The City of Spokane and Smart Growth America hosted an open house at SCAFCO on Tuesday evening and an invitation-only workshop at City Hall on Wednesday. The purpose of the visit was to provide technical assistance to the City to put smart growth principles into practice, with particular focus on the targeted investment work happening in East Sprague.
Mayor David Condon opened the event by describing smart growth as a “shared vision of the Administration and the Council” that is creating the “foundation of an amazing future.” He cited the East Sprague Targeted Investment Program (TIP) as “one of the models of a process and a design that build community, that build economic development.”
He noted that there are other TIPs around the city, too, including the airport, downtown Spokane, and Hillyard. Together these highlight the areas where Spokane is channeling its resources to spur further economic development, allowing other organizations to build a shared vision around these same areas. The mayor said it was crucial to have the engagement of neighborhoods—including the residents and businesses in them—when looking at smart growth choices.
I also said a few words, with a special thanks to Councilman Jon Snyder, who first made me aware of smart growth as a concept and as a movement. In my short talk, I noted that we all want to see economic development here in Spokane, but we also need to be sure that it happens in a way that takes the unique qualities of our city into account — which is the fundamental philosophy behind smart growth.
Over the years I’ve sat down many times with Council President Ben Stuckart to talk about leveraging the resources we have here in Spokane in order to encourage dense growth and thriving businesses, and those conversations ultimately brought us to East Sprague. Even though it’s still early days, the corridor’s success offers a case study showing us that smart growth is more than just what the City does with infrastructure. It’s about connecting the dots around human needs and developing holistically. Because when we focus on economic growth, it’s not just to benefit a single group like commuters or businesses or cyclists or homeowners. It’s to benefit everyone and improve our shared future.
Roger Millar, Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition and Smart Growth America’s Vice President of Technical Assistance, then took the podium to explain what smart growth is and what it isn’t. There’s a misconception, he said, that smart growth is a strict set of one-size-fits-all rules. Instead it’s about “strategies that allow communities of all sizes to see their choices” and enable them to identify their homegrown strengths. “If it isn’t local,” he said, “it isn’t smart.” He also stressed that it’s possible to protect the environment while boosting the economy — that is to say, American citizenship and conservation of its resources aren’t mutually exclusive.
The final speaker was Chris Zimmerman, Vice President for Economic Development at Smart Growth America, who introduced himself as an economist and a “recovering” politician. His talk was accompanied by a slideshow (shown above) where he laid out the rationale for smart growth in economic terms.
Smart growth can be distilled into a matter of land use, he said. Traditional growth patterns were mixed-use, compact, buildings of elevated stories and blocks with multiple building types that followed a street grid. Then came zoning, which resulted in fragmented land use and car-centric development that segregated our places of residence, commerce, entertainment and education. In the 21st century, we’re finding that the things that led to success in the late 20th century don’t necessarily apply in the same way.
He spent considerable time contrasting the preferences of Boomers and Millennials and how that will affect the built environment. Chris also looked at housing and business trends that are prioritizing walkable communities and “creative placemaking,” leading to economic growth and revitalization of economically depressed areas.
Of the many interesting points he made, one stands out: Spread-out development patterns are expensive. Recent research on city budgets found that compact communities could save 30% on infrastructure and generate ten times more revenue.
After his talk, Chris took some time to answer audience questions. One attendee asked if Spokane’s proximity to Spokane Valley and their potentially different approaches to growth was problematic or unique. Chris’ short answer: No, it’s more the rule than the exception.
Another attendee asked which comes first in an economically depressed area, the cool businesses, the walkable community, or the affordable housing? Chris said it was a chicken-and-egg scenario, and ideally all of these things have to happen at the same time.
The third question had to do with avoiding the pitfalls of gentrification. Chris said that there were a number of reasons to have mixed-income demographics in any given area, but we usually only deal with income disparity and a lack of affordable housing when it becomes a problem. He and Roger advised putting plans in place beforehand, such as policies and schemes that guarantee a minimum of affordable housing, even as property values increase.
The final question dealt with a very specific vision for the future: What about self-driving cars? Chris said that we don’t know how soon they’re going to become a factor, and it could be that the combination of services like Uber with auto-piloted vehicles makes it easier for peple to live in less car-dependent communities.
While it’s clear that a 90-minute forum couldn’t possibly hold all the answers on smart growth, this event did further our local conversation on issues like economic development, land use and urban planning. It showed that we’re already doing a lot of things right, and that we as a city have the potential to work together to foster balanced economic growth that respects the needs of our entire community while establishing a stronger future for Spokane.
I’m not going to go into detail about the workshop on Wednesday, but it was a great room of developers, business owners, City planning staff, housing experts and of course Chris and Roger from Smart Growth America. Some of the same material from Friday was covered and then specific questions and comments were shared about the East Sprague targeted investment project. The participants broke into groups to discuss streetscape elements, housing strategies and building design.
Just a quick closing note: Chris’ presentation was converted from a PDF for displaying in this post, so some highlights and transitions didn’t render correctly. I apologize for any errors introduced in the conversion! You can download the original here.