The city of Airway Heights has never had much of a downtown.
The growing city’s business district is centered along the main thoroughfare for airmen headed to Fairchild Air Force Base and outdoorsmen headed to Leavenworth. U.S. Highway 2 also serves as the primary way residents of Airway Heights get to and fro while running errands.
All of that traffic has made U.S. 2 a congested, dangerous corridor for residents and local business owners who have put down roots in the area. A Washington State Department of Transportation study found more than 540 crashes occurred along the corridor from 2015 to 2019, eight of which involved serious injuries and four of which were fatal.
After years of analyzing and planning, the city is now moving forward with efforts to alleviate those concerns, and turn the area into a bustling downtown district, by reshaping the stretch of highway that runs through the heart of the city.
The city will unveil an early conceptual design for a litany of changes to the section of U.S. 2 between Lundstrom Street and Lawson Street on Monday night at the first of many open houses planned this year. The meeting will begin at 5 p.m. at the Hub and is intended to gather community input on the slate of proposed changes, which could include installing several more turn signals and traffic lights along the highway, adding on-street parking to parallel West 14th Avenue and the addition of a multi-use pathway for cyclists and pedestrians separated from the highway by a 6-foot buffer.
Plans to establish a true downtown district have been in the works for more than a decade, City Manager Albert Tripp said.
“We started off by casting a vision for what U.S. 2 could look like, community business owners, Department of Transportation, tribes within the area of the county,” Tripp said. “Like a lot of things, one would desire to, like, snap your fingers and have it occur overnight, but in reality, it doesn’t work that way.”
Tripp said the plans for the strip between Lundstrom and Lawson are part of a larger project aimed at developing U.S. 2 into an area where travelers, residents and airmen can access local businesses easier. Doing so will not only help the local economy, but will also help the city find a sense of community and identity that it currently lacks.
“We have been breaking down a much bigger project into much smaller chunks, and then you got to dive deeper and get into the nuts and bolts in terms of figuring out how can that vision actually come to fruition on the ground and be built out,” Tripp said. “Then once we have success on that, we’re gonna move to the next phase and continue to repeat and repeat essentially till the entire corridor is built out.”
Airway Heights Planning Director Heather Trautman said she is looking forward to hearing from the community about the plan, and what challenges they currently face when it comes to traversing the area on foot or by bike.
She said the city is hoping to engage members of the growing, diverse population of Airway Heights at the town hall, like the Marshallese community. The Spokane area is one of just three major U.S. hubs for refugees from the Marshall Islands seeking a better quality of life after U.S. nuclear testing in the 1950s permanently damaged the islands and ecosystems, as well as leaving lasting effects on the health and quality of life of the Marshallese people.
Trautman said Pacific Islanders are forecast to comprise up to 10% of the population of Airway Heights this year.
“The goal is to reach out to members of our community that historically have not been a part of the planning and development process, to hear their thoughts, experiences, challenges,” Trautman said. “We want to have them involved.”
Pedestrian use would see a vast improvement with the proposed additions of more marked crossings, traffic lights, raised buffers and a separated pathway.
While there are sidewalks along the highway, there is no separation from the traffic, and pedestrian crossings are few and far between. Of the 540 crashes analyzed in the state transportation’s five -year study of the stretch between the entrance to Fairchild and Russell Road, bicycles and pedestrians were involved in three fatal crashes, two crashes that resulted in serious injury and six crashes that resulted in minor injuries.
Ginnie Holmes, owner and operator of Ginnie O’s Grooming & Play N’ Stay, has been at her current location near Lundstrom and U.S. 2 for more than 15 years. She said she often worries for the safety of the pedestrians she sees making use of the sidewalks in the area, and the crosswalk that sits outside her door.
“There’ll be people walking to the casino, or kids in the summertime, right next to the busy road,” Holmes said. “People go through here way too fast.”
Holmes said she looks forward to seeing how the proposed changes could reshape her home of 20 years. She’s also hopeful a corridor friendlier to cyclists, pedestrians and local traffic would help her business. Her shop is nestled among several local businesses and restaurants that can be hard to spot at highway speeds.
“I’ve been here 15 years and there’s still people here who don’t know I’m here,” she said. “People walking up and down the strip would just be good for business and it would certainly pretty up the city.”
The next challenge for the city will be securing funding for the construction phase of the project, Trautman said. They are currently applying for a wide assortment of grants, and will have the final design completed by the end of the year.
“The goal of the project is to think of U.S. 2 as part of the community,” Trautman said. “While we are in the preliminary stages right now, we are actively looking for and applying for grants to help realize the community’s vision for a downtown.”