A 300-unit apartment complex nearing final approval for construction in the U.S. Highway 195 corridor just south of Interstate 90 has renewed worries about traffic safety and potential wildfire evacuations that led to a temporary building ban enacted last year.
And the complex, Prose Spokane, is just one project. The Washington state Department of Transportation has estimated that 3,000 housing units are either under construction or approved for construction by the city in the Latah Valley corridor that runs south from I-90.
Neighbors say the area cannot take the growth.
“For us living here, transportation is a daily struggle,” Citizen Action for Latah Valley spokesperson Molly Marshal said. “So when you tell me that they’re going to build hundreds of new apartments down here, and we can’t get out of our neighborhood right now, that’s a problem.”
According to Spokane City Council President Lori Kinnear, who sponsored the city ordinance that implemented a six-month moratorium a year ago, the halt in development bought time for the city to raise transportation impact fees for the area – something that hasn’t been done in over 20 years.
The fees are collected from developers to help the city pay for costs to update roads, streets, water and sewer to accommodate new projects.
Before the moratorium, developers had to pay about $600 for every unit of a residential building taller than two stories. As of March, when the moratorium expired, they have to pay about $3,400.
Rob Anderson, development director for Alliance Residential Co., said the company originally submitted plans for the 300-unit project before the moratorium.
“Impact fees are certainly a cost factor to considering for every project, but we want to see the neighborhood do well,” he said.
When asked whether he is concerned with growth outstripping infrastructure needs, he said he thinks, “it is the job of the city to look after the future growth of a given area.”
The almost 600% fee increase is heralded as a success by both Kinnear and Mayor Nadine Woodward.
“We’re in a housing crisis, so we need builders to build, but we also have to be responsive to the concerns in Latah Valley,” Woodward said. “By updating these fees, we are trying to have a balanced approach to get more housing and infrastructure – which won’t come without building.”
Kinnear said there is still much work to be done.
“Keep in mind, impact fees do not pay for current infrastructure issues,” she said. “I don’t feel the fee updates are enough.”
Road access for residents along U.S. 195 makes for a troubling situation for evacuating residents and firefighters responding to emergencies, something the area experienced numerous times just since May, residents said.
Firefighters put out two structures fires and three brush fires that destroyed homes, torched trees and left dozens of other acres charred.
The Sunset fire on Aug. 4 caused evacuations of residents in the Grandview-Thorpe Neighborhood, including Aimee Gence.
“It all happened so quickly. Many of us didn’t receive a phone notice, so neighbors were going door-to-door to notify people. Then the police came and did the same,” she said. “But the scariest part was getting out of the neighborhood.”
Gence evacuated her home on West Grandview Avenue and headed east on West 16th Avenue when she was forced to stop. Traffic got completely stalled on South Milton Street and South Canyon Lane.
She wasn’t able to move her car for about 30 minutes. Inside, Gence, her two children and dog remained trapped.
“There was nowhere to turn around, or anything I could do,” she said. “I thought we were safe once we got in the car, but the scariest moment was realizing I am stuck and have no way to protect my family.”
Gence has lived in her home for 10 years and has dealt with the area roads’ chokepoints. She believes the problem was made worse by low-railroad bridges in the area that prevent fire vehicles from passing through.
“We are all aware that fire danger is escalating in our area and that traffic is getting more congested,” she said. “But seeing it all play out was really eye-opening.”
A few days before that blaze, Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer addressed the City Council on July 31 about the Hallett fire, which began earlier that day.
The blaze burned almost 200 acres along Cheney-Spokane Road, according to previous Spokesman-Review reports.
“The challenge that we have with (U.S.) 195 is that it’s an island,” Schaeffer said. “We’re certainly concerned with the company we have out there because they are very far away from help.”
The weekend prior, the department moved a fire truck to a temporary fire station located south of the Creek at Qualchan Golf Course. The fire truck was instrumental in their successful containment of the fire, Schaeffer said.
The temporary fire station is located in a refitted residential home with a fire truck parked out front. It began operation in 2015 to help reduce response time in the area.
The Spokane Fire Department must deliver 17 firefighters in 11 minutes to an incident if it wants to meet effective response goals, Schaeffer said.
But the current traffic patterns prevent those crews from meeting that requirement, he said.
Kinnear said she has a solution in mind.
“I am concerned about development in general near U.S. 195, but it really needs a real fire station,” she said.
Though land for a new station has been purchased near the Cheney-Spokane Road and U.S. 195 interchange, she said funding a new building will be difficult.
“A new building will cost about $7 million, so funding that has to be part of the process moving forward,” she said.
But Marshall said residents are tired of waiting.
“Since we started the action committee, it’s been two years of frustration,” she said. “Our issue is only one amongst many in Spokane, but we feel nothing is being done to remedy the current issues we face every day.”
She said safety issues in the area are not only present during emergencies.
Intersections with neighborhood roads and U.S. 195 are dangerous, Marshall said. She prohibits her daughter from using the intersection, but she is still worried about her neighbors and school buses that use it every day.
Marshall said the group is becoming despondent.
Getting in and out of their neighborhood is getting more difficult with growth. They believe the area requires numerous major upgrades immediately.
State transportation officials agree projects are needed – 26, to be exact.
In a 2021 study, the DOT recommended the 26 infrastructure projects be completed to allow for alternate access to the local street network as development continues in the area.
The most near-term recommended projects focus on where neighborhood roads interchange with U.S. 195; most notably 16th Avenue, Meadow Lane Road and Hatch Road.
“Intersections require drivers attempting to access the U.S. 195 corridor to wait for gaps in traffic,” the study said.
“As volume on U.S. 195 increases, gaps in traffic will decrease resulting in congestion at all intersections.”
Over the past 22 years, only one interchange has been constructed, at Cheney-Spokane Road.
DOT crash data from 2015 to 2019 shows the highest number of crashes on U.S. 195 was recorded at the 16th Avenue intersection.
“As traffic volume in the study area increases, existing safety concerns would be expected to worsen,” the study said.
The intersections are so dangerous that Amber McCollum avoids U.S. 195.
When she needs to go to the city center, she leaves her Grandview neighborhood in the opposite direction from downtown and takes the Garden Springs Road bridge to West Sunset Boulevard.
She also prohibits her children from ever accessing U.S. 195 when they drive. But one morning three years ago, her daughter was running late to Lewis and Clark High School.
After receiving her driver’s license just months earlier, she decided to take U.S. 195. Driving on West 16th Avenue, she attempted to turn left into the northbound lanes of the highway.
Moments later, McCollum’s phone rang.
“She was hysterical,” McCollum said. “She told me she got in an accident and that it was bad.”
McCollum immediately ran to the scene. Still in her pajamas and slippers, what she saw terrified her.
“All I saw was pieces of her car,” she said. “I still can’t believe she was OK.”
The car was destroyed, she said. Other than minor bruising caused by her seatbelt, the teenager was unharmed.
Since then, McCollum said the intersection has worsened. And she is glad that she does not have to worry about her daughter driving it again, as she is away at college.
Until the intersections are made safer, her fears will continue.
“I will never forget that phone call,” she said. “I look forward to the day it doesn’t make me sick.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed on Sept. 27, 2023 to correct the status of approval of Prose Spokane. City officials are conducting a final review of the building permit.