Planning for the Big Picture

by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & e all have heard of two parties close to reaching a deal when someone throws in a monkey wrench at the last minute to blow the whole thing up.

Shock. Sadness. Smoking ruins. All that.

Well, Spokane architect Bill Grimes somehow got it all backwards at Monday's City Council meeting. There were two parties nowhere close to reaching a deal when he threw in a monkey wrench that -- bang! -- got people talking again about reaching some accord on bringing commercial development to the deep South Hill.

The council will vote on this issue and a half-dozen other proposed changes to the comprehensive land-use plan on June 30.

So with the vote looming and the two sides still harrumphing and eye-rolling at each other, Grimes whipped up an 11th-hour PowerPoint to try and bridge the gap between a group that hopes to bring intense commercial development to the area around the Shopko at 44th and Regal, and the neighborhood council that finds such development a tough pill to swallow.

Grimes' presentation, quite simply, was to make big box stores look more urban, and to find a way to link up the many disconnected streets in the area to avoid congestion.

He did this at the suggestion of Leroy Eadie, the city's director of planning services, in hopes that there is still time to reach an agreement and avoid a court fight over whatever decision the council makes.

Grimes' PowerPoint revived interest in reaching accord -- both sides had good things to say about it.

City Councilman Michael Allen, who is among several officials trying to shepherd an agreement, said he is optimistic the two sides are closer than they realize.

Still, this is the eternal battle between developers proposing radical changes in land use (from residential to commercial, in this instance) and the people who live nearby and desire a voice in shaping their neighborhood. Only in this case, each side says it is championing the city's comprehensive land-use plan.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he developers of what has come to be known as the Southgate properties contend theirs is a proposal that meets the goals of the comp plan's "centers and corridors" strategy to drive new business to neighborhoods.

Southgate neighbors say this is trumped by the maxims for neighborhood planning first.

"That's where the big balance comes in: How do you balance public interest against private property rights?" Mayor Mary Verner asks. "Southgate seems to be the epitome of the extremes ... but also of the potential to reach that middle balance."

The middle appears to be a speck in the distance. These are the same parties who have battled over minutiae of notification protocols and environmental checklists; argued at planning commission meetings that slopped over from one month to another -- obscure territory for most people -- and who took the first City Council hearing on the matter (June 9) to 1:20 the next morning, second-longest council meeting on record.

The bones of this: Three properties, roughly 45 acres in all, are in play south of Ferris High School and the TV studios, where Regal Street narrows to two lanes and bends toward an intersection with the Palouse Highway.

One property, just south of Shopko, is slated for a Home Depot. There is a signed contract, developers said at the City Council hearing on Monday.

South Hill developer David Black represents the owner of a second parcel just south of the potential Home Depot site and the third, owned by KXLY, is just across Regal. These last two have no specific projects lined up at the moment, although some level of discussion, it was revealed Monday, has begun with Target.

All three parcels are undeveloped, making an odd donut hole of open space in an area packed with apartment complexes and gated communities.

Filling the hole with a commercial business center is a perfect example of fulfilling the comp plan's centers and corridors strategy, says Stacy Bjordahl, a land-use attorney representing the applicants.

"The goal is to develop a store to service the neighborhood," says Spokane architect Gary Bernardo, who has been working on the Home Depot proposal since October 2006.

The gap between the two sides, Bernardo says, is simple. "If you look at what the neighborhood proposes in opposition, it comes down to a philosophical difference on large-format retail."

Big box is the more common term. And there is indeed the flavor among neighborhood representatives of not liking big box stores. Some object just on principle.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & outhgate resident Cheryl Gwinn forcefully argued a more nuanced position at Monday's hearing. She testified that the commercial proposal from developers is a tired suburban-style project of a big building in a big parking lot and actually does not meet the objectives of centers and corridors. The city's strategy calls for an urban atmosphere of buildings massed near sidewalks and other pedestrian amenities -- the opposite of a big parking lot with a building at the far end.

Candace Mumm, former president of the city's volunteer planning commission, says there is indeed a philosophical difference here but one that is entirely different than whether you like big box stores or not.

The difference, she says, is whether you allow a zone change first and then plan for what comes after, or does the city figure out where commercial districts are needed in the first place and then make specific zone changes.

Verner and other city officials say Southgate neighbors are jumping the gun by objecting to a Home Depot. "When you make a strictly generic land-use decision, the particular use of the property is not supposed to come into play," Verner says.

Technically right, but procedurally wrong, counters Mumm.

"This is huge. This affects the whole city," says Mumm, who has stepped down from the planning commission after 10 years to attend grad school at Gonzaga University. She emphasizes she is speaking for herself. "Once you change the zoning on a property, you can put in anything allowable for that zone."

It's true the zone change does not consider specific projects. That's the private property rights side of the balance beam. Mumm also says the city in the recent past had the goal of first deciding where district commercial centers made sense and considered the fuller picture before approving individual zone changes.

"There is no guarantee a Home Depot or any of that will happen. People who say this is spot zoning are correct. What you allow with a zone change is the maximum potential of that zone change," she says.

For the public interest part of the balance beam, she says, the city first needs to identify possible impacts. "How will this affect Lincoln Heights if we make this a district center? Do we need to upsize pipes? Add a fire station?"

Had city planners followed this directive of the comp plan, "We would probably have a Home Depot already built," Mumm says. "Having two warring parties end up in court is such a waste of time."

Kathy Miotke of the Spokane Neighborhood Alliance is also watching the Southgate decision.

"What happens with Southgate can affect all 27 of the city's neighborhoods," Miotke says. "The sad part about this fiasco is that here is a neighborhood that supports and wants development. It's not a neighborhood that says, 'No way, not in my back yard.'"

Southgate neighbors early in the process presented a vision of a commercial center with small and medium shops with pedestrian-friendly connected streets, Miotke says.

"They really had the center-and-corridor vision the comp plan recognizes," she says. "The city has gone backwards on this. If you look at any neighborhood in the whole city, a developer can take a piece of land zoned residential, bring it to commercial use without neighborhood planning. What does that say for the neighborhoods -- that you don't have a right to be involved?"

TPG Market @ Resurrection Records

Sun., June 13, 12-6 p.m.
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About The Author

Kevin Taylor

Kevin Taylor is a staff writer for The Inlander. He has covered politics, the environment, police and the tribes, among many other things.