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Opinion >  Column

Will new pedestrian trail reach for the sky? Bicycle Advisory Board leader hates both routes WSDOT is proposing for Children of the Sun

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 4, 2021

For about $25 million to $30 million, the Children of the Sun Trail could rise 30 feet above the Earth and run alongside the skyway section of the North Spokane Corridor for its final stretch through East Central to Interstate 90.

That lofty vision for the trail’s final stretch from the Spokane River to I-90 was one of three presented at a recent meeting of the city of Spokane’s Bicycle Advisory Board.

The first option, which would have taken the trail along the south bank of the river, has already been dismissed, however, because it didn’t accord with the Washington State Department of Transportation’s “environmental commitments,” according to Terrence Lynch, assistant project engineer for WSDOT’s design office.

Lynch explained that the department committed in long-since-completed federal environmental documents to the premise that the trail would “serve the neighborhood” the new freeway will pass through.

Because the so-called “River Route” would have veered so far west of the NSC’s path to follow the river’s course, Lynch said, it “doesn’t really meet what was committed to.”

As a result, he said, “This one was essentially taken off the table.”

That left two other options. One is the Skyway Route.

Among that route’s advantages, Lynch said, it would offer the “most direct” route from a planned river crossing near the Spokane Community College Campus to the area near Libby Center and Second Avenue in East Central, where a new east-west shared-use path connection is planned and near where a land bridge over I-90 may eventually span.

But that straight shot would also be the most expensive. And it would put bicyclists and pedestrians first beneath and alongside the new freeway, between Greene and Freya streets, before ramping up toward the skyway in the area of the railroad tracks that run south of Trent Avenue.

Once it reached the elevated roadway, the trail would run alongside the southbound lanes.

While Lynch said the skyway route has “no fatal flaws,” he also noted there would be “some issues to resolve.”

Among them, he said, was the fact that it would have “no real connections to destinations and special places,” due to its location above street level.

Lynch referred to the third option as the Regal Route, named for the street it would follow from the river to the interstate.

This alignment for the Children of the Sun Trail would remain at street level, except when it crossed the rail corridor south of Trent on a bridge dedicated for the shared-use path.

While that would offer the advantage of putting some space between trail users and traffic on the busy new freeway, Lynch said, there would be a trade-off in the form of “multiple at-grade street conflicts” as well as “homeowner impacts.”

To meet the desires of public input, Lynch said, the trail would be separated and protected from traffic.

But that would entail removing some on-street parking, which would presumably upset residents.

It would also require trail users to cross a large number of driveways, compromising how safe and protected the trail really would be.

Bicyclists and pedestrians would also have to cross some major streets where there aren’t currently traffic signals.

So the Regal Route would likely require not only a “complete rebuild of Regal,” Lynch said, but also new beacons or other interventions to help people cross multiple lanes of high-speed traffic at various intersections.

Jessica Engelman, vice chair of the Bicycle Advisory Board, didn’t hold back her withering criticism of the two options.

“I hate both of these routes, to be extremely blunt,” she said.

Her issue with the Skyway Route was fundamental.

She said it is “extremely miserable” to bike or walk “next to an interstate.”

Engelman also expressed concern that such a route could “become a linear homeless camp.”

“So I think the skyway option is really bad given the goals of the project,” she said. “I think the Regal option is the closest thing to good, but it makes no sense to put in a separate trail on what should be a greenway.”

Greenways, like one that recently opened on Cincinnati Street, are basically just bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets, roads that are open to cars but prioritize nonmotorized modes of transportation.

Engelman expressed concern that a more intrusive, protected trail built along the street would both present dangers to trail users as a result of all the driveways and could create “bikelash” among neighbors who would blame bicyclists for their loss of parking.

Inga Note, a senior traffic-planning engineer for the city of Spokane, said she had similar concerns about “the driveway issue.” She also suggested WSDOT planners consider a “slightly different option” using the Fiske Street corridor, instead of Regal, for the section south of Trent.

While WSDOT hasn’t made any final decisions about the exact alignment of either option, much less which one it will choose, Lynch said the clock is ticking, with design work slated to begin in “a year and a few months.”

“We really need to roll up our sleeves and start the design work,” he said.

Before that happens, though, engineers first have to work with officials involved with the trail’s “collaboration team” and then go out to the public.

When it does so, the department of transportation will employ the “placemaking” process that department materials say puts “community–based participation at (the) center” of work on the North Spokane Corridor and adjacent Children of the Sun Trail.

That process was used to come up with the three route options, he said, and it will be used to guide the process of choosing and designing the one that’s built.

The placemaking process has drawn criticism from some residents in the Minnehaha neighborhood, who claim officials largely ignored the input they offered through earlier placemaking efforts.

Meanwhile, project leaders from WSDOT have strenuously defended their use of placemaking as a rich and deep method of public participation that allows people an unprecedented ability to guide the design of the freeway and its associated trail.

The fruits of the placemaking process on the outcome of the Children of the Sun Trail’s design so far were on display last week, when WSDOT hosted a virtual groundbreaking for the 1.8-mile middle section of the trail that passes through Minnehaha and Hillyard.

Mark Brower, designer manager for KPFF Consulting Engineers that led the design effort on behalf of WSDOT, said the plans were the product of an “extensive placemaking process” that “provided a very clear vision” for the “themes for the focus areas” and a “prioritized list of amenities” for the trail.

Brower also noted that WSDOT “incentivized” a design that wasn’t just cost-effective but one that maximized “the amount of community we could build for this project.”

All told, the nearly 2-mile section of trail will include three new bridges, 20 neighborhood access points and 12 “gathering spaces.”

Guy Michaelsen, a landscape architect whose firm helped design the trail, flipped through a slide deck that showed off what those amenities will look like.

A rendering of one “trail connection plaza” in Minnehaha showed two concrete rumble strips on either side of a “scored concrete paving plaza” that will feature a kiosk mapping the trail’s course from its northern terminus at East Farwell Road near the Little Spokane River to a planned crossing over the Spokane River near North Greene Street.

Another included “horizontal basalt column seating.”

A third Minnehaha “gathering space” featured “steel character panels” that will show the lifecycle of a ponderosa, with images of a pine cone, a pine needle, a young tree, a mature tree and bark.

The trail through Minnehaha will also include “community selected wall aesthetics” displaying the neighborhood’s name and an image of a landscape along the abutments and walls of the freeway.

Among the new structural elements in the neighborhood are pedestrian bridges over Euclid Avenue and over the NSC at Garland Avenue, as well as a trail connection to Wildhorse Park.

Moving north toward Hillyard, Michaelsen showed the curving “prairie alignment” of the trail as it travels between Heroy Avenue and Wellesley Avenue, where a pedestrian bridge will span the redesigned road.

That bridge will land near what Michelsen referred to as the “Wellesley Roundhouse,” a space with multiple plazas, lighting, seating and plantings of ponderosas and lilacs organized in the semicircular shape of a railway corral.

A few blocks north, he showed the designs for a series of seven consecutive plazas that will be located along the trail as it passes in the narrow space between the NSC and downtown Hillyard.

The two northernmost of these plazas – one at Queen Avenue and another at Columbia Avenue, where the existing section of trail now ends – will be the most elaborate, with seating and plantings.

As for what the trail through Minnehaha and Hillyard will really feel like – and what all those placemaking-inspired amenities will add to trail users’ experience – that remains to be seen.

But they are coming into view.

Construction on this middle section of the trail began Aug. 30 and is slated to be complete by the end of 2022.

As for what it would be like to bike alongside an elevated freeway, we’ll have to wait longer, perhaps until 2029, when the NSC is slated for completion. Unless, of course, the placemaking process – and WSDOT officials – gives us the Regal Route instead.

Work to watch for

Belt Street from Boone to Maxwell Avenue and Garland/Empire Avenue from Crestline to Market Street are closed for grind-and-overlay work.

Upper Terrace Road between Rockwood Boulevard and Crest Road will be completely closed, as well as the curbside lanes of Rockwood at Upper Terrace intersection, through Oct. 27 for excavation work.

Perry Street between 34th and 36th avenues will be flagged through Oct. 29.

Westbound Mission Avenue is restricted to a single lane from the Spokane River Bridge to Perry Street for City Line work.

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