It’s just after rush hour, and while nearby Division Street is absolutely packed with commuters, a one-way section of Main Avenue in front of Merlyn’s comic book shop remains mostly empty. If anyone on Division wanted to turn onto Main to head down to River Park Square, they couldn’t: Main is a one-way street eastbound.
Tourists complain about one-way streets. So do business owners.
With a frustrated chuckle, Merlyn’s owner John Waite recalls his aggravation: When heading west, he had to swing by his store before driving to Auntie’s Bookstore, only a few blocks away. But because of the convoluted city grid, he had to drive more than an extra half-mile of one-way streets. Google Maps calculates it would have been significantly faster to walk.
“How many times have you heard people, like, ‘Hate downtown Spokane, one-ways drive me crazy, can’t find anything?’ ” Waite says. “I’m a child of downtown. I’ve been doing this since 1976. And nobody likes the one-ways. They’re a pain in the ass, and they’re confusing.”
Waite is part of a vocal group of Main Avenue business owners lobbying to return Main to a two-way street. Theoretically, two-way streets are easier to navigate, making them better for small businesses that rely on easy access and passing traffic. “This is something that we’re rabid about,” Waite says.
The idea isn’t exactly new: The Downtown Spokane Partnership plan has been advocating two-way conversions to key east-west downtown streets since 1999, yet it still hasn’t happened.
That may change soon. In the next month, the city planning department will present data on feasibility. The Downtown Spokane Partnership plans to start surveying businesses. And City Council President Ben Stuckart has been pushing for a Main Avenue conversion since August, lobbying legislators for funding and discussing it in committee meetings.
To him, it’s the most important thing that could be done to spur downtown economic development. “For our main commercial boulevard to be a one-way is almost unheard of,” Stuckart says.
But to change may not only cost millions of dollars over three to five years, but swapping a traffic lane for a left-hand turn lane could mean slower downtown driving. And not everyone thinks that’s a good thing.
Sixty years ago, Spokane was having the opposite debate. The interstate freeway hadn’t been built, and downtown suffered from considerable congestion. In response, the city began converting its downtown, street by street, to a one-way grid. Business owners fretted that the new routes would drain away their customers, but state highway officials and city planners insisted the changes would ease traffic and reduce accidents.
For decades, transportation design was based nearly entirely on traffic flow, how quickly and smoothly cars passed through the streets. One-ways were swift. Suburbs thrived, sprawl spread, and eventually, downtowns were sapped of their energy.
But today’s planning department operates under a different premise. Scott Chesney, Spokane’s planning director, offers a draft of a sweeping rewrite of Spokane’s transportation plan. Instead of just focusing on getting cars from point A to point B, the new plan is a tool to transform A and B, and everything in between. The rewrite pulls a 180 from the previous plan, often striving for narrower, slower streets with fewer lanes, instead of broad thoroughfares. Wide roads, it argues, lead to more car accidents and higher paving costs, without significantly improving commute times.
“If your goal is to move your vehicles through downtown as fast as possible,” Chesney says, go with one-ways. “If you want your street to be an experiential street, if you want it to be pedestrian-friendly, if you want people to stop and look at store windows, you have two-way streets. They’re a lot easier to get around on.”
To Chesney, Main is the “spine” of downtown, linking the University District with the city core. It’s the catalyst for downtown development.
But changing Main would be more than a simple paint job. Main may eventually contain bike lanes, diagonal parking, and a central city trolley line on a single two-way street. Chesney flips through slides for the Division Gateway Project, showing what Main Avenue between Pine and Browne — where Merlyn’s is located — could look like as a two-way. One version has a center strip filled with trees and benches. Another has diagonal parking in the middle of the street and bike lanes on the sides.
The city has a 100-foot asphalt canvas, building to building, to work with. There’s a lot of possibility.
A cautionary tale lies to the east. In 2011, Spokane Valley’s City Council left to voters the question of turning Sprague and Appleway back into two-way streets. But with a $2.4 million price tag and fears of a longer commute time, the idea went down in flames. More than 80 percent rejected it.
Downtown Spokane is quite different from Spokane Valley, but the principle remains: Without enough community support, it’s doomed to fail. Parkade owner Dru Hieber worries about congestion. She wants to make sure a survey is done.
“Even though it’s called for in our downtown plan, it’s going to be our job to reach out to the property owners to make sure it’s the right way to go,” says Mark Richard, Downtown Spokane Partnership president. “We have barely scratched the surface in engaging the private sector in this conversation.”
And River Park Square, one of the most important buildings owned by one of the city’s most influential families, opposes the switch.
“We feel that downtown’s success depends on traffic flow,” River Park Square general manager Bryn West says. She worries that if Main is changed to a two-way street, Spokane Falls Boulevard would change as well, wreaking havoc with the parking garage entrance.
While Chesney insists the city has no plan to change Spokane Falls, West has other objections: A 2009 traffic study predicted more delays if Main was converted to a two-way street without any other changes. And customers don’t like traffic jams.
Asked if anything would change her mind, West is doubtful. “At this point, unless there’s some great research that would prove congestion wouldn’t be a problem to us, it doesn’t seem like the best use of funds for downtown Spokane,” she says.
Chesney hopes to answer that challenge. “I’m going back to talk to most of [the skeptics] to show them real data that suggests that their concerns may not be warranted,” he says. “Our models show that a two-way Main can carry as much traffic as Main does now.” Officials in Vancouver, Wash., say they made the switch four years ago and haven’t yet seen any problems.
In 30 years, it may get more congested, Chesney says. But in that time, drivers will adapt. And some downtown businesses welcome slower streets.
“One-way traffic, that breeds a certain mentality. It’s like, ‘I want to get over there and I want to get there fast!’ And that’s not what we really want down here,” says developer Dan Spalding. “We want people, that, they come downtown and — it’s the journey, right?”
A Worthy Question
As businesses and city officials begin to debate changing Main Avenue to a two-way street, one of the city’s most influential developers has so far remained silent. Last fall, to great fanfare, Davenport Hotel developer Walt Worthy announced plans to build a new 15-story, 700-room headquarters hotel on Main near Spokane’s expanded convention center.
“We’re in this for the long haul,” Worthy’s wife, Karen, said at the press conference.
Groundbreaking was supposed to begin in the first quarter of 2013. But not only has ground not been broken, Worthy still hasn’t decided whether the hotel will be built at all.
“We’d prefer not to make a comment,” says Matt Jensen, marketing director for the Davenport, when asked about the proposed hotel. “We have still not made a complete decision about moving forward on that project.”
Jensen says Worthy is still asking companies to provide bids and is not sharing any details about his thought process.
In an encouraging sign this Monday, the Worthy Group signed a more detailed “letter of intent” outlining a proposed arrangement with the Spokane Public Facilities District if the Worthy Group were to purchase the land to build the hotel. Kevin Twohig, the district’s director, says it had extended the deadline for the original letter of intent on two separate occasions. “We stayed in touch to them just to make sure the project wasn’t dead,” Twohig says.
While the letter of intent still doesn’t mean the hotel will be built, Twohig says he expects a decision within the next 30 days.