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Getting There: Downtown Master Plan revives idea of reconfiguring some one-way streets, but don’t count on it

One-way Sprague Avenue cuts an east-to-west swath through the center of downtown Spokane.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Downtown Spokane’s network of mostly wide, one-way streets is best suited for driving through on your way elsewhere, at least from this driver’s perspective.

But of course, that’s exactly the opposite of what the powers that be want you to do.

City officials have sunk countless dollars over the decades in an effort to attract people to the historical heart of the city.

Whether it was the bonds bought to fund the $100 million renovation of River Park Square in the late 1990s or the $64 million in public funds still being spent to revitalize Riverfront Park, the idea has long been to find ways to get people to come downtown, get out of their cars, stick around and open their wallets while they’re at it.

Despite all of that investment and all of the changes, one thing has remained largely the same: the predominance of car-friendly one-way streets.

That emphasis on cars isn’t an accident.

The system has a long, complex history, but one important factor, according to the latest draft of Spokane’s new Downtown Master Plan, was a 1961 report that called for an “’inner loop system’ of one-way streets defining the core area’s perimeter to improve vehicular movement.”

The authors of that report – as the master plan’s authors note – were seeking to perform “major corrective surgery” on Spokane’s languishing downtown. Their plan to do so was “inspired by elements of shopping malls that had recently begun to open in the suburbs,” the draft master plan says.

But their mall-inspired vision of a redesigned downtown also featured a number of radical elements – including setting aside eight blocks for pedestrians – that were, of course, never implemented.

Many who opposed the largely one-way downtown street system seemingly got a boost the last time the city adopted a Downtown Master Plan, in 2008.

That plan called for the conversion of certain streets to two-way traffic – Sprague, First and Main avenues, plus Wall Street – while also embedding some doubt about the wisdom of doing so.

“The community perceives two-way streets as safer and strongly supports converting one-way streets to two-way streets in Downtown,” the 2008 plan reads. “However, such a conversion may create more traffic conflicts because one-way streets are more efficient than two-way streets for overall auto circulation within Downtowns. One-way streets also increase traffic capacity; reduce conflicts between pedestrians, bicycles and motor vehicles at intersections; allow for a more efficient operation of traffic signals; reduce stops, delays and emissions; and provide easy access to and from Downtown.”

Ultimately, Wall was the only one that received the bidirectional treatment.

But as the city nears adoption of a new Downtown Master Plan, the specter of converting some of these same streets has seemingly risen from the dead.

Among the plan’s action items: “Reconfigure one-way streets with low traffic volume that do not tie into a Downtown freeway interchange to two-way streets as part of long-term changes to the transportation network Downtown and avoid further conversions to one-way street couplets.”

And the plan makes the case for doing so: “This conversion is suggested because two-way streets tend to reduce travel speeds, increase visibility of retail uses, and make pedestrians more comfortable and more likely to shop and enjoy Downtown.”

But the authors of the latest incarnation of the master plan have again sown doubt regarding the odds – and the wisdom – of actually making this happen.

Perhaps the main obstacle is the money it would require.

Andrew Rolwes, vice president of public policy and parking at the Downtown Spokane Partnership, said there are “considerable opportunity costs” that would come with adding traffic lights, reorienting vehicle entrances and exits to buildings and otherwise remaking the street infrastructure.

He also said there’s “very much mixed opinion” among the downtown business community about whether they even want street conversions.

Rolwes said he’s “come to believe” that many of the same ends can be accomplished by cheaper means.

“It seems to us at the DSP that there are better uses of resources when making for a strong, more vibrant downtown,” Rolwes said.

The draft master plan identifies “some streets (that) have lower traffic than they were designed for and (that) could be energized through street improvements that create a better experience for people walking or biking through Downtown.”

The plan names Sprague, First, Washington Street and Stevens Street as particularly ripe for rethinking, with recommendations for fewer lanes of traffic, and for protected bike lanes, on-street parking and public space that pops out into those potential on-street parking lanes.

Kerry Brooks, a professor of urban and regional planning at Eastern Washington University, said he thinks the emphasis on mitigation rather than elimination is basically the right one.

Reconfiguring one-ways with more trees, cycle tracks and wider sidewalks, he said, is “a more cost-effective approach than re-engineering all the streets.”

“It’s not that it shouldn’t be done or couldn’t be done,” Brooks said. “But maybe some other options should be looked at first.”

Rolwes noted that some cities, including New York and Portland, are among the country’s most pedestrian friendly, even as they rely on one-way streets.

“They have made use of (one-way streets) for traffic while also building up pedestrian infrastructure that works for those cities,” he said.

And there’s another factor at play: The already expensive and complicated job of switching the direction of traffic is in the process of getting even more expensive and complicated as the Spokane Transit Authority constructs the new stations for the bus rapid transit City Line.

Just last year, STA poured the concrete for new stations on the left-hand sides of First and Sprague avenues.

Nathan Gwinn, an assistant planner in the city’s planning and development department, said those could be tricky to deal with if conversions ever occur.

“On specific streets, such as Sprague and First, more resources would likely be needed than others to accommodate additional impacts to intersections and the street network in order to change to two-way along the City Line route,” Gwinn wrote in an email.

The new master plan acknowledges the City Line work and also says, “Future infrastructure projects should not preclude the possibility of reconfiguring those streets in the future.”

What happens with the downtown streets configuration may also depend on something far away in space and time: the North Spokane Corridor.

According to Gwinn, “The City expects impacts to Downtown traffic volumes resulting from the completion of the North Spokane Corridor when connected to I-90, and that would be a better time to observe and evaluate those transportation impacts.”

With the long-delayed freeway not slated to be completed until 2029, the idea of reconfiguring one-way streets is probably dead. Again. For now.

Work to watch for

Work is expected to continue this week on the Harvard Road interchange improvement project, leading to closures on Interstate 90:

  • Monday through Wednesday, eastbound I-90 will see single-lane closures from 7 to 9 p.m. and full closure with a detour from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.
  • Tuesday through Friday, westbound I-90 will have single-lane closures from 7 to 9 p.m. and full closure with a detour from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. The westbound loop ramp will also be closed from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m.
  • In addition, Harvard Road will see shoulder and single-lane closures Monday through Friday from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m.

25th Avenue will be completely closed between Ray and Freya Street on Thursday for crane work.

The north curb lane of Main Avenue between Lincoln and Wall streets will be closed Monday through Friday for utility work.

Both curbside lanes of Hamilton Street between Montgomery and Marietta avenues will be closed until March 19 for utility work.

Indian Trail Road between Lowell and Kathleen avenues will have lane restrictions through March 22 for Quanta work.

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