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Clear skies ahead 

by Robert Herold

I listened to the man at the podium address the Spokane County Commissioners regarding the proposed ban on billboards. He was irate. He could not believe that government would consider taking such an unwarranted action against business. He made reference to Division Street and stated he looks at this much-maligned street and sees "commerce."

His remarks reminded me of a famous advertisement that once appeared in The New York Times sometime during the middle of the Great Depression. Pictured was a row of industrial smokestacks, billowing black smoke. The entire top quarter of the advertisement was filled with black smoke. And the message? "Come to Boston, We Have Jobs."

Desperation. Any sign of commercial or industrial activity would do.

Boston was actually selling black smoke as evidence of economic opportunity.

When I see those ugly billboards up and down Division, that is what I see. Not commerce, so much as desperation. Anything for a buck. Let's sell it all off. To the lowest bidder. Cheap, cheap, cheap. No matter that billboards have been banned in city after city that view visual clutter as an impediment to their commercial lives.

I had similar thoughts a few weeks back when the Spokane City Council could not muster the majority vote needed to approve Councilman Steve Eugster's wholly reasonable proposal to ban wrap-around advertising on our buses. Never, anywhere that I've been, have I seen such an ugly, intrusive example of the "anything for a buck" mentality at work. The STA, we were told, needed the money (especially following Proposition 695), and, well that was that. Anything for a buck. (How about STA cutting its overhead? Now there would be a stretch.)

All of which brings us to the draft comprehensive plan, required by the state Growth Management Act. Make no mistake, when all the details are sifted through, what we will have here is the outline of our public commitment to resist doing anything for a buck. Once the plan is adopted, we will have promised to stop identifying our fair city with billowing smoke, viewed metaphorically to include the entire range of growth issues including a continuation of commercial strip zone development.

Before going further, a disclaimer. My involvement in the development of the plan goes back to the Spokane Horizons process. More recently, I was appointed to fill out a term on the Plan Commission. That acknowledged, whatever one's view of the results produced, as a participant I can say that all of these processes were citizen-driven. We are now hearing complaints by some landowners who say the plan is the brainchild of the city's planners, but those same landowners largely absented themselves from the process.

Frankly, I'd have welcomed their timely involvement. They could have forced the process to more effectively bounce ideas off their views of business and economic realities. Moreover, the research they might have provided would have helped. But, as per usual, they waited until the eleventh hour to weigh in.

Actually, in the end, the many participating citizens managed on their own to produce something surprisingly coherent, and in keeping with national trends. The draft proposal contains many elements of urban planning embraced by the growing school of advocates known as the New Urbanists: more densification, but on a human scale; mixed residential and commercial use; an end to visual clutter; and considerable traffic "quieting." (And, by the way, there is nothing in the plan that "takes away our cars" as some conspiracy mongers charge -- there's merely some reasonable policies that would make it easier for neighborhoods to protect against being treated as thoroughfares and offer similar protections to on-street businesses that for years have been victimized by couplets and the like.) All the Plan Commission did was piece together these elements and provide some rationale.

In one form or another, New Urbanism is being embraced across the country. Portland is often cited as the classic example of how these theories can be put into practice, and there are many more. Even in the sprawling countryside of Virginia (one of the fastest growing areas in America), after years of unbridled, single-family construction, we now see town squares, townhouses and integrated commercial districts, along with places of employment.

We hear from some developers that this form of development won't sell here. In all fairness, few have ventured to make the effort. Two notable projects have actually proved to be major successes. I refer to the Wells development in the Cathedral District and the Barbieri project on the Spokane River.

The Centers and Corridors model being proposed in the draft comprehensive plan would lead in the New Urbanist direction, providing that incentives can be found to encourage development in the centers. But it also relies upon the city finding the political will to restrict further strip commercial development that has defined our urban landscape.

And they can.

Along the way, to make the plan work, some downzoning will be required (along with some upzoning, which you never hear the critics decry). But that downzoning can and should be limited once properties unnecessary to the integrity of the model are taken off the table. Negotiations have progressed a long way on this front since the land use map dictated by the policies was first placed before the City Council.

In any case, the plan will serve as a template that will guide the fine-tuning that must follow through the neighborhood planning processes to come. Likely some centers presently identified will disappear. Others will form. The hope is that neighborhoods, property owners and developers can work together to flesh out these details.

The plan does come with risks, but likely not the risks cited by the doomsday set. For example, it is the intent of the plan to provide more low-income housing within the broader downtown area. But if we can take a cue from other cities, rejuvenation of these areas, even should it come through densification, will arrive through what is known as "regentrification." High-end and middle-income development will sprout in activity centers, creating a more diverse neighborhood in downtown, but also creating opportunities for builders and renovators.

Does adopting the comprehensive plan carry risks? No doubt. Unintended consequences? Of course.

In the end, however, we come back to the central question: Will Spokane, beginning down at City Hall, determine to express faith that our community's future not be reduced to billowing black smoke viewed as a commercial success story? For our generations to come, let us hope so.

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