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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: Airway Heights could finally get a downtown as major changes to Highway 2 are considered

Airway Heights is seen in this March 2020 aerial photo.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Airway Heights is seen in this March 2020 aerial photo. (JESSE TINSLEY)

There were “about 50” registered voters living in the mile-square area that would become Airway Heights on April 19, 1955, the day they elected to incorporate as a city, according to a story in this newspaper.

Since that small pool of voters created Airway Heights, it has grown by leaps and bounds, reaching a population of nearly 9,500 in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But while the city has added people and grown in size, through annexation, other aspects of Airway Heights haven’t caught up.

For one thing, the city never got a distinct downtown.

For another, it never built a true street grid.

Now, however, the city is looking to complete that unfinished business by adding east-west connections, revamping U.S. Highway 2 as it passes through the city and modifying King Street to give residents both better ways to get around and a center to hold Airway Heights together.

The city’s missing elements are, in part, a relic of its origins as a community that “formed around” the nearby Fairchild Air Force Base.

As airmen and their families came and went, Airway Heights faced a relative lack of long-term residents and related lack of investments in infrastructure or in “more conventional things like a defined downtown,” according to City Manager Albert Tripp.

But that’s changing.

Though the city remains intertwined with Fairchild, airmen on temporary assignment make up a decreasing fraction of a city that’s been expanding at a rate of 6.5% to 7% a year for the past few years, compared to about 1.5% in the rest of the county, Tripp said.

That, Tripp said, has given Airway Heights “an opportunity to create a stronger sense of community.”

To create a city that “can be supportive” of the needs of young families, retirees and lifelong residents, Tripp said Airway Heights officials have been “engaging in a pretty robust planning process with the community to identify those missing attributes that would give greater context, give greater value” to the West Plains community.

A large part of that will entail undoing something that has long defined Airway Heights: its reliance on U.S. Highway 2, aka the Sunset Highway, as both the city’s only commercial strip and its only east-west connection.

“Right now U.S. 2 is the only east-west corridor or street that allows commuters and residents to traverse east and west,” Tripp said. “And that’s challenging, it’s problematic.”

It’s a challenge Tripp and his colleagues in Airway Heights city hall are aiming to overcome.

“We’re looking to the future, and that doesn’t necessarily involve U.S. 2 being the center of the universe,” Tripp said.

Instead, the city is pursuing multiple projects to improve its local network of streets.

One proposal is already partially funded, the West Plains Connection, which will start near the city of Spokane’s western edge and pass through all of Airway Heights along 12th Avenue, 10th Avenue, Garfield Road and Sixth Avenue. Along the way, it will join currently detached sections of street, add a landscaped or hardscaped center median and include a multiuse pathway. The city also has its eyes on a new east-west connection along 18th and 21st avenues.

But Tripp said Airway Heights is aiming for more than a few isolated projects. Instead, he hopes to eventually see the creation of a more robust and varied system for moving people within and through the city.

“Ultimately, we want to advance more options for reliable multimodal ways of transportation throughout the Airway Heights community and throughout the West Plains region,” Tripp said. “And so to that end, if you look at the current state, we have some aging roadways, we also have missing gaps in terms of infrastructure, as far as ped and bike improvements and streets in general. And those are all barriers to people being able to move back and forth.”

As the city bolsters its street grid, Tripp said it will also look for new “opportunities for commerce.”

A key opportunity the city has identified is along King Street and its intersection with the highway.

According to a recently released Downtown Strategic Plan, the city’s “preferred scenario” for creating a downtown involves creating “new, denser development including mixed uses and infill (to) create down vibe along King Street and U.S. 2.”

In this scenario, King Street “will serve as downtown’s ‘Main Street,’ where higher-intensity and mixed-use developments line the street and pedestrians are prioritized. To the south of US-2, King Street will serve as a pedestrian corridor and eventually an entrance to the new civic campus.”

The Downtown Strategic Plan also calls for a reconfiguration of U.S. 2 through Airway Heights.

“The new design slows traffic speed on the four through-lanes but retains efficiency of flow, assuring necessary mobility while also accommodating street crossings by pedestrians and cyclists,” the plan reads. “The new roadway design includes frontage-style accesses for businesses lining the highway, with parking, landscaping and opportunities for outdoor dining and activities.”

The result would be a downtown for a city that’s never had one, that would include “open public spaces such as a plaza or public market with potential for a future concentration of city services,” a maker’s space that could be home to a brewery or distillery, and alternative housing like duplexes or townhouses, the plan reads. A separate city plan creates strategies for adding public art along the highway and adjacent streets.

For residents, the intersection of King and Highway 2 would be a center for their city.

For drivers, it would mean Airway Heights would be a lot harder to blow past.

Tripp said the downtown plan has already been through a “robust” public process and is “advancing its way toward City Council for approval.”

Airway Heights isn’t alone in its effort to understand how Highway 2 can and should change as the area it runs through undergoes major transformations.

The Washington State Department of Transportation is currently leading a host of regional partners to complete what’s known as the West Plains Sub-Area Transportation Management Plan.

The aim, according to Char Kay, WSDOT’s region planning and strategic community partnerships director, is to take a “holistic” look at the highway.

While the changes planned for Airway Heights are a big part of that, Kay said Highway 2 is a “corridor of segments,” each of which has to be looked at differently.

But some aims will be consistent through the project, such as how to reduce congestion, offer transit alternatives and improve transit within the West Plains so “it’s more attractive” for people to live and work in the area, rather than commute to and from it, Kay said.

Creating a downtown and a robust street system for Airway Heights is just one avenue for getting there.

Work to watch for

The two southern lanes of Main Avenue between Wall and Howard streets will close Tuesday for utility work for a City Line station. Construction signage and detours are in place.

Regal Street is closed from Cleveland to Illinois Avenue as part of North Spokane Corridor work.

Arterial crack sealing will take place this week on Cochran Street from Northwest Boulevard to Courtland Avenue, and along Wellesley Avenue, from Assembly Avenue to Driscoll Boulevard.

Residential crack sealing is slated for the area of Jefferson Street and 18th Avenue.

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