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The Real Deal 

by Ann M. Colford

W hat image does the term "University District" conjure up? Lots of students with backpacks, yes, but what else? Envisioning such a district for Spokane became the project for a group of landscape architecture students at the WSU Spokane Interdisciplinary Design Institute this semester. The 16 students split up into four project teams to focus on designing a vision for the neighborhood just south of the Riverpoint campus that's home to a growing higher education community. While the students anticipated an exciting academic project when they began in January, they didn't expect to present their vision to Mayor John Powers. And yet that's just what they did last week. A distinguished audience including the mayor, his economic development advisor, Kim Pearman-Gilman, businessman Bruce Butterworth, and other civic and political leaders listened and posed challenging questions as the students presented their ideas.

"This is an unusual opportunity, and it's definitely an honor to get to present to the mayor," says Elizabeth Payne, a local landscape architect who is adjunct professor for the class. "It's also unique to have a piece of land with so much potential so close to the heart of the city and adjacent to so many higher education facilities and a large regional hospital complex."

Although the entire proposed University District fills an area bounded by Sharp Avenue on the north, Hamilton on the east, Division on the west, and extends south to the hospital neighborhood, the students focused on just one section of the district. The East Sprague business district and the light industrial area between Sprague and Third Avenues formed the core of their project area. The students looked at a mixed use of retail and service businesses along with a mix of housing styles and functions, including student housing. A pedestrian bridge over the railroad right-of-way would link the neighborhood with the existing higher education campuses just north of the railroad while emphasizing the pedestrian-friendly nature of their vision. A basalt column and central atrium building would serve as the defining landmarks of the district.

The four student work-groups each examined one aspect of the vision: student housing needs, retail and other businesses, multigenerational housing and circulation, or traffic flow and transportation needs. Payne had each group select one student to function as project manager so their work would mimic the kinds of assignments they will encounter after graduation.

"I try to run the design studio as real-world as possible," Payne says. "This is only a half-semester project, and they created an enormous amount of work. I'm very proud of them."

For his part, Mayor Powers was impressed with the work of the students. "I was very excited to see the students laying out a broad view and vision for residential, retail, service and recreational activities, all aimed at serving the unique needs of those who are pursuing their education," he says. "It really broadens what's already occurring there on the Riverpoint campus, with Gonzaga, WSU-Spokane, and EWU already sharing their communities in many respects around that river area. So it's a natural extension."

The envisioning process for the proposed district actually began a couple of years ago when Butterworth, of Contract Design Associates, began talking to other property owners along East Sprague about revitalizing their neighborhood. As part of the effort, Butterworth approached the Interdisciplinary Design Institute to draft a vision for enhancing the East Sprague business corridor. After enlisting support from other businesses and civic organizations, he came back to the Institute this year with the idea of further advancing the vision. Both Butterworth and the mayor see the students' work fitting right in with the city's planning policies.

"I think it's consistent and compatible with the good smart-growth planning that is reflected in the comprehensive plan," says Powers. "[The U-District] is an in-fill strategy. It provides more housing, more retail, more business, more education, within the heart of the community. It also provides for alternative mobility, including pedestrian traffic and less dependence on auto. It provides for a variety of mixed uses and a variety of residential needs being met within a defined area. It provides work opportunities connected to neighborhoods. And it also celebrates the natural beauty around the river. All those things we saw in the students' work, I think are very compatible and very much aligned with our comprehensive planning document and all of the policies and procedures that we're developing. I think it's right on the mark."

The next step, says Butterworth, is to create a master plan for the University District, expanding upon the students' work, and then to begin presenting the plan to potential developers. The mayor says he's glad that the city can now help move the plan forward.

"I think [a university district is] a natural extension of a community's desire to be creative and in pursuit of knowledge," he says. "But I see this having an impact far beyond the city limits. It's not just a city asset; it's a regional asset that'll influence the lives of people across the region."

Publication date: 03/20/03

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