Dan Solomon, a San Francisco architect and new urbanist who has visited our city several times, argues that major change would come in Spokane if fewer than a thousand urban pioneers moved in -- people living and working within a pedestrian-friendly space.
The good news is that several very enlightened developers and preservationists agree and, apparently, have managed to convince lending institutions that a lived-in city would also be a more economically viable city. It is true: People who live downtown spend downtown, on average, as much as six times what people who only work downtown spend.
News that the old J.C. Penney's building will be remodeled to provide living space as well as commercial space is most welcome. If the Rookery Building can be saved, we may well see even more downtown housing. Moreover, we have the promise of downtown housing over by the Flour Mill. And more upscale housing is going in on the west end of town. Taken together with a successful North Riverbank development, a critical mass might just be coming into view.
Still, parking remains a challenge here in Spokane, a city that has only mediocre public transportation -- no light rail, no trolley system, limited bus coverage, unsatisfactory schedules. Like it or not, most of our urban pioneers won't be able to jettison their automobiles, not just yet. It follows then that, for now, we need more parking. Which point leads directly to the need for angle parking. But traffic engineers hate angle parking. Committed as they are to both "improved flow" and "safety," they see angle parking messing up the former and posing risks for the latter.
Just as we have come to accept that the ancient rectangular design remains the best for concert halls, we have come to appreciate that old-fashioned angle parking remains the most effective and efficient form of public parking -- that is, if your goal is to create both a commercially attractive and pedestrian friendly environment.
Yes, angle parking and "traffic flow" are incompatible; but that's just the point. We aren't interested in "flow," not in downtown anyway. No, we want people to linger here and turn the streets into places where people interact, not places you drive through as fast as you possibly can. New urbanists refer to this strategy as "traffic calming"; besides, slowing things down also improves safety. We should remind ourselves that in the interest of safety, traffic engineers, held captive as they are to our automobile culture, have long waged war even on city trees, which, they claim, might marginally diminish lines of sight.
Well, not all traffic engineers.
Upon observing Spokane streets, Walter Kulash, New Urbanism's favorite traffic engineer, concluded that if a healthy downtown was indeed our highest priority, our street design and policies were entirely wrong. In the interest of flow, we have couplets; couplets mean one-way streets. One-way streets are really messed up by angle parking. But, Kulash argued, couplet design is justified only when you either want to move traffic through an area or don't have enough road width left for two-way traffic after you have addressed the parking problem. If you take away the need (or desire, in our case) for faster flow, you take away couplets. Take away couplets, and you take away the strongest argument against angle parking. Still, if your streets aren't wide enough, angle parking may not work. But that's not a problem here in Spokane, where we have very wide downtown avenues. Kulash observed that given the width of so many of Spokane's downtown streets, we had several good candidates for more angle parking. Riverside Avenue leads the list.
This all brings us to the question: Is city government doing its part to facilitate what we need? First off, it needs be pointed out that when Mayor West says that the city isn't in crisis, he is wrong -- big time. At the exact time the city needs a "strong" mayor to make the case for residential living downtown, to order up the kind of parking policy needed or to take care of zoning problems (let alone budget problems, library problems, etc., etc.), we have a vacuum in the mayor's office. And as for the parking situation? As Kulash observed, our traffic engineers support all the wrong policies.
Given our dismal mayoral situation, we are left to appeal to our senior professional administrator, Jack Lynch, who, even without political assistance, could issue a few orders (with the mayor's tacit support) that would help out. He could instruct staff to support the downtown plan and to revise policy to assist developers in any way in their efforts to bring downtown residents instead of just workers and shoppers.