By order of the Hearing Examiner, Trent Avenue from the Washington State University Riverpoint Campus west to Division Street has been renamed Spokane Falls Boulevard. Several members of the City Council were not pleased. Rob Higgins wanted to see traffic studies. Cherie Rodgers worried about the cost to business of changing addresses on stationery. Higgins started to open a public hearing on the matter, but about this time Mike Connelly, our city attorney, ambled up to the microphone and patiently explained why a hearing was out of order.
Seems the City Council, back in 1992 -- no doubt working hard on getting the Lincoln Street Bridge construction underway -- decided to delegate street renaming to the Hearing Examiner. Unless someone formally appeals the examiner's decision, the Council's role is merely "ministerial." It was never made clear what that meant. What would have happened had our "ministers' just decided to vote no? I was hoping to find out, but instead, once instructed, a majority did the Spokane thing and dutifully went along with the gag.
Rodgers, I should report, did vote no. That stationery issue was just too much for her.
I'm more intrigued by the proposal itself. WSU, in making the request, produced a campus plan that they presented to the Hearing Examiner. Higgins pointed out that such a plan had no standing, nor had he seen it. That said, the intention of WSU is to more closely associate its campus with downtown. Our friends from down under reasoned that were the Riverpoint Campus address Spokane Falls Boulevard instead of Trent Avenue, this association would be made. They seek a symbolic relationship with the urban core.
Here's the problem: Urban core presumes urban design. Along Spokane Falls Boulevard, there is little or no urban design.
You can see for yourself by driving from the WSU branch campus. First you observe that the campus itself isn't urban. It amounts to giant surface parking lot bordered by two buildings. The truth is that the campus has more in common, functionally if not architecturally, with Spokane Community College than it does anything urban. This campus is designed for people who drive cars, park them just long enough to go to class, then depart for the suburbs. It operates kind of like a mall.
And speaking of the suburbs, as you drive west from the WSU campus, now on Spokane Falls Boulevard, you don't see anything urban until you hit Stevens, some four or so blocks to the west of Division. Just to the west of the Riverpoint Campus are two "freeway exit"-type motels, referred to by urbanist James Kunstler as "alien space ships." A half-block to the west of Division, you are welcomed to our version of urbanity by a billboard the size of Rhode Island. Then you drive by another space ship motel, bordered by chain-link fencing, no less. And directly across the street? A suburban-style restaurant, followed a building or so away by a suburban-style business. More billboards complete the scene.
Here's where you may find yourself feeling as if you are an extra in Master and Commander, except your car is sailing on an ocean of surface-level parking (south of the Opera House).
As if it matters, from Spokane Falls Boulevard you can't see the river, much less the falls. The view corridor will only worsen once our new convention center is built: All the windows will face the river. The architects are pleased that convention-goers will get a good view. The rest of us get to look at a wall of concrete.
Finally, half a block west of Stevens, we see urban design: a nice old building with a restaurant on the ground floor. Across the street, the park, lined by trees, completes the picture. In this small area, pedestrians matter. Our little stretch of urbanity is extended for a couple more blocks west, past River Park Square to the Monroe Street merge.
Boulevards are wide streets, typically bordered by urban design and ornamented with trees and grass plots. They complement urban design. Given this, I have a suggestion: Why not apply the street name "Spokane Falls Boulevard" only where appropriate, where we have urban rather than suburban design? In recognition of our true state of affairs, the City Council would need first to reclaim street-naming authority, then rescind the decision to extend Spokane Falls Boulevard to the Riverpoint Campus. In a related decision, the council would enact an extension of Trent Avenue from the WSU Campus all the way to Stevens Street.
OK, so what would be left over as Spokane Falls Boulevard isn't all that much. But look on the bright side: We have a real opportunity here to measure our civic progress. The City Council could review the designation every two years or so. If we rid ourselves of a billboard or two, if the chain-link fencing ever comes down, if we see some brick facades go up, if somehow surface-level parking can be moved around to the back or underground -- if any or all of this happens, we can look our civic selves in the mirror and say: "Hey, let's extend Spokane Falls Boulevard -- we've earned the right."