Spokane's new planning director says being both careful and bold isn't a contradiction

click to enlarge From "passionate observer" to City Hall: Spokane's new Planning Director Spencer Gardner was officially hired Monday night. - ERICK DOXEY PHOTO
Erick Doxey photo
From "passionate observer" to City Hall: Spokane's new Planning Director Spencer Gardner was officially hired Monday night.

For nearly four years, as the city of Spokane careened deeper and deeper into a housing availability crisis, Spokane was without a permanent housing director. But Kendall Yards developer Jim Frank, frequent critic of Spokane's land use policies, says the leadership deficit goes back even further, since Planning Director Scott Chesney was fired in 2014. The result, Frank argues, was "a reluctance to take a chance, a reluctance to be somewhat bold."

He argues that there were people in the planning department who felt like there needed to be the kind of big zoning changes he's been fighting for, but "if you're just an interim person, how much are you going to stick your neck out and fight for anything?"

It took Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward's administration two years and three different hiring processes, but she has finally found its planning director.

"We did an extensive national search for this position," Woodward said at Monday night's City Council meeting. "It has been a real challenge to find the right person."

But it turns out, that person was already living a short bike ride away from City Hall: Woodward nominated local resident Spencer Gardner, who has a dozen years in private sector planning experience and had recently served on the City Council's Sustainability Action Subcommittee.

Already, the choice has received praise from pro-housing advocates from across the political spectrum, including Frank.

"I've worked with Spencer for the last year in a lot of the work that I've been doing in the West Central neighborhood," Frank says. "I think Spencer will be a great planning director."

But with a housing emergency facing Spokane, Gardner's leadership style will be put to the test. Is he a revolutionary, the Inlander asks, who wants the city to take radical steps? Or is he more of the cautious, move carefully type?

"I think I'm a paradox of both," Gardner says.

STRONG OPINIONS

Sure, you can get a vague sense of Gardner by looking at his résumé: He has a master's in urban and regional planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a board member of Spokane Housing Ventures. He worked for Toole Design, a nationwide bike-and-pedestrian-focused planning and architecture firm.

But City Council President Breean Beggs says his first encounter with Spencer was reading his work at "a very innovative planning website" called Strong Towns.

Kicked off by a Minnesota Republican who regretted his role in perpetuating sprawl, Strong Towns makes a fiscally conservative argument for denser cities: By subsidizing roads and artificially preventing housing from being built close together, most cities have run up an unsustainable bill.

Gardner's first post on the site, in 2016, took aim at the hidden costs of golf courses, questioning the priorities of subsidizing facilities "that serve a small sliver of the population" while cutting back on homelessness services. Over the next four years, Gardner wrote thousands and thousands of words about his views on city planning, harnessing metaphors — dominoes, washing machines, radio presets, astronauts repurposing shaving cream — to portray parables of risk, complexity and innovation.

Some posts take a historical lens.

"In 305 BCE, Demetrius, the eventual king of Macedonia, laid siege to the city of Rhodes," Gardner begins one post on the colossal hubris — both ancient and modern — of overextending infrastructure.

Some drew from personal experience. One post focuses on how his Mormon faith shaped his approach to planning. Another details how Madison, Wisconsin, regulations prevented him from building a smaller secondary "accessory dwelling unit" on his property.

And then, in 2018, he moved to Spokane.

He happened to land in Frank's own Kendall Yards — the kind of planned development filled with the sort of townhomes and cottages that Frank says are effectively illegal to build in most areas of the city today. Spokane provided plenty of fuel for Gardner's writing about planning. After he arrived, he concluded that it suffered from a malady that had inflicted many cities.

"The malaise brought on by low growth seems to have suffused the entire city, affecting more than just the municipal budget," he wrote. "Once a growing city has lost its mojo, it's exceedingly hard to get it back."

He says Spokane was overbuilt, taking a look at the long-in-the-works North Spokane Corridor project and lamented that "we're still bulldozing poor central neighborhoods for a billion-dollar highway."

Yet he also writes that he sees Spokane as lively and filled with potential.

"I don't think I'm critical of Spokane, so much as I'm just a passionate observer of how challenges are playing out here," Gardner tells the Inlander today.

So, for example, he wrote a Strong Towns piece praising a long-vacant historical corner store in the West Central neighborhood that was resurrected as the Batch bakeshop, now Made With Love Bakery.

"Having suffered decades of abuse and neglect, it is now a real asset to the neighborhood," he wrote.

It's a larger parable, he argued, that showed how Spokane and many other cities had been "blind to the enduring value" of places like West Central. There had been an unconscious consensus "virtually hellbent on destroying" low-income neighborhoods, as they focused on building more highways and suburbs.

RAPID GRADUALISM

At times Gardner's writing about how, say, we "have 100 years of accumulated regulatory barnacles that need removing" to reform our "bloated, modern zoning codes" can make him sound like he's the type who will bring swift and radical change to Spokane's planning department.

But forcing that change is not how he sees his role here, he says.

"In terms of public policy, my goal isn't to come in here and revolutionize planning in Spokane overnight," Gardner says. "I feel like that would be foolish of me, given my lack of experience within the planning department."

The challenge is considerable. After all, the previous mayor, David Condon, terminated both of his planning directors.

To begin with, he'll have to straddle working with the City Council, the mayoral administration and the independent Plan Commission. So far, so good: Monday night, the council unanimously voted to approve Woodward's appointment of Gardner.

"My only complaint, Spencer, is you should have applied the first round so we didn't have to wait this long," Beggs says.

According to the city's recruitment materials, he'll also have to reestablish "trust, open communication, and a sense of cooperation between City staff and the Spokane development community."

Gardner says that's a matter of taking the time to listen to both the developers and the local neighborhoods, and helping them identify the goals they have in common.

"Really, we're trying to steer...," Gardner starts to say, before revising his word choice, "we're trying to facilitate the conversation."

Sweeping, top-down reforms, he says, risk big backlash from neighborhoods — and unintended consequences.

"When you try to make one massive revolutionary change all at once, you might be wrong. And then you're way worse off than you were before," Gardner says.

Even writing for Strong Towns, he was unsure about whether, say, it was a good idea for the state of Washington to override local zoning restrictions. Yes, he supports lifting many of these restrictions. But, "because we live in a complex system, we can't predict the ways in which tying a city's hands could have perverse outcomes."

Yet, one of the biggest complaints from those concerned about the housing crisis is that those working the problem at the local level have had a lack of urgency.

In 2019, Gardner wrote that it was a "blessing and a curse" that you could buy a house for under $200,000 in Spokane, though he knew that was changing. It meant living in Spokane was affordable, but also that it lacked the "economic dynamism" needed for local businesses to thrive. But according to a report released last month from the Counselors of Real Estate, the median price of a home in Spokane skyrocketed last year to over $450,000 — a price tag that only 15 percent of employed Spokanites can afford.

Gardner argues there's still a way to make changes quickly that could add more housing but also protect neighborhoods from the kind of catastrophic change that you hear about in some of those nightmare scenarios.

"We need to bite off those changes at small bits and process them rapidly, rather than some kind of giant whole scale reimagining of planning in Spokane," Gardner says. "It's not that it's slow change; it's incremental change."

"When you try to make one massive revolutionary change all at once, you might be wrong. And then you're way worse off than you were before."

tweet this

HISTORY LESSONS

As an example of what that kind of rapid but organic change can look like, he cites, of all cities, Spokane. But he's thinking of the Spokane of more than a century ago, when a tiny village suddenly exploded. Spokane turned from a city of only about 9,000 people in 1895 to over 100,000 by 1910. Imagine going from a city about the size of Othello to one larger than Yakima in only 15 years.

But that wasn't because of one or two big developers, he argues, it was because of the community itself: hundreds of individuals all making their own small bets, their own personal gambits. Sure, there were growing pains, but "every new increment of development that happened during that era was not seen as the enemy of the well-being of the residents of Spokane," Gardner says. "They recognized that that growth was actually providing them opportunities."

He says he doesn't have any illusions that this is an easy task, especially because, if Spokane is to bring about the sort of changes that he believes are necessary, it can't just be him pushing for it.

"Planning should not be something you do to communities," Gardner says. "It should be something that happens with communities." ♦

Dreamworks Animation: The Exhibition @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 11
  • or

About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...