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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Getting There: Spokane’s plans reflect changing priorities for Division-Ruby in years ahead

Cars move up and down the North Hill on Division Street on Dec. 30. City planners have several ideas for how the street might develop in the decade or two.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

In the decades ahead, North Division Street could begin to look radically different than it has for most of its history.

By the end of the 2020s, a lane in both directions is slated to be converted into a bus-priority lane. A lane on Ruby Street is set to be replaced with protected bike lanes. Land-use regulations in the surrounding area are likely to be adjusted, setting the stage for a denser, more walkable corridor.

For two years, Spokane city, county and transit officials have been drafting and refining plans to shift some of the corridor’s focus from automobiles to other forms of transportation. Those changes to how Spokane residents move through the Division corridor are expected to be accompanied by a major shift in how people live and work there as well.

In December, almost all members of the Spokane City Council voted in support of the plan, outlined by a multiyear study known as DivisionConnects.

The plan has taken shape in anticipation that the North Spokane Corridor will soon finally be finished – though the end date remains in flux, with Gov. Jay Inslee’s recently released budget proposal delaying completion another six years to 2033 at the earliest.

When a new north-south corridor does finally open, however, traffic is expected to move away from what has long been the city’s busiest street.

“Once this is all in place, it will be an opportunity to radically rethink Division,” said Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs.

A unified plan for Division

At the heart of plans to remake the north-south corridor is a new kind of bus for the Spokane area.

In 2020, officials from the Spokane Transit Authority, the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, Spokane County, the city of Spokane and the Washington State Department of Transportation started taking a close look at possible changes along the corridor.

Simultaneously, the city had an opportunity to invest upwards of $100 million into public transportation to ease north-south commuting, and North Division Street seemed the optimal place for that infrastructure.

“If we’re going to eye future north-south investment, something robust such as light rail or bus rapid transit, Division is a much better candidate than the center of a freeway,” said Karl Otterstrom, chief planning and development officer for STA.

As it exists now, the North Division Street corridor connects downtown Spokane to growing communities on the northern edge of the city and into the county, serving both local and regional traffic, including freight. Bikes aren’t allowed in much of the corridor, and planners found that heavy car traffic discouraged people from walking in the area.

Early on, planners settled on developing a rapid bus route along the street, which is currently served by a route with the second highest ridership in area.

The Division bus rapid transit line will be the second of its kind in the city. When it is completed toward the end of the decade, it will link up through downtown with the City Line that is expected to launch later this year.

Once finished, zero-emission, 60-foot buses will travel between the Spokane River and the “Y” where U.S. Route 2 splits away from North Division Street. A bus would arrive at any one of the estimated 30 bus stations along the route every 10 minutes on weekdays and no more than 15 minutes on nights and weekends.

A second phase of the DivisionConnects study, completed last year, solidifies plans for the corridor. Some concepts, such as converting the Division-Ruby couplet into two-way streets, have been abandoned in the yearslong process, while other recommendations have been baked in to the long-term plan.

Under the plan the City Council voted in December to support, one lane in either direction along the route will be converted into “business access and transit” lanes. While cars would still be able to turn into and out of businesses through these lanes, only buses would be allowed to continually travel along them, theoretically speeding up bus travel.

Along the Ruby Street side of the couplet, an additional lane would be removed to motor vehicle traffic altogether and converted into protected two-way bike lanes.

“I think there’s a lot of potential to re-envision Division,” said Spokane City Councilman Zack Zappone.

A new day on Division

The car has long been king on the Division Street corridor.

Ever since the end of the streetcar system that once connected Hillyard rail workers to Spokane, infrastructure investments in the area have reflected the rein of the automobile.

The North Spokane Corridor has been floated as a north-south alternative to Division since the ’40s, but has always seemed to be another decade away from implementation. As that project languished, changes have been made to Division to compensate.

North Division Street was widened in the early ’90s to handle increases in traffic, and in 1994 the one-way Division-Ruby couplet was completed with the hope that it could reduce congestion.

Following this investment, traffic along the corridor jumped nearly 33% from 1992 -94, pumping more traffic into North Spokane and adding pressure to other major arterials, according to a 1996 article in The Spokesman-Review.

Fast forward three decades, and the legacy of car-centric infrastructure along the Division-Ruby corridor can be seen in many of the area’s businesses. Six drive-thru coffee shops line a half-mile stretch of the couplet. The roadway is punctuated by car dealerships, fast food chains and shopping centers whose footprint is half parking lot.

But the North Spokane Corridor is tentatively expected to be finished by the end of the decade.

The predicted shift in traffic from North Division Street onto the new freeway has presented an opportunity for city planners, who envision radical changes for what has long been Spokane’s busiest street.

Aside from commuters, big changes are likely coming for those living and working alongside the corridor. DivisionConnects planners predict that hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure investments to encourage biking, walking and busing along the corridor could lead to dramatic changes in the surrounding area.

Major redevelopment of the area surrounding the Division corridor seems inevitable, especially near future bus stops, according to planners. For large areas around the proposed bus route, the land is more than twice the value of what has been built on it, a metric that developers often consider prime for investment.

The pressure to change won’t just come from the bus route and changes to the roadway.

City leaders are considering a number of tactics to spur redevelopment throughout Spokane, many of which could speed along changes on the Division corridor, often in ways that would make cars less desirable.

Zappone has expressed an interest in reducing or eliminating parking minimums for new development, especially around transit corridors.

He and other council members have said they also want to implement tax incentives for developers who redevelop existing parking lots into affordable housing.

“There will always be a role for cars in Spokane and every city, so you have to plan purposefully,” Zappone said. “But we are already seeing changing trends of car use, generational changes.”

The City Council has also voiced support for relaxing land use regulations around the Division corridor, allowing for denser housing and more diverse development.

Not everyone will necessarily benefit from change on Division. Between the rapid transit line and accompanying redevelopment, property values could rise in the area, and that could mean that current residents and business owners are pushed out.

DivisionConnects planners warned of this possibility, stating that tenants and lease-holders that don’t own the property where the live or work could be displaced by rising residential and commercial rents.

Planners suggested that Spokane’s city leaders – and county leaders where the rapid transit route would affect nearby unincorporated areas – consider strategies to mitigate that risk of displacement and gentrification.

For those that aren’t pushed out by rising rents, major changes on the neighboring arterial could have significant impacts on some businesses. Many of Division’s drive-thru coffee shops, for instance, aren’t built to accommodate a walking customer.

The changes could be more mixed for businesses that are a destination for customers, rather than a pitstop.

Sharlena Czifro, a manager at Heber Hatchet, an ax-throwing entertainment venue with other locations in Utah, Idaho and the Tri-Cities, predicts the changes to the corridor could be a mixed bag for the business.

Improved transportation could be a boon for commuting employees, she said. About half of their clientele are walk-ins, so increased foot traffic could be good for business.

But many questions are still unanswered, she added.

How would the bus-priority lanes affect access into the business? Would parking be impacted? How close would the bus stops be to their front door?

“Only time will tell what happens,” she said. “I’m a little excited, a little nervous.”

The status quo has its own issues, Czifro added, noting that speeding and reckless driving seem to be frequent issues along the corridor.

One way or another, changes are needed along the Division corridor, said Jason Ferraro, owner of Ferraro’s Family Italian Restaurant.

“In the past 10, 15 years, Spokane’s exploded into a small Seattle, and I don’t think the roads were set up properly to be a big city,” he said.

While Ferraro acknowledged that the remaking of North Division Street could be nerve-wracking for a new business in the area, he said he doubted his restaurant would take a hit.

“As long as people can still get here with a car, if you have a good place, people are going to find a way to get there,” he said.

Meanwhile, the prospect of new residential development in the area could lead to a bump in business, Ferraro mused.

In any case, a new day on Division isn’t coming tomorrow. Particular details, such as where exactly to place bus stations, are still being determined, and the start of construction is not slated to begin until late 2025 or 2026.

And while projections about future traffic on North Division Street are contingent on the completion of the North Spokane Corridor, that elusive new freeway continues to be a slippery target.

DivisionConnects planners assumed an estimated completion date of the North Spokane Corridor between 2027-2029, with changes to the Division-Ruby corridor finishing around the same time.

But the governor’s recent budget proposal delaying the new freeway, if supported by state legislators, would mean the North Spokane Corridor could open as late as 2035 – nearly 90 years after the freeway was first floated.

This unpredictability was the primary reason that Councilman Jonathan Bingle was the sole vote against approving the DivisionConnects plan.

“It’s hard enough to get north-south in our city,” he said. “Until the north-south freeway is finished, I won’t be voting to remove any north-south lanes at all.”

Bingle said he’s aware of pushback to the governor’s delays to construction, but added he hopes the city doesn’t make potentially disruptive changes until the freeway is actually finished.