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Two Roads Diverge 

The plan to transform Spokane Valley took six years and $1 million to create. Why does the new City Council want to kill it?

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Colonel Sanders has gone missing. The KFC where he once beamed down upon Sprague Avenue was abandoned. The same has happened at the International House of Pancakes, Jo-Ann Fabrics, Waffles and More and the Old China King Buffet. In 2006, Sprague had 40 percent of the total retail space in suburban Spokane, but 66 percent of the vacancies. It’s likely become worse.

For six years, Spokane Valley has been brainstorming ways to save Sprague. In October, the city launched the first stage of its 30-year Sprague-Appleway Revitalization Plan (SARP). The SARP would change the mile of Sprague east of Dishman-Mica back into a two-way street. It would use tight rezoning to concentrate auto dealers toward Auto Row and push retail businesses toward intersections. At University City, a city center would emerge.

That was the plan. At least, before the City Council election, before four incumbents were thrown out, before they were replaced by four vowing to kill the revitalization plan.

Today, only one SARP supporter — Bill Gothmann — remains.

Doomed Plan

New City Council member Dean Grafos stands before the mayor, the City Council, and city staffers. He’s wielding a five-page letter decrying the SARP. He accuses the city of “totally ignoring the REAL community,” of using zoning changes to shift money from hundreds of businesses into the pockets of a few.

There have been three relevant commercial zoning changes in the Spokane Valley area. One when the city was first incorporated, another in 2007, and SARP in 2009. Each have changed what type of buildings can be built where, and each have caused some businesses to become “non-conforming” — the wrong type of building for that zone. A factory may suddenly find itself inside a residential zone, and houses may start popping up around it. The SARP was very specific about what types of buildings could be built in key parts of the Sprague area — something that some businessmen like Grafos don’t appreciate. Grafos wants the market, not the city, to decide what pops up on Sprague.

“AGAIN: You cannot restrict economic activity with the hopes of increasing economic activity,” Grafos writes.

Grafos wants two things: First, he wants to immediately suspend the SARP. All of SARP’s big zoning changes would disappear, and the region would return to the setup before SARP was activated. Then, for some regions of Spokane Valley, he wants the council to consider undoing the zoning changes the city made in 2007.

It’s a plan supported by council members Brenda Grassel and Bob McCaslin. You spent all this grant money to change Sprague to one-way, McCaslin says, so why spend more to change it back? In fact, they’d like to see commercial zoning return to the setup before the incorporation. Mayor Tom Towey refused to comment but previously promised to kill SARP in the fall campaign. Council member Rose Dempsey says she’d support Grafos’s plan, as long as the legal and procedural issues could be worked out.

“The city center is off the table,” Dempsey says. “I think that’s pretty well gone.”

Lone holdout Gothmann, meanwhile, objects to Grafos’s proposed process. “The way you change things in the city of Spokane Valley is, you identify a problem. And you take it to our staff,” Gothmann says. “[Grafos is] not focused on the solution to the problem.”

The staff proposes solutions, sends it to the planning commission, which works up a plan for the council. Only then would the council vote on a change.

Grafos, however, cites a state law allowing a council to unilaterally adopt an interim zoning ordinance, as long as public hearings are held within 60 days.

In hindsight, Gothmann readily admits, perhaps the SARP should have been done piecemeal instead of all at once. And while the SARP has flaws, he says, it was a plan designed to change and adapt.

“The plan is meant to be revised,” Realtor Mike King says. “But Grafos doesn’t want to use the scalpel, he wants to use the chainsaw.”

Gothmann and King want Grafos to point out his specific objectives and work to fix them. The SARP is beyond repair, Grafos counters. Euthanize it. It was a project six years in the making, with $1 million paid to consultants alone — retail experts, traffic experts, real estate experts and city planning experts.

What about all that time and money?

“Well, Ford spent a lot of money on the Edsel, too,” Grafos says. “And [Ford is] not still building them.”

A City Divided

In the office at Sprague & Sullivan Mini-Storage, Dean Grafos hands me letter after letter from area businesses frustrated with the SARP. Here’s a letter from U-City developer Orville Barnes complaining zoning restrictions turned away a potential developer. Here’s a letter from the Piring Corporation threatening possible legal actions over zoning changes. “With all due respect, this is absurd,” writes Rob Gragg, of Crown West Realty, referring to plans to ban residential and commercial businesses in industrial areas.

The rezoning of his property caught Gragg off guard. “Apparently they ran an ad in some legal publication,” Gragg says. “They never sent any notice to the property owners.”

SARP isn’t the solution to all the vacancies, Grafos argues. It’s one of the culprits. The uncertainty the SARP has created, he wagers, is one big reason not many people want to invest on Sprague.

The major objection from businesses to SARP is simple: The large amount of zone changes have caused too many businesses to become “non-conforming.” Still, current businesses are grandfathered in and are not prevented from expanding or remodeling. A non-conforming business would have to be vacant for a full year — two years for car lots — for its type to be banned.

Yet, Grafos explains, non-conforming businesses scare off investors and banks. Property values fall, and then it’s harder to get loans. (Grafos himself spent two years successfully lobbying to stop the SARP from rezoning his office.)

But if the city were to roll back commercial zoning to 2003 levels, Gothmann retorts, there may be even more non-conforming businesses (including a Piring Corporation building.) A lot of zoning has happened since then — rolling back would erase that progress. “Do we really want to go back and revaluate our sex shop ordinance?” Gothmann says.

Gothmann, sitting at a McDonald’s in the struggling would-be city center, produces his own slew of businesses in support of the revitalization plan, including the Spokane Valley Business Association and the Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce. Granted, Gothmann says, the people of Spokane Valley haven’t been polled. It wouldn’t matter anyway, he says.

“If you don’t trust the scientific work of economists, of city planners, of traffic experts, of retail experts, what leads me to believe you would trust the result of a poll?”

The chamber spent 18 months examining the issue says chamber president Eldonna Shaw. “We’re optimistic for the future,” Shaw says. But first, she says, the Sprague/Appleway corridor needs to be fixed.

In 2000, with the construction of Appleway to alleviate traffic, Spokane County changed a two-mile section of Sprague to westbound only. Cue the vacancies. The dramatic decrease in traffic came coupled with a dramatic decrease in customers. Hit hardest were fast-food restaurants and gas stations. Dick Behm, for example, says business at a restaurant he owned instantly plunged 30 percent and has never recovered.

“Businesses do better on two-ways,” Gothmann says. “It’s a demonstrable fact.”

The changeover would cost money, critics retort, which the Valley’s a bit low on right now. And while extra traffic is a boon to businesses, commuters complain about slower speeds. “They didn’t ask their own private streets to be one-way, though,” Gothmann says. “Why? Because they would agree that would be inconvenient.”

Spokane Valley is a bedroom-community suburb of the city of Spokane, Grafos says — incorporated only to protect the Valley’s tax base from the county. Its residents, he says, are practical, common-sense, independent.

And the notion of a city center doesn’t excite them.

“They don’t care,” Grafos says. “Seriously, they don’t care… They kind of want to be left alone, really.”

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