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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

What could Spokane’s development future look like? Take a cue from its past, the city’s new planning director says

Spencer Gardner is the city of Spokane's planning director.   (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

When Spencer Gardner envisions the city of Spokane’s future, he points to its past. No, he doesn’t expect trolleys will once again zip city residents up the South Hill.

But Gardner, who was appointed as the city’s new planning director last month, feels like the city’s rapid development at the turn of the 20th century has left it with “bones” that make Spokane well poised to embrace continued growth.

“We have this amazing legacy that our ancestors built of vibrant, beautiful urban neighborhoods that are perfectly adapted to transportation that doesn’t require driving, that offer a lot of opportunity for revitalization, that have more opportunity for dynamic growth, and just that urban feel the market is now looking for in cities everywhere,” Gardner told The Spokesman-Review last week.

Gardner is the first permanent planning director the city has had in nearly four years, and takes the helm at a transformative moment of sustained growth in Spokane that has forced city leaders to rethink development.

Gardner eyes the past for lessons to apply moving forward. The city’s population boomed in the early 1900s, but then growth slowed – unlike cities like Seattle and Portland.

That has left Spokane in a unique position, poised with the infrastructure to meet renewed calls for an urban feel while maintaining its character.

Take Hillyard, for example. Or West Central, or the Garland District, or South Perry.

Other cities have a few of these neighborhoods – now unaffordable for most people – while Spokane has more than twice that.

It’s exactly those sorts of assets that helped lure Gardner to Spokane. After obtaining his master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Gardner stayed in the Midwest.

Gardner is from Idaho Falls and his wife hails from Alaska. The two found themselves wanting to be closer to family. Seattle or Portland were options, but the family settled on Spokane, a city they viewed as more friendly to their family of three – now four – kids.

Before joining the city, Gardner worked for more than a decade in the private sector, most recently as a data and mapping specialist for Toole Design.

If Spokane was able to blossom so rapidly in the early 20th century – why does growth of 10% between decades today make the city feel as though it’s bursting at the seams?

The real estate and housing development industry, and everything that has grown up around it, is wildly different today than it was during the generation of Spokane’s forefathers, Gardner argued.

Growth back then was rapid, but incremental. It was reliant on “many hands,” Gardner said, with thousands of property owners taking on projects to build a duplex, a fourplex or even a corner store with apartments above.

The systems that were in place – such as financing and land-use regulation – were tailored to make those small developments possible.

“This amazing legacy of wealth and opportunity that we talk about as the American dream – that’s what that’s built on,” Gardner said. “For a lot of reasons, we’ve sort of shifted from that and taken more of a top-down approach.”

Financing tends to be geared toward larger projects, for example, like redevelopment of an entire block.

While the city – and others like it around the country – won’t return to the way development occurred 100 years ago, Gardner said it must take “the good things that came out of some of the changes that led to where we are now, but also find a new way forward that provides those opportunities for the ‘many hands’ to get involved in growth.

But don’t worry, Gardner isn’t coming to rip the car keys from your hands.

“I don’t think we’re going to live in a world in the near future where we give up cars,” Gardner said. “What I think we need to improve on is providing options for people.”

Gardner’s appointment follows the city’s adoption of a new Housing Action Plan in 2021, which aims to broaden the supply and affordability of housing in Spokane.

More important than laying out a template for housing reform, the Housing Action Plan brought disparate groups to the same table and acknowledged Spokane has a problem. There’s still disagreement about exactly where and how development occurs, but everyone at the table agrees it needs to happen.

“That illustrates how unique this moment is, because for several decades I think especially in places like Spokane that is surrounded by natural beauty, development has been seen as sort of the enemy,” Gardner said.

Today, there’s an understanding that development is a key part of a healthy city.

“Now,” Gardner said, “we can get on to the question of ‘how can we make sure that development enhances the character of neighborhoods and provides opportunities for people who have previously been locked out of the market?’ ”