clearer. A lot of the most exciting changes in the city of Spokane have been neighborhood-based, and they reflect the best of smart-growth ideas. But they do not all stem directly from the comp plan, and – as French notes with regard to Kendall Yards – our regulations and our smart-growth values do not always align.

The city and county may not be headed in the same direction on these questions, but as we wrestle with housing challenges, it can’t hurt to circle back to what we did in 2001, check it against where we are now, and ask how it’s working.

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