Grant Wencel is only a few short weeks into his new job at the city of Spokane, so he’s forgiven when he can’t immediately produce the name of a city plan commission member who was on the panel that interviewed him. Or for saying “you” when talking about Spokane, rather than using the familiar “we.”
On June 15, Wencel stepped into a brand-new position within the city, as the first bike and pedestrian coordinator. The soft-spoken 51-year-old, who comes from a city planning job in Redmond, Ore. (and, before that, 20 years designing golf courses), has spent the last few weeks in meetings with city officials and agencies, as well as walking, biking and scooter-ing around town to get the lay of the land. He’s already met with the city’s volunteer Bicycle Advisory Board, and as of press time he had a sit-down pending with the Spokane Transit Authority.
But while those most invested in Wencel seem happy to let him adjust, the honeymoon may not last long. Wencel’s hire was the capstone of years of work on the part of city planners, citizens, the Bicycle Advisory Board and others on a master bike plan for the city. In fact, his hire was announced on the same night the City Council unanimously approved the plan.
On top of this, there’s the Smart Routes campaign — Spokane’s attempt to wangle $50 million of federal money for use on alternative transportation. (Spokane acted as a control group in a similar, smaller-scale federal funding project before.)
“I’m [still] getting up to speed with what’s all been done in the last few years to get to this point,” says Wencel. “It seems like a lot of things are in alignment right now, and a lot of people are hopeful and optimistic that some improvements can be made in the field.”
Even with all the momentum going his way, though, Wencel seems a little uncomfortable with his bike credentials. He freely admits he’s not a “hardcore” rider. When asked what it means to be the city’s new bike czar, he quickly replies, “bike and pedestrian czar.” Asked what bicycle-related projects he worked on in his scant year-and-a-half as a city planner in Oregon, he’s a little vague.
“It’s gonna be a challenge. Especially on the biking end of things,” he says. “Fifty percent of my job is really being a pedestrian coordinator as well. But it seems like most of the discussion right now is on the bike half of it.”
Still, Wencel is more than qualified to pedal Spokane towards a future as a “bike city,” according to Katherine Miller, the senior engineer who oversaw his hiring. She says all 10 final candidates for the job were vetted by the city’s Civil Service Commission and avers that Wencel’s somewhat meager experience as a city planner is counterbalanced by his 20 years of work designing golf courses and running his own firm. (He also holds degrees in planning and landscape architecture.)
“The strengths I see are certainly his background, his architectural side, creating that sense of space,” she says. “I think that will be very beneficial in where we’re going. Historically, that’s been something that’s been criticized — that classic engineer’s perspective.”
Bob Lutz, a physician and the chair of the Bicycle Advisory Board, applauds Wencel for being pragmatic and thoughtful and notes that “as an outsider, [he] will not have entrenched ideas about how things get done.”
“I have fresh eyes,” says Wencel. “I kind of see things for what they are.”
What he sees at the moment, he says, is potential. A fixer-upper.
“I’ve heard a couple times this is kind of not as progressive on a pedestrian and bike end as maybe some of the big Northwest cities. That it’s still kind of an auto town,” he says. “One of my passions, and I take it back to my golf course career, is creating visible corridors that people want to be in and move through and experience. And I can bring that into an urban environment — as you walk it, as you bike it. So that’s what I hope to be doing.”
In the meantime, he just needs to figure out where his desk is.