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Verner’s Report Card 

We look at how Spokane stacks up

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The plan was simple. Walk in to Mayor Verner’s office and ask her to grade Spokane. Alas, ’twas not to be. Grades were too simplistic, she explained, to assign to the city’s complicated issues. (President Barack Obama had no such qualms. He gave his own job performance a B .)

Instead, we’ll list the mayor’s general comments on four issues, and then follow it up with grades assigned by people not reluctant to share their opinions.

FULFILLING THE UNIVERSITY DISTRICT’S POTENTIAL

Spokane has long aimed to turn the district containing Gonzaga University and the Riverpoint campus into a bustling cultural center.

Verner’s take: “It’s coming along beautifully. … It’s really moving at an astonishing pace, considering the magnitude of the progress.” Today, the district serves around 12,000 students. Yet, for the district to succeed, she says, it needs more housing. We need to make sure we don’t have a “rural campus in the middle of the downtown,” she says. There have to be quality transportation options to make that crucial connection with the city.

Rob Brewster, Seattle and Spokane developer: A for moving forward; F for not including focused residential development. “Their concept of growing a medical facility and moving the nursing school down there is fantastic,” Brewster says. “It’s a pretty damn big feat.”

But Brewster would like the U-District to be smaller and more focused. He’d like Eastern Washington University and WSU to combine their Riverpoint satellite campuses into “Washington Tech,” one single research university. And most crucially, he believes the plan lacks the necessary student-oriented housing. “There has to be a heart and soul of the U-District, or you’re missing the opportunity,” he says.

CREATING VIBRANT NEIGHBORHOOD CENTERS

As part of the 2001 Comprehensive Plan, Spokane hoped to turn areas like Hillyard, Perry Street and Garland into communities revolving around a neighborhood center.

Verner’s take: “We’re not seeing as much progress there as we like.” Everyone sort of expected that they’d wake up in 2002 to find fully built-out centers. That hasn’t happened. But there’s progress, she says. The incentives and zoning plans are well tailored to that goal, she says. And Hillyard has already seen massive investment.

Kai Huschke, former campaign coordinator for Envision Spokane: D. “We’ve got major structural deficiencies.” Those problems are what Proposition 4 was aiming to fix. Neighborhoods don’t have enough power over their own destiny, he says. Even a single developer can overturn an entire neighborhood plan.

Good neighborhoods take good care of low-income residents, Huschke says, and Spokane is short 2,000 low-income housing units. With this many uninsured and unemployed, he adds, vibrant neighborhoods just aren’t possible.

COUNTY AND CITY COOPERATION

Spokane County and the city of Spokane have a long history of squabbling over things like growth boundaries, utilities and annexation.

Verner’s take: “Much better.” As in so many relationships, the big problem was bad communication. Verner says both parties are doing better at not catching the other by surprise. They’ve implemented drug courts and mental health courts and collaborated on animal control. They’ve established a boundary review board to identity problematic differences in rules and procedures between the regions.

But those struggles continue. “None of us have enough resources to put as much time as we need to in good working relationships,” Verner says.

Bonnie Mager, county commissioner: B . “I think the city and the county are actually doing much better in terms of city-county cooperation than we’ve done in all the years I’ve lived here,” Mager says. Where the city offi cials used to have their lawyers write a letter to inform the county of a potential confl ict, they now pick up the phone and call. Today, they’re looking at regionalizing aspects of animal control, solid waste and transportation.

IMPROVING POLICE-COMMUNITY RELATIONS

With the Otto Zehm and Shonto Pete controversies, the reputation of the Spokane Police Department has often been mixed.

Verner’s take: “We’ve made some improvements.” Crime Check is back — making it easier to track which crimes are happening where. And the new police ombudsman is constantly talking with the community. Verner says the ombudsman is “completely satisfi ed” with the power he has.

Breean Beggs, of Spokane’s nonprofit Center for Justice: C , heading toward B-. “I would say they’ve made some improvements,” Beggs says. “[But] there’s still a lack of confidence that the city’s putting its disciplinary process ahead of its tort liability defense.”

True, they’ve hired an ombudsman to hear complaints, though one who doesn’t have independent investigative powers. Concerns remain, he says, about how officers are treating the mentally ill. But the community’s opinion of its police, Beggs says, is improving.

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