Recap of the Smart Growth America Open House

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.

At the SGA forum on September 15. From left to right: Jon Snyder, me, Chris Zimmerman, Roger Millar and Candace Mumm.

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.

What’s a parklet?; Mayor’s budget released: 8/31/15 City Council Meeting Recap

At the August 31st City Council meeting, I was happy that Council approved on a 6-0 vote (CP Stuckart absent) the final member of the Police Ombudsman Commission, Jenny Rose. Ms. Rose represents the NW side of the city on the Commission and was recommended by the City Councilmembers from District 3 (CMs Mumm and Stratton). Now, the 5-member Ombudsman Commission is complete and can take action on a most important item of business — appointing the new Police Ombudsman. Last week, the Commission held hearings and meetings with the three finalists for the position. Click here to learn more.

Mayor Condon has released his draft programmatic budget. Council received this yesterday along with the media, so we have not had a chance to review and see if our priorities are reflected in the budget. We will be having study sessions every week for the next 10 weeks and working with the administration to ensure Council’s priorities are integrated before we hold public hearings in November.

What’s a parklet? A parklet is a small “park-like” setting that can be created and placed in different environments throughout a city. Most commonly, it is created in an area where there is a desire to activate the street and storefronts and engage pedestrians in hanging out longer in a retail area to benefit businesses. A group of Spokane professionals have created a pilot parklet that can be put together in a few hours and can occupy a parking space in the downtown area. Last night Council voted 5-1 (Fagan no, Stuckart absent) in support of a 60 day pilot to install the parklet on W. Main between Stevens and Washington across from Auntie’s Bookstore. Please go find it in September and October and let me know what you think!

Single-family fire suppression and sick leave: 8/24/15 Council Meeting Recap

Should the State of Washington require fire suppression systems in all single-family homes (which would also include townhomes, cottage homes, etc.)? This was a topic of conversation last night at our Council meeting. CM Allen had brought forward a resolution stating the City of Spokane did not approve of this mandate state-wide. (Currently, cities have the choice of whether or not to adopt this requirement). The State Building Code Council is meeting soon to discuss extending this requirement state-wide.

Council discussed the topic at length and voted 6-1 (Mumm against) in support of the resolution. It is a very difficult issue and I was torn because I do believe sprinkler systems can and do save lives. The question for me is how to weigh the ultimate impacts of sprinklers with the need for urban redevelopment in Spokane, especially townhome development. We desperately need infill development in the city and townhomes and cottage homes provide affordable alternatives to those wishing to live in the city — but they are expensive to develop. I worry about adding more code and regulation burdens to building in small lots in the city. We are already at a disadvantage compared to suburban areas. I think we need to keep fire suppression a choice in single-family/townhome development at this time and revisit in the next several years as more areas begin to redevelop within the City.

On another note, CM Snyder brought for a new draft of a sick and safe leave policy and requested that the Council defer it until January 2016. Several weeks ago, Council President Stuckart requested that Councilmembers defer discussions on a policy until after the 2016 Budget is adopted at the end of the year. This is in response to community members asking for more time and input, as well as Councilmembers needing more analysis. CM Snyder said he thought it important to put a new draft out for folks to review in the interim. An overview of the draft ordinance can be found here on the City Council website.

First Ever Sidewalk Summit Held in Spokane

A first-ever Sidewalk Summit was held in the City Council Chambers yesterday as an interactive public forum to discuss Spokane’s pedestrian infrastructure. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, but I had two staff in the City Council office provide me with these excellent notes. Many thanks to Councilman Jon Snyder and his legislative aide, Blaine Stum, for organizing the event!

Sidewalk summit 2015

Fifty or so participants — including citizens, members of advocacy groups, city officials, and elected representatives –voiced their concerns about sidewalk conditions, reported on the status of different citywide pedestrian initiatives, and brainstormed some possible solutions to common problems.

There were testimonials from people who require mobility assistance such as scooters, crutches, or walkers. They brought anecdotal and photo evidence of sidewalks where American Disability Act (ADA) ramps aren’t working as they should, where crumbling or uprooted sidewalks hinder access, or places where sidewalks are sorely lacking. Visibility and driver awareness were persistent issues, even in areas with adequate sidewalks.

Interim City Planning Director Louis Mueler gave a short presentation on the city’s draft Pedestrian Master Plan. This plan shows “heat maps” for pedestrian demand, indicates where deficiencies exist, and identifies areas such as business corridors or school routes that require extra pedestrian consideration. By compiling known shortcomings, statistical data, best practices, and citizen input, the plan is intended to guide Spokane in its efforts to repair or construct a solid and accessible long term transportation infrastructure.

Participants also highlighted the links between sidewalks and commerce, health, public transit and fiscal responsibility. One speaker noted that, “Everything begins with a pedestrian trip” — even if that’s simply walking to your car in the morning. That led to repeated calls to think of sidewalks holistically, which means considering all the areas in which they intersect with everyday life. They’re our path to the bus stop, school, store, a friend’s house. They can affect (or be affected by) car parking, snow removal and garbage collection. When streets are being repaired or reconfigured, it usually makes financial and practical sense to address any sidewalk deficiencies at the same time.

Other questions included:

  • What are other cities doing to address some of these same issues?
  • If the Spokane Municipal Code states that sidewalk repairs are the homeowner’s responsibility (SMC 12.01.010), what can be done in a city that has a 40% rental rate? And what cost-sharing methods might help mitigate some of the financial burden on the homeowner?
  • Can sidewalk tiles heaved by tree roots be ground rather than replaced outright?
  • Should Spokane prioritize repairing substandard sidewalks or installing new sidewalks?
  • What can the City or neighborhoods do when homeowners don’t want sidewalks in front of their homes?

Speakers also proposed some interesting methods of dealing with these historical issues. Kerry Brooks, an associate professor in EWU’s Urban & Regional Planning Program, presented a prototype smartphone app that could be used to instantly report a deficient sidewalk to the City.

Councilman Jon Snyder identified the key issues and ideas that he felt emerged from the summit:

  • Better coordination of current funding sources and efforts related to sidewalk repair and installation. This includes Transportation Benefit District funding, Photo Red funding and Community Development Block grant funding for sidewalks and ADA ramps.
  • A program or form that allows citizens to notify the city of temporary or permanent obstacles or barriers on sidewalks so impediments to access can be resolved. Two examples discussed at the meeting included a website and an application for smart phones.
  • Ensuring the recommendations and strategies in the draft Pedestrian Plan are utilized to prioritize areas of need.
  • A look in to the feasibility of alternative funding mechanisms for the repair and installation of sidewalks. Two examples of “shared cost” programs from Chicago, IL and Boulder, CO were discussed at the meeting.
  • Establishing a “Snow Angel” volunteer program to link people with limited mobility with volunteers who can help shovel sidewalks.

Shel Silverstein’s famous poem “Where the Sidewalk Ends” marked that place as the point where imagination and possibility begin. In Spokane, we need to examine where our own sidewalks end and see all the amazing possibilities that lie in imaginative solutions to decades-old issues of access, funding, disrepair, and a transportation infrastructure befitting a modern city. The Sidewalk Summit was a promising start to that process, and I’m eager to see where it goes from here!