by Robert Herold & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he Peaceful Valley fiasco was settled when a cowed city attorney's office effectively retired from the field of battle after convincing our typically overmatched city council that it was in the city's best interest to not only surrender, but also pay reparations to the aggrieved developer. (Those reparations, from my admitted non-lawyer perspective, would seem to be "gifting" by another name.) One particularly uncharitable observer referred to this "win-win deal" as nothing less than extortion.
Not unrelated to the fiasco was the departure of Steve Franks, the former director of Spokane's Planning Services Department. Franks was one of the brightest and most dedicated civil servants ever to work for the city. He was a third-generation Spokanite, a man who viewed his job as a calling, who believed in the urban life, who valued old buildings and fought to save part of the old Lewis and Clark High School at the time of the reconstruction and expansion. Franks not only talked about the importance of a pedestrian culture, he walked his talk -- literally -- to and from work each day. So why did he leave the city of his birth for a job in Kansas?
For an answer to that question, let's return to the Peaceful Valley issue, pull a thread and see where it leads. The issue can be briefly summarized: The project at issue, a very tall condo-tower, was rejected by the hearing examiner for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it violated the city's height policy. The developer appealed to the city council and threatened to sue for damages caused by the delay. His argument was that he hadn't been properly notified of the new height restriction and that, in any case, he was being denied "equal protection" because had he wanted to put in an office building, the restriction would not have applied. The city attorney's office apparently decided early on that they had a losing case. The mayor said it was best to put this behind us. And the council, by a 7-0 vote, overturned the hearing examiner and agreed to the exit deal, which included those reparations -- a 99-year lease to the developer on land in another part of the city. And that was that.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & F & lt;/span & or the sake of discussion, let's specify that the city dropped the ball; let's acknowledge that the height restriction may not have been properly vetted. This acknowledgement takes us back to Steve Franks. We must remember that Mayor Jim West came to office with a specific political agenda. He had decided to give developers what they wanted, and city planners often got in the way. The planners actually believed that approved plans mattered. This wasn't what West wanted to hear, so he quietly and relentlessly cut planning staff. From more than 20 planners, the staff was reduced almost by half under West. Mayor Hession has done nothing but exacerbate the situation by raising the priority of the economic development office and marginalizing even further the Planning Services Department.
Well, you ask, so what?
When the Comprehensive Plan was completed in the fall of 2000, and later adopted by the council, everyone involved knew "how the sausage" had been made. They knew that the plan, while admirable in broad outlines, entered the real world in desperate need of supporting analysis and revision. Under the gun to complete the plan, the Plan Commission (on which I sat at the time) rushed through its final draft. We were meeting entire afternoons, at least once a week, sometimes twice a week. It occurred to me, as I sat in those meetings, that we were writing policies based entirely on citizen impressions as interpreted by staff. (Even though informed, developers apparently didn't have the time to participate in the creation of the plan.) I saw no empirical work to support the policies -- no analysis, no trade-off studies, no cost-benefit estimates. The land use map, the last stop on the way to completion, reflected nothing more than a relentless application of our policies -- many of which were suspect.
So what was then needed? Careful analysis, that's what. Some of the policies needed to be subjected to empirical study. The land use map needed to be rethought if for no other reason than to assess the economic dislocation and unintended consequences. None of this was ever done. The Comp Plan was left vulnerable to attack.
The truth is, planning has never been viewed in Spokane as a high priority. More than one urbanist has pointed out, upon visiting Spokane, how unplanned our city is, and how the result of our laissez culture has done damage to the public realm. The north bank of the Spokane River always comes up as the prime example. Most recent case in point: The condominium project next to the Flour Mill. This project, which even council members belatedly have taken note of, completely walls off the skyline from the Arena. The project was built on parkland that was all but given away sans any quid pro quo and without any public design review.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & teve Franks, for several years, had warned and warned that he didn't have the staff to do what a good planning department was intended to do. He also knew it was a moot point, because he recognized that his office was being marginalized. Regarding projects such as the north bank condominium, Franks knew that no one above him would want to consider calling for a tough design review, nor the public's interest as regards to size, scale and siting. No one above him would have appreciated hearing about that thing called "The Comp Plan." And those view corridors it required? Messy stuff.