by Pia Hansen
It's been 11 years in the making, but the end is in sight and the city's comprehensive plan is nearing adoption. Although the city has delayed its state-mandated responsibility to comply with the Growth Management Act, and critics continue to cry foul, the city must adopt the plan by the end of May or risk losing state funds for a variety of projects. Still, city planners and City Council members are working to fine tune the plan even more as the date for a final vote fast approaches.
"We have gotten something like 224 individual complaint letters, and I don't know how many people have testified before the City Council -- but it's a lot," says City Planner Ken Pelton. "They had five or six open nights for testimony."
If the city doesn't act soon, it may miss out on grants from the state's Public Works Trust Fund, which can only be applied for if the city is in compliance with GMA.
"This is a state fund, it's a loan program, but because of the rates and conditions, it's equivalent to us getting a one-third grant," says Richard Raymond, principal engineer with the city's capital programs. "Right now, we are counting on the loans to help us construct the Monroe Street Bridge, with some of the funding going into our water program and a little into the sewer program. If we can't apply, because we are not in compliance with GMA, the biggest hit would be the Monroe Street Bridge project. Most likely we'd have to delay the project." The deadline for applications is June 4.
The comprehensive plan has been in the works for many years. But in 1995, the county and the city began gathering public input for the long-range planning process, and many citizens, sub groups, boards and organizations -- not to mention city and county planners -- have nursed the process along to where it is today. As many as 2,000 comments from landowners, citizens, special interest groups and developers have been received and reviewed over the past six years.
Finally, last year the city's Plan Commission released not one, but three alternatives designed to guide Spokane's growth over the next 20 years. In January, planning staff recommended to the City Council that among the three alternatives, the council should adopt the so-called "Centers and Corridors" plan. This plan focuses on supporting growth in mixed-use centers and corridors within the city, as it aims to rebuild and revitalize neighborhoods, complete with a mix of businesses, residential areas and professional offices all within the same area.
The corridors run along existing main arterials such as Division Street. Instead of letting the city sprawl outward, the centers and corridors plan directs growth toward existing neighborhoods inside the city limits.
Annexation of county land is not part of the current plan, but Pelton says there are areas of the county where the city is already providing services, which could be considered for annexation at a later date.
Opponents fear that focusing growth inside the city limits and increasing the number of condominiums and apartments will only increase congestion on narrow residential streets and add to the air pollution problems the city is already struggling with. Also, since the plan doesn't aggressively annex new land, real estate developers argued repeatedly before the City Council that house prices are going to go through the roof.
"They want to step up multi-family housing to 41 percent of the market, and, yes, some will find that attractive, but most people still want their own little plot of land, their house, their yard, their own piece of America," says Mark Richard, government affairs director with the Spokane Home Builders Association and Spokane Association of Realtors.
It's true that in cities like Seattle and Portland, where growth is directed away from sprawling patterns, housing prices have gone up. But those two cities are also routinely listed among the top places in the nation for quality of life.
Focus on neighborhoods
A core element of the proposed comprehensive plan is the designated centers: The plan includes "employment centers," for instance, on East Sprague, west of Market Street and on Market Street south of Francis. New developments in these areas should include a mix of higher density housing, employers with non-service related jobs and businesses that support the people who live and work in the area.
"District centers," such as the one proposed around 29th Avenue and Regal, would contain a mix of higher density housing and public facilities to meet the needs of several surrounding neighborhoods.
Finally, there are the "neighborhood centers," which will blend high-density housing, local stores and public facilities to meet the needs of just that neighborhood.
Focusing growth inward can seem to be an almost un-American way of planning a city. Compared to Europe -- where focused growth has been the name of the game for many centuries -- land seems to be in abundance on this continent.
But sprawl is expensive for the municipalities that fall victim to it. Services such as water, sewer and roads have to be extended out to new developments, whereas under the centers and corridors plan, most of these services are already in place where the growth is focused.
"It's more effective [providing services] as long as the city doesn't sprawl out. In most locations, water and sewer are already there," says City Planner Leroy Eadie. And as for focusing growth inward, he cites a good example in North Spokane: "Shadle is a good example of in-fill. Wal-Mart used an existing structure there to move in."
Regardless of how one feels about Wal-Mart as a business, by locating there not only was the empty Shadle Center put to new use, but both jobs and shopping were kept in the neighborhood.
But Spokane isn't growing so fast that sprawl is out of control, says Richard of the Home Builders Association. "We've had the same boundaries around the city since 1907; it's not like the city has seen this unmanageable sprawl that demands this radical approach."
The proposed neighborhood center around Garland Avenue is a good example of what planners are trying to achieve with the comp plan on a neighborhood level. "Last time we were up there, there were nine empty storefronts in the area. Garland has had a hard time competing with the auto-based businesses on Northwest Boulevard, but we hope to change that," says Eadie. "We are going to put an end to the small business growth that has slowly crept out of Northwest Boulevard. We'd like to focus that growth in the Garland Area instead."
The success of this redirection of growth hinges on the new neighborhood centers' ability to accommodate the traffic that comes with an increase in shoppers, residents and workers.
"The plan does talk about improving mass transit, and we did make an assumption about being able to provide parking in the area," says Eadie. "We know that not everyone is going to ride the bus, but we hope we'll be able to put the parking behind the stores instead of in front."
While traffic may be a hard nut to crack in the Garland area, housing is plentiful. And housing close in to stores and community facilities is a key component to the centers and corridors plan. Planners hope this type of mixed-use development will stimulate residents to walk to the store now and then, and cut down on automobile traffic in general.
If the comp plan is approved, major changes will not happen right away. The people who live in the Garland District will not wake up all of a sudden to find a new parking lot across the street or their favorite coffeehouse torn down because of downzoning, says Pelton. "You need to keep in mind that this is a 20-year plan."
It's true that a lot depends upon demand. If a demand for such a neighborhood emerges, builders will fill that demand. But city planners want the neighborhood to have a big say in which direction the developments will take, too.
"The first phase is only to put Garland on the map as a neighborhood center, but we have not given a lot of specific guidelines for the centers," says Eadie. "We are relying on the next phase of neighborhood centered planning to find out what more, specifically, we are going to do. Whatever is done, is done within the character of the neighborhood, the character of Garland." The master plan is unique for each area, and since there is not a lot of room in the Garland neighborhood, the area may not change a whole lot.
Some question why the city is getting involved in the neighborhood centers at all -- the centers, like the one on South Perry and Ninth, already exist and some are doing quite well, so why do planners have to touch them in the first place?
"There is a conception that over time these centers have fared quite well, but that's not always true," says Eadie. "Some have done well, but this model is about giving some more attention to these neighborhoods that are already developing instead of focusing government resources in other areas of the city."
Pelton agrees: "Maybe they will be able to get grants for reinvesting in the community, and we'll be able to focus other government dollars on their development and give them a further boost."
Is this the final plan?
The City Council is currently going over the proposed comp plan in great detail. In some places, wording is being changed; in others, the entire concept behind parts of the plan is being debated, as the council tries to come to agreement on what works and what doesn't.
"I wouldn't say they are tearing it apart," says Pelton. "The council is pulling out major issues, and they are trying to address the concerns that people have about how these policies will affect them."
GMA allows for an annual review of the plan, so no matter what the council ends up agreeing upon, there will always be room for fine-tuning.
Some changes are being made now, as the council continues to meet with planners in the scheduled work sessions. One change relates to drive-through businesses. "Originally there were to be no [more] drive-through businesses along main arterials downtown," says Pelton, "but now it says that they are still allowed along main streets."
Another paragraph in the proposed comp plan suggested banning the use of wood stoves within city limits, to curb air pollution from smoke. The language of that paragraph was changed in a way that won't flat-out ban wood stoves, but does encourage people to use heating that does not create as much air pollution.
Some changes in language may seem like nitpicking, but still have far reaching consequences. A change of wording now says that apartments and offices outside of the centers will not be "precluded," as the plan first suggested, but "limited." This may seem like a small change, but it's also one that opens the door for successful appeals from developers who own land outside the designated centers.
Another hot button issue during the hearings was downzoning. The comp plan in itself does not dictate zoning; individual zoning is the next step. But some properties stand to be downgraded from a commercial designation to a residential designation. An example is single family houses now zoned commercial, but located along Northwest Boulevard and facing residential streets. These properties will be rezoned residential if the comp plan passes.
"The city is saying we are going to strip away the rights of hundreds of citizens that currently have this zoning -- it's borderline un-American," says Richard. "That's what I don't understand. If this plan really is what Spokane wants, why do we have to force it to occur?"
Richard says he would rather see some encouragement asking developers to try new land uses and different types of development, than having it be dictated by law.
Another issue with downzoning is that property tax on commercial land is higher than the tax paid on residential land, so some opponents of the comp plan have argued that the city is eroding its own tax base by downzoning.
"That is not the case," says Pelton. "Just because a piece of land is zoned commercial doesn't mean it's taxed commercial. It's taxed according to its existing use." Especially along Northwest Boulevard, Pelton says matching the zoning with the existing use will stabilize the neighborhood.
Regardless of what changes are made by the City Council, they all must be presented at public hearings before the plan can be approved. During the previous round of public hearings, it was clear that many developers and landowners do not support this plan. Some said they felt excluded and that their voices were never heard. But planners say that over six years, everyone has had ample opportunities to voice their concerns.
"The City Council is dealing with all the letters and comments individually," says Eadie. "When we released the three alternatives of the comprehensive plan last year, we did not get a lot of comments. But once it came to the council, people started responding. Especially the people in real estate. As soon as the proposal is somewhat firmed up, they start coming out. But that's not unusual, they want to see what they are responding to, what they are reacting to, before they do anything."
Richard disagrees. "I have been involved in the process for the last year and a half, and would it be fair to say that developers were being excluded, as far as not being invited to meetings? No," he says. "But the interests of the development community and the business community have been excluded. They feel like they were not listened to. The planners have all but said, 'We know what's best for you and your community, but we chose not to listen to your testimony.' Why? Because my testimony differs from theirs.
"We can't force this to happen by regulation," Richard continues. "If we do, people are going to continue to move to the county and to Idaho. Then, it'll have the opposite effect. We'll see long commutes and more sprawl. If we don't massage this thing, I think that it will have a profound negative impact on the overall city of Spokane."
But the city administration maintains there is nothing wrong with the public participation process -- the centers and corridors alternative is really what people want. And they are, in fact, "massaging" it now by making changes to the plan in accordance to the very latest concerns.
"We can document the public participation process very well, and we have tried to get everyone involved," says Pelton. "There has been information in the papers and in the utility bills. We've done all we could to get everyone's input."