GSI, DSP push STA to postpone Plaza renovation

The renovation of downtown’s STA Plaza suffered a major setback Thursday that could spell danger for the transit provider’s entire operation. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Greater Spokane, Incorporated and the Downtown Spokane Partnership on Thursday pushed the Spokane Transit Authority to postpone its planned renovation of the Plaza downtown. The two groups were concerned that the planned revamp, which would relocate passenger services to the first floor, add more retail spaces, create a larger indoor waiting area, and develop real-time bus arrival information, didn’t do enough to address the issue of loitering (read: waiting for buses).

Unfortunately, with the STA Plaza as vital as it is to the authority’s operation, this three-month postponement could spell doom for projects like the Central City Line and plans for a high-performance transit network in the Spokane region. Especially if a solution to the impasse isn’t found quickly. DSP and GSI oppose the planned reboot despite the relatively low cost of such a measure, as compared to realigning STA’s operations at an alternative facility. Moreover, the two groups have yet to present a compelling case that loitering (read: waiting for buses) has harmed downtown’s economic vitality, or that such a problem is unique to Spokane (have you ever seen the Transbay Transit Terminal in San Francisco? San Jose’s Diridon Station?). They have also failed to pony up the necessary dollars to move the facility, as they propose. Until such a case can be presented or such funding can be found, this can be chalked up to just another short-sighted attempt to hold Spokane back from making progress on improving vital services and infrastructure like transit. 

Urban cities have loiterers. They have panhandlers. They have homeless people. Spokane doesn’t have a “street kid” problem or a “loiterer” problem or a “homeless” problem. It has a “well-connected cynic” problem.

What do you think? Do you use the STA Plaza? How does it compare in your experience to transit terminals in other cities? Do you support the plaza renovation, which would create indoor waiting spaces and retail in attempt to further decrease loitering on the street? Should the Plaza cease to exist, perhaps in favor of a Portland-style transit mall? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Facebook, and on Twitter. We love to hear from you.

Spokane-area light rail lives?

From 2000-2006, the Spokane area was deep in a planning process for future light rail transit (LRT) in the South Valley corridor from downtown to Liberty Lake along Riverside and Sprague, with future extensions possible to Spokane International Airport and Coeur d’Alene. STA commissioned study after independent study, all indicating that at $17 million per mile–the projected cost of the developed project–light rail would more than pay for itself, generating billions in economic development. And significantly, because the cost of such a proposal is likely to skyrocket in coming years as the region grows, it was discovered that the annual operating cost of the light rail system would be less than the annual growth in construction costs, were the project to be built at some point in the future, instead of now.

But then, in 2006, the project was ditched after a hastily-written advisory vote was placed on Spokane’s November ballot. Though the totals were close (52-48), STA and local leaders considered it a mandate against light rail.

Now, light rail as a proposal is back from the grave. The Inland Empire Rail Transit Association, or InlandRail, has shown its first concrete signs of life since 2011. The organization recently engaged in a billboard campaign, and a recent Spokesman-Review article noted the possibilities that LRT presents. There’s a renewed sense that light rail could be one solution in an overall package of transportation projects designed to plan for future growth in the area. Even STA has suggested light rail for the South Valley corridor. It’s clear that a new sense of optimism has developed surrounding transit projects in the area.

After the break, view more videos of the original light rail proposal.

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Spokane’s sharing economy grows with addition of Lyft and Uber

Popular in urban cities and now expanding nationwide, Lyft is a ride-sharing service whose drivers’ pink mustaches indicate that they are a member of the service. (PHOTO: inside.com)

Ridesharing services Lyft and Uber are coming to Spokane (and Coeur d’Alene). Lyft launched this week and Uber launched a Twitter account in late April announcing its impending arrival. With sure-to-be-distorted or -misreported media coverage incoming, we might as well offer some clarity about what the two offer.

Lyft is a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week ridesharing service whereby drivers apply to become drivers, and after background checks and driving history reports, are allowed to drive people under the Lyft brand and using the Lyft app. Once the destination is reached, passengers pay a “donation” using their debit or credit cards on the app, and Lyft takes a cut. Currently, rates for Spokane are $1.70 per mile, $0.40 per minute, $2.00 for pickup, and $1.00 for a “Trust and Safety” fee. There’s a $5.00 minimum, but as you can see with the rate structure, it can be somewhat difficult to calculate what you might pay to get to your destination without the app. Note that we’ll be one of the first fifty cities in the United States with Lyft.

Uber is a similar 24-hour, 7-day-a-week service utilizing its traditional taxi, SUV, town car, and “UberX” offerings. While UberX is similar to Lyft, it is distinguished by its controversial “surge” pricing strategy. “Surge” pricing essentially means that Uber jacks up prices by astronomical amounts during periods of high demand. Think Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Or downtown Seattle after a Seahawks game. In Spokane, I could imagine Bloomsday and Hoopfest falling under “surge” pricing. First Night. First Fridays, perhaps? It should be interesting to see how Uber implements this model in Spokane, especially given allegations that the company takes drivers off the road during these “high demand” times.

Notably, the two services will be launching at similar times, but given Spokane’s taxi-averse culture, it should be interesting to see how residents respond to the services. Local taxi companies are frustrated that licensing law doesn’t account for these new and innovative services, but it should be noted that that’s what these are: innovative new services. It’s refreshing to see startups like Lyft ($333 million in VC funding) and Uber coming to Spokane as a part of their early nationwide rollout.

Spokane’s biking and running “heat map”

Spokane's biking infrastructure apparently lags somewhat, with obvious deficiencies on the  north side. (PHOTO: Strava Labs/Google Maps)
Spokane’s biking infrastructure apparently lags somewhat in some critical areas, with obvious deficiencies on the north side and in the City of Spokane Valley. (PHOTO: Strava Labs/Google Maps)

 

Strava is a GPS tracking system that’s become quite popular amongst runners and cyclists. The app allows users to track their rides or runs and save them for record-keeping. Not content with merely providing a great service to end users, however, the company also anonymizes its data and compiles it in order to create a global “heat map” of its users’  biking and running paths. These paths can tell a surprising story, especially for Spokane.

Above, see the biking heat map for Spokane. Notice the areas where bikers are concentrated; namely, around Riverside State Park, the High Drive Bluff, and Beacon Hill. Notably, downtown seems to attract bikers as well; this could indicate that infrastructure is improving. That said, it’s clear that some critical deficiencies exist in the overall biking system. The north side between the Spokane River, Monroe, Havana, and the Mead area is almost a complete desert. Is this because people just don’t bike in that area, or is it because there is no infrastructure there? Would adding bike lanes in this area increase biking? A similar situation appears to be unfolding in the South Valley area. What could be done to improve utilization to the rates seen on the South Hill and elsewhere? Are there equity issues at play?

See more on running after the break.

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Boise adds “bicycle boxes” to its urban street grid

Boise is adding “bicycle boxes” as a better way to give cyclists the necessary space and comfort at red-light intersections. (PHOTO: Ada County Highway District)

The Ada County Highway District in Boise (their downtown street grid is managed by a highway district?) has announced that it is installing “bicycle boxes” at intersections on several major downtown Boise streets. These simple green markings have been used in cities like Portland and New York City to try to reduce vehicle-versus-bicycle collisions. They’re also experimenting with “buffered” bike lanes, in which lanes are separated from vehicular traffic by about a lane’s width of empty space.

This could be a quick, inexpensive, and bicycle-friendly solution to the problem of bike-vehicle collisions in downtown Spokane. It would be pretty cheap to implement, and could be completed as part of ongoing restriping and maintenance efforts (perhaps when Main is finally two-way?).

What do you think? What would it take to get Spokane to adopt this simple, yet elegant solution? Share your thoughts below, on Facebook, on Twitter, and in person. We want to hear from you!

Why Complete Streets are so important

The relative amount of space used by pedestrians, personal vehicles, and buses.
The relative amount of space used by pedestrians, bicyclists, personal vehicles, and buses.

Personal vehicles take up a lot of space. (Just look at the 700-space parking lot currently under construction on the South Hill at Regal and the Palouse Highway that will serve the new Target store.) In the case of parking, that becomes wasted space, unused space, a heat island in a sea of urban and suburban development. On streets, the increased space necessary for vehicles means additional traffic lanes.

So how do we calm traffic congestion if we don’t want to increase parking space or traffic lanes? We encourage pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit. We decrease the “opportunity cost” (in time, in money, in convenience, etc.) of walking, biking, or using transit. This gets more people in alternative uses and decreases the use of costly personal vehicles.

This is why Spokane must commit to Complete Streets. We’ve passed the ordinance, and now’s the time to commit to implementing it. The first test will come in the Southgate District, where the suburban-style Target development has only further congested Regal. Hit the link to see a really well-written description of the issues caused by Target.

What are your thoughts? What are the benefits of “complete streets”-style investments? Does the Southgate District have a case for traffic mitigation above and beyond the light at Regal and the Palouse Highway? Share your thoughts in the comments and on social media. We love to hear from you.

Why not Streetcars?

Spokane’s streetcar grid was as extensive as any on the West Coast, and more extensive than some. It operated for years and years, but now is reduced to a mere memory…if that. (PDF: MetroSpokane)

Did you know that Spokane once hosted one of the most extensive streetcar systems west of the Mississippi? This graphic from MetroSpokane shows us just how extensive it was, extending all the way to 37th in the south and Francis in the north. And this was fifty, sixty, seventy years ago!

Imagine the possibilities of a revitalized streetcar line, even on just a few of these routes. Spokane Transit Authority is working on developing its high-performance transit network plan, but lamentably, the proposal will eschew streetcars in favor of electric trolleybuses in the Central City Line. Electric trolleybuses operate using overhead wires for electricity, but travel via wheels on pavement. On the other hand, streetcars require significant investment in rail placement in order to be effective. And that’s in addition to the wires, which are still required.

Complicating the matter further, the modern electric trolleybuses are not manufactured in the United States, which conflicts with federal “Buy American” standards. It could be years before European manufacturers ramp up a stateside production line, and by then we will have lost out on millions to billions of dollars in potential economic growth and investment related to these transit projects. Meanwhile, United Streetcar is manufacturing modern streetcars right here in the Northwest, in the Portland suburb of Clackamas, Oregon, and vehicular and transit use along the proposed Central City Line in Spokane continues to increase.

Perhaps it’s time we re-thought waiting. Who needs a modern electric trolleybus, anyway? They’re more unsightly (Seattle is thinking about removing theirs), they’re less exciting, and they don’t attract the same levels of transportation-oriented development investment. Let’s go big. Let’s be visionary. Let’s build a streetcar.

If It Had Happened, Part 5: South Hill Walmart

Walmart's south Spokane store would have been built up to the street and would have featured rooftop parking. Please excuse the potato-esque quality of this image. (PHOTO: Spokesman-Review)
Walmart’s south Spokane store would have been built up to the street and would have featured rooftop parking. Please excuse the potato-esque quality of this image. (PHOTO: Spokesman-Review)

Today we delve into the politics and concerns of a local neighborhood as we revisit perhaps the single most controversial development project in the history of the South Hill. In 2006, big-box retailer Walmart proposed building a massive 186,000 square foot multi-story store at 44th and Regal at Spokane’s outer edge. It was a large project considering the similar developments that had taken place nearby in recent years (Shopko and Albertson’s come to mind) but fascinatingly, the store would have been a first for even Walmart. It would have been smartly-designed to serve what the conglomerate called the neighborhood’s more “upscale” clientele, incorporating design features that few Walmart stores incorporate: windows, streetfront retail, structured and rooftop parking, and the simple addition of building it up to the street.

Understandably, the proposal attracted massive opposition driven by concerns about traffic, crime, property values, and the wholesale effect of adding a mega-store to one of Spokane’s least-developed neighborhoods. 600 people showed up to a traffic planning meeting at the Ferris High School auditorium, where a vocal majority were opposed to the proposal and many chose to direct their anger at representatives seated on-stage. Of course, there was no resolution until the next year, when officials announced that Walmart had abandoned the project, ostensibly due to “interference” from the nearby radio towers on its computer and radio equipment.

But why was the opposition so sharp? Why could Walmart not build, when Target now has a store under construction not far from the 44th and Regal site–especially when the Target being developed is a “prototype,” no-frills store that is not built to the street, features no design and architectural embellishments, and features a 700-vehicle surface lot devoted to the temporary storage of cars?

The answer lies in two dichotomous effects which I will call the Walmart Effect and the Target Effect.

The Walmart Effect refers to a neighborhood’s and an individual’s tendency to oppose Walmart at all costs. Part of this arises from Walmart’s labor practices. The company is well-known for refusing to provide healthcare coverage for its employees and for cutting employees to part-time in order to wiggle its way out of providing healthcare for them. Part of this arises from the well-documented effect that Walmart has on local communities. Walmart, as the poster-child for big-box development, increases crime, decreases neighborhood vitality, decreases property values, increases blight, and overall harms the communities in which it locates.

But here’s the thing: In general, all big-box retailers cause increase crime, decrease neighborhood vitality, decrease property values, increase blight, and harm the communities in which they locate. It’s not limited to Walmart. Walmart simply receives the brunt of the blame because it is the poster-child for big-box development.

Which brings us to the Target Effect. This counter-effect arises as a direct result of disdain for Walmart. People like Target because they think it provide a more upscale product than Walmart (it doesn’t), because it benefits communities (it doesn’t), because it is more willing to provide architectural and design changes (it isn’t), and because it provides better compensation and healthcare to its employees (it doesn’t). Target is no better than Walmart, but receives less opposition simply because it isn’t Walmart.

As such, the South Hill is poised to gain a true big-box store in Target when Walmart, by contrast, was more than willing to work with the neighborhood on a more civically-minded, urban-designed store. This would have set a crucial precedent for other stores interested in locating in the area. Work with the neighborhood or fail. Period.

Paradoxical (and theoretical) Conclusion: If the proposed-in-2006 Walmart had been built, then South Regal and the Southgate District might just look today more like Kendall Yards than Northpointe. Or at least, its development plan might look more like Kendall Yards than Northpointe, or perhaps an amalgamation of the two. Really. If it had been built, developers would be less able to compromise with the neighborhood. The Target site would have been developed in a more urban-designed fashion with buildings up to the street and structured or underground parking. Housing might have even been in the mix. And we just might have seen a neighborhood designed not just for profit, but with at least one foot in the figurative door of new urbanism. Shame it couldn’t have happened differently.

Do you agree? Do you think that the more carefully-designed Walmart store could have served as a model for other retailers locating in the Southgate District? What about the Target Effect and the Walmart Effect? Are they fair descriptions? Share your thoughts on this story by commenting, tweeting, posting, and hashtagging away!

Idea #10: Attract additional flights at Spokane International Airport

Spokane International Airport serves three million passengers yearly, but a majority of these passengers are routed through hubs like Seattle, Denver, and Las Vegas. (PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons)

As a blog focused on solutions, #spokanerising is committed to developing ideas to help develop Spokane into a top-tier urban-designed, thriving, vibrant city of the same class as Portland or Seattle. Whether or not you agree with his politics, this dovetails nicely with Mayor David Condon’s stated goal of transforming our city into one of “choice.”

Yesterday, KXLY reported on their Facebook page that Delta would be adding seasonal flights to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International AirportToday, we suggest that the Spokane Airport Board and the Spokane City Council prioritize adding new domestic nonstop flights at Spokane International Airport.

While the Spokane market is indeed well-served by the combination of Alaska/Horizon shuttle flights to Seattle and the vast array of international and domestic flights available from there, it would behoove local government officials to look for ways to stimulate or subsidize additional nonstop flights to in-demand locations. Having a good number of domestic flights correlates with strong local business activity and economic growth. One can imagine the possibilities. Currently, a large number of barriers prevent companies from locating in Spokane. But new flights could eliminate some of these. For example, add nonstop flights to San Jose (which is closer than Oakland or San Francisco to Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook) and suddenly a world of technology investment becomes more possible. Add additional flights to Houston or Atlanta (the current Delta plan only adds one weekly Saturday flight) and international destinations become more in reach.

Somewhat arbitrarily, we believe that the region’s top priorities for increased air service should include the following:

  1. The conversion of seasonal service to Minneapolis and Chicago to full-time service.
  2. The addition of service to Dallas, Houston, and/or Atlanta.
  3. The addition of service to San Jose.
  4. The exploration of additional service to Los Angeles.
  5. The exploration of service to Canadian cities like Vancouver and Edmonton.
  6. The exploration of service restoration to Reno/Tahoe.

What about you? What’s on your wishlist for destinations? Where should Spokane International Airport be focusing its energy?

How to (temporarily) fix the empty lot at 3rd and Division

3rd and Division has sat empty, dilapidated, and decaying for more than five years. We might have a temporary solution. (PHOTO: Google Street View)
3rd and Division has sat empty, dilapidated, and decaying for more than five years since the Best Western Peppertree Inn proposal was abandoned. We might have a temporary solution. (PHOTO: Google Street View)

You heard it here first, folks: 3rd and Division is officially the worst intersection in Spokane. No, it doesn’t have the ruts and crumbling asphalt of High Drive and Grand Boulevard, but it does have an empty lot with extremely unsightly rebar and concrete, remnants of an abandoned low-rise hotel project which will be the subject of a future If It Had Happened post.

City leaders have repeatedly tried to entice developers to this site, starting with the original owners, who are presumed to have finally sold the lot in the spring of 2013. Naturally, 3rd and Division serve as a gateway to Spokane and the south end of the Division Street Gateway project, so it’s not surprising that the City is attempting to get more involved. But despite this interest, the site still sits, languishing further by the day. Literally nothing has been done to improve it in the interim, despite the fact that an extremely small investment could result in a much more pleasant intersection.

Here’s our short term solution: erect a temporary construction fence and set local artists loose. What do we mean? Check out some examples and a call to action after the break. We want to make this actually happen.

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