In 2001, Spokane County converted the couplet to a one-way system, easing traffic and pleasing commuters. But while it hustles traffic, it also thinned the number of customers patronizing businesses along the corridor. Now, seven years later, the city is looking to save the decaying strip by reverting to a two-way Sprague.
But the question of whether two ways is better than one has proved to be both complicated and controversial. In the end, it's about more than moving traffic. It's about the role the corridor plays in defining the city's image, and whether the vision of a thriving town center is one the community can grasp. And pay for.
The debate began as soon as Spokane Valley was born in 2003. "Right when we became a city, the council was pushed and pulled by the business community on Sprague, requesting a change back to two-way," senior city planner Scott Kuhta says. But commuters wanted the one-way couplet extended, he says. "There used to be a big sign where it terminates at University Road: 'Finish the Job.' "
The council hired consultants to perform an economic analysis. "The short answer is that they came back and said: You need to figure out the vision for the corridor. Eight miles of strip retail zoning isn't viable, no matter what kind of road you have."
Then came surveys of residents. The bottomline: a majority of residents wanted a city center, they envisioned it at University and Sprague and they were willing to spend public funds to do it. "They told us that Spokane Valley is a great place to raise kids, but that we really lack an identity. They didn't like the identity of Sprague Avenue," he says, "because it's ugly and difficult for pedestrians."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & ith an emerging vision and some hard economic data, the city contracted Michael Freedman, a San Francisco-based consultant, to draft a full sub-area plan for revitalizing the corridor. The plan outlines a city center at University and re-zones the corridor, allowing for a mix of differing but complementary land uses between retail zones. The goal is to transform the corridor into a welcoming, pedestrian-friendly mix, including "neighborhood centers," condos, townhouses plus office, retail and entertainment venues.
"People that come from the outside look at this street and say 'Man, this is really ugly,'" Kuhta says. "But the folks who live here are so used to driving by and seeing it, they kinda get blinders on."
Freedman, for his part, says zoning is crucial to the health of a community. "What a city can do to help itself is to ask if its zoning is operating as a barrier to investment, inadvertently, and how can we use zoning to realign properties with the free market," he says. Many communities around the country are dealing with the exact same issue, he says, and Spokane Valley is fortunate to have only one major strip in decline. He also thinks the timing is good: "The new City of Spokane Valley caught the problem earlier than many cities had in the past," he says.
To make the revitalization plan work, Freedman recommends a return to two-way traffic on Sprague and Appleway. Reconfiguring the couplet between University and Dishman Mica would cost an estimated $6 million. Extending Appleway and further modifying Sprague between University and Evergreen would be another $14 million, according to Kuhta.
"All I know is that there has been a considerable amount of vacancies, depression of lease rates and turmoil along Sprague since the one-way went in," says Terry Lynch, president of the Spokane Valley Business Association. "It's the SVBA's position that it needs to go back to two-way," he says. "The City of Spokane Valley has brought in experts who have recognized and accepted that that's a fact.
"The original idea that it was going to take a ton of people off the freeway just doesn't hold water, based on the studies that have been done since then," Lynch says.
Rusty Barnes, a landlord from Big Bear Lake, Calif. who owns property on Sprague, lost a major tenant earlier this year -- National Golf. "Their story was that they had a good, thriving business," Barnes says. "Then Sprague was changed to one-way, and their business dropped 40 percent." The business owners insisted it was the traffic change, Barnes says, because people coming home from work -- when they are most likely to stop at a golf shop -- were routed away from the business via Appleway.
"As an out-of-towner, I find the situation very inconvenient to find stores and get around in the City of Spokane Valley," Barnes says, noting that he bought the property because his sister lives in Spokane. "I'm not a big mogul or big-city investor," he says. "This is the biggest investment that my family owns, and it's real uncomfortable that it's not going so well." As with many property owners along Sprague, he can't find a tenant. Even interested parties all seem to be waiting on a decision as to which way traffic will flow, he says.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & N & lt;/span & ot everyone who lives in Spokane Valley owns property or a business on Sprague, and many residents have vociferously denounced the plan to convert the couplet back to two-way traffic.
"The county spent all kinds of money to figure out that we needed that couplet," says Spokane Valley resident George Ragland, a 71-year-old retiree. "Now the city wants to blow that money and spend more to change it back."
"They might [want an identity]. I don't," Ragland says. "I got my own identity. ... They want to build them a great big fancy city hall and all that stuff," he says, "but I think these politicians are more interested in themselves than they are in the people." Ragland opposed the incorporation of the city to begin with and doesn't want any more favors on his dime. "Everybody wants to live like kings, but somebody has to pay for all this stuff."
"I think it's a step backward to change the Sprague/Appleway couplet back to two way," says Gary Wheeldon, 58, a retired schoolteacher, claiming that it will cause commuters to stop at more lights. "That's zero miles per gallon, when you're stopped at a light," he says. He doubts that the city center concept will provide the intended identity for the city, and besides, "I think it's the absolute worst spot." If there has to be one, he says, it should be at Mirabeau Park or the Valley Mall.
Letters and emails opposing the traffic reversal poured in during the city's public comment period. About 150 residents showed up to a hearing on March 13, many voicing concern and disagreement about revising the couplet.
"One of the things that's very tough for the city is that there is not a tradition of having an enormous amount of participation in the public workshops," Freedman says, adding that things are different in places like Seattle. "I got the feeling that folks were not attuned to it." He says the latecomers to the process are confused about what the plan proposes because they don't understand why.
The revitalization plan has been in development since 2006, and the earliest participants in the community workshops showed strong support, Kuhta says -- a fact bolstered by the city's surveys. "I guess I was surprised, at the end, how many people came out against the recommendation. ... So I'm curious to know, if you took them through the whole process, would they still have the same opinion? That's a good question."
Spokane Valley is taking public comment on the plan until Friday, May 2. All comments should be either emailed to email@example.com or mailed to Planning Commission, City of Spokane Valley, 11707 E. Sprague Ave., Suite 106, Spokane Valley, WA 99206. Send comments to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.