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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane City Council says no, again, to multifamily housing in Southgate neighborhood

A Target store, rows of apartment buildings, and an array of churches are all within walking distance of the corner of Regal Street and the South Palouse Highway – although the area is better suited to travel by car.

But this land is not fit for new multifamily housing development, even amid a surge in single-family housing prices and low apartment vacancy rates, the Spokane City Council voted last Monday.

For the second year in a row, the council has declined a proposal to change zoning in a small slice of the Southgate neighborhood that would allow for multifamily housing development, leaving it available only for single-family housing.

The council voted 4-3 to reject a proposed amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan that would have paved the way for development planned on three parcels, totaling nearly 10 acres, by property owners DiamondRock Construction and 920 Evergreen LLC.

The decision came less than a year after the council rejected a similar request on a property near the one up for debate on Monday.

The proposal divided the City Council and demonstrated the challenges of balancing long-term city planning with growing calls for relief in an ever-tightening housing market.

The need

The developer, represented by Whipple Consulting Engineers, argued multifamily housing is a fit with the character of the neighborhood. The parcels are close to numerous apartment complexes and the nearby Southgate District Center. The parcel to the west is zoned for multifamily housing, to the east is commercial, with single-family housing to the north and south.

“I think it’s an excellent opportunity to add some housing in an area that needs housing,” Todd Whipple, president of Whipple Consulting Engineers, told the council.

That message resonated with some members but fell flat with others. Members Michael Cathcart and Kate Burke prioritized the need for additional housing, of all kinds, as soon as possible.

Vacancy rates in apartments remain incredibly low, Cathcart argued. While single-family homes need to be built, he argued “we’ve got to support people at every end of the spectrum.”

This week, Spokane was ranked by the Wall Street Journal and as having the fifth-highest emerging housing market in the country. Nearby Coeur d’Alene topped the list.

“We desperately need housing, so I’m happy to support any proposal that’s going to help get people into housing right away,” Cathcart said.

Burke agreed, noting the zoning change wouldn’t be a final seal of approval on the project but the first step in the development process.

Stick to the plan

The majority of council members, however, were hesitant to veer from the city’s comprehensive plan.

The comprehensive plan should be the city’s “bible,” City Councilwoman Candace Mumm said, adding, “I’m not ready to throw that out the window.”

Mumm warned there could be enormous financial consequences if mistakes are made in the rush to build more housing – think water and sewer service, transportation infrastructure, school capacity and other costs associated with additional development.

“We don’t make knee-jerk decisions because land use is a very long-term commitment,” Mumm said.

Although Mumm said “I understand there’s a lot of pressure and there’s a lot of demand” for housing in Spokane, “it’s a big financial burden if we make mistakes.”

The neighborhood

If the city wants to create more density in areas like Southgate, Mumm argued that it needs to do so holistically through a subarea plan drafted with input from the neighborhood, and not one at a time via proposals like the one turned aside on Monday.

The neighborhood’s involvement – or lack thereof – was a key factor for several council members.

But for developers, Whipple explained, it’s a matter of how much money and effort they want to spend winning neighborhood buy-in for a project the city might never allow to get off the ground.

The city encourages – but does not mandate – developers to connect with neighborhood leaders and win an endorsement for their plans prior to requesting an amendment to the comprehensive plan. That process was criticized by council members on Monday.

“We can’t just say ‘here’s some cool things you could do,’ and then say they’re wrong for not doing them.” Burke said, referring to the suggestion developers win neighborhood support.

Get what you paid for

Developers have failed to win sympathy from council members including Mumm and Council President Breean Beggs.

Beggs noted that the property is zoned, right now, for housing development – just not the denser variety sought by the developer. If the zoning change carried through, he added, the value of the property would likely rise well above what the buyer paid for it.

The developers who have been turned down for zoning changes like those proposed in Southgate knew exactly how their property was zoned when they bought it. In doing so, developers knew they were taking on a risk, Mumm argued, hoping for, and betting on, the financial reward of denser development.

Wary of being painted as anti-development or unsympathetic to those suffering in the current housing market, council members noted that the property owner remains free to build single family homes.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear argued “we are in sore need of single-family as well, so to say that we’re just going to focus on multifamily and affordable multifamily isn’t doing justice to the entire problem.”

If more single family homes were made available, she added, “there would be that natural progression of people going into housing, buying housing, and leaving vacancies” in the apartments they’ve moved on from.

Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson made a similar point on Monday.

“Up in that neighborhood, there is quite a significant number of apartment units, but no housing for people who are ready to transition out of apartments into single-family homes,” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson, Beggs, Kinnear and Mumm cast the deciding votes against the measure.