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One Valley, Two Worlds 

by Robert Herold

The drive for incorporation of a new city in the Spokane Valley is bringing together some strange bedfellows. People who usually see things like the Growth Management Act through very different eyes are banding together to build a new city. Beyond civic pride, they share a desire for "more responsive government."

But traverse the bridge that connects them and you find very different visions of what that new responsiveness ought to produce. At one end, you find single-family homeowners, who over the past several decades moved into the suburban neighborhoods that make up the sprawl we call the Valley. These folks favor incorporation because they fear that Spokane County will continue to make decisions favorable to land developers -- ironically, the same developers who created their suburban lifestyle in the first place.

At the other end of the bridge sit those very developers, who favor incorporation because they want to turn the clock back. Developers understand that the county, because it is now operating under the long shadow of the GMA, may no longer be able to make the sweeping land-use decisions that permitted the quick and easy creation of the Valley as we know it. These supporters are betting that following incorporation, they will wield the kind of influence they used to have with the county. After all the hoopla quiets down, their lawyers will show up and, confronting only sporadic reaction from a largely apathetic public, will be able to elect a friendly council. In a nutshell, they believe that further land development will be better facilitated through incorporation.

Many Valley residents moved out to the 'burbs both to take advantage of less expensive homes and to avoid the kind of density the GMA promotes. Historically, the suburbs have been the epicenter of NIMBYism. But should incorporation succeed, our new city likely will be forced to move immediately to the state-mandated urban agenda. Sparks are bound to fly when higher density is recommended to people who want less.

But what is a suburb today can be turned into what urbanist Joel Garreau calls an "Edge City." When I was a small boy growing up in northern Virginia, we would take Sunday drives out to a quiet rural crossroads known as Tyson's Corners. Then came the Capitol Beltway and immediately after that came Tyson's Corners Mall, at the time one of the largest in America.

Today, we have Tyson's II, and surrounding these two mega-malls, offices of all sorts. A few years back, Tyson's Corners sported more office space than even downtown Miami.

An edge city had been created. Another example: Rosslyn, Va., just across from Georgetown. Once single-story shops, Rosslyn first became home to several sterile high-rise buildings, and then, after a number of years during which urban loam formed, it became an authentic edge city, with condos, walking neighborhoods and street life. Bellevue is moving in that direction, but to date it hasn't managed to mature much beyond the sterile high-rise phase that results in the Neutron Bomb effect: All the buildings are there, it's just life that's missing.

Developers know that the GMA favors metamorphosis from suburb to edge city. The Valley, given its population base, would seem ripe for that kind of development. Hopefully, local developers will embrace such visions.

But in the end, the outcome might be quite different than what either camp now predicts. What newly elected officials applaud as more responsive may soon become just so much more inefficient squabbling among jurisdictions. We already note that Liberty Lake and the county are engaged in bickering over who pays for the parks and whether beer and wine can be sold at the county golf courses. Moreover, all new incorporated areas (and in King County there have been over 10 during the past decade) presume that the county will provide services on a pay-as-you-go basis. The trouble is, projected levels of service would seem to be dependent on a continuation of economies of scale that the county now enjoys -- economies that could well be diminished if it becomes more a menu of services than a government.

Homeowners presume the new government will be more responsive to their lifestyle. But lacking strong parties and surrounded by a largely apathetic public, political influence at the local level typically turns to those who are organized and who have resources -- aka the business community, especially land developers. And this takes us back again to the driving force behind Growth Management. Whether it is the county or a newly formed city, the rules from the state can't be ignored.

However all this sorts out, if we wake up with a new city on May 22, expectations will change, both here and in Olympia. The message to the Valley will become: You want to be a city? Then be prepared to act like one.

Voters should be aware that right in their own backyards, they are dealing with seriously opposing visions of what a new city should be.

Sound off at [email protected]

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