Will we learn old lessons as we study parking downtown?

There are 12,658 parking spaces in the core of downtown Spokane. The City has initiated a parking survey to better understand users’ desires, but does it take account of old planning lessons? (PHOTO: City of Spokane)

As part of the Downtown Plan update due this year, the City of Spokane has contracted with Nelson\Nygaard to conduct a comprehensive study of parking options and usability in downtown Spokane and the University District, evaluating at a deep level how people travel downtown, the incentives they receive or don’t receive, and potential future improvements to the user experience. The survey is now live, and we encourage readers to take it.

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A closer look at three important ways to improve the Jensen-Byrd District plan

Master Plan.png
This is the site plan for the Jensen-Byrd District, as proposed by JB Development, a partnership between Wally Trace and McKinstry. A few changes would dramatically improve the development plan for the site, making it more inviting for the next fifty-plus years. (PHOTO: jensenbyrd.com)

When the Jensen-Byrd District plan was revealed in full for the first time last week, we rightfully noted the spectacular form and scale that the plan took. At 250,000 square feet, it’s the largest downtown Spokane development in nearly a generation. And by including space well-suited for high-tech and biotech companies, it could mark a turning point in Spokane’s overall economy.

But it’s important to note also that the site plan has some significant pain-points, challenges which we expect to be resolved before the developer is granted a building permit. It’s easy to forget that once a building is built, it’s likely to remain there for at the very minimum, fifty years (well, most of the time). That’s why we need to ensure that this development is held to a high standard: the University District is intended to drive Spokane’s economy in the 21st century and beyond. To create a place fit for the next fifty-plus years, we need to do better than the current plan. Here are some concrete steps to making that happen.

1. Create a better, more inviting, and more distinct north landing for the University District Pedestrian Bridge. In the current plan, a pedestrian crossing the bridge northbound will land facing the parking garage, where it’s unclear whether there will be a clear path forward to the Jensen-Byrd Building itself. At this landing, there should be some wayfinding information, as well as other active space, such as retail on the first floor of the parking garage. Imagine an inviting cafe or coffeehouse with outdoor seating and programmable space. There should also be an easy path through the parking garage to the Jensen-Byrd. (It appears that there may be an alleyway of some kind for this purpose; how could this alley be made more inviting for pedestrians? Overhead lights? Restaurant space a la Mizuna?)

2. Develop a phased master plan for the overall site, including development for the surface parking lots included in the current site plan. There’s zero justification for the surface parking lots to remain on the site plan, given the 450-space parking garage included in the first phase. This land would be better put to use in the interim as open space or public parkland; in the future, it should be developed to support the continued growth of the University District. As of now, however, we don’t know when or whether that will happen. This planning and building approval process should include specific planning for these sites.

3. Repave the section of Main Street in front of the Jensen-Byrd Building with brick, and close it to vehicles, to create a more inviting pedestrian landscape and a plaza of sorts for events and special occasions. Even if the street is not closed to vehicles, it would be more vibrant, more interesting, and more programmable if paved with brick. Imagine Friday food truck gardens or Saturday farmers’ markets on this site. Paved with brick, this could become a huge selling point to any potential tenant of the Jensen-Byrd District development.

Overall, these three changes could go a long way toward improving the Jensen-Byrd District plan. It’s unclear what degree of flexibility to public comment the developers will have, but it’s worth a shot. Fortunately, it’s likely that design review will be required for this project. We will share information on public comment when it becomes available.

In the meantime, your best bet to offer feedback for the project is to use the comment form on the development’s website. Be sure to select “other” for the contact category so it’s directed to the right people. Perhaps we can make a difference in improving this project.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: Would these improvements help improve the Jensen-Byrd District plan to make it more future-proof and vibrant? Would you approve of a better connection from the Pedestrian Bridge, given the large amount of public funding going to that project? What about brick paving for Main Ave? Share your thoughts on Facebook, on Twitter, and in the comments below. We love to hear from you!

 

Almost one quarter of downtown Spokane is occupied by surface parking

There are 295 acres of surface parking in Spokane’s urban core.

There are only 1,250 acres of land in the urban core.

That means that 23.6% of all of the land in Spokane’s urban core is occupied solely by the temporary storage of motor vehicles.

If we assume a ridiculously-conservative average density of 25 units per acre, we could infill these parking lots with as many as 7,500 housing units. To put that in perspective, the full build-out of Kendall Yards will include just 1,000 units. (Just 300 housing units have been built in that neighborhood to-date.) Now, not every available block will be occupied by residences; other uses, like office, retail, public squares, civic spaces, are necessary as well. But it’s a useful thought exercise.

This is the next frontier of Spokane development. There’s more space available downtown for redevelopment than three Kendall Yards (which is an 83-acre site). With this much available space, there’s ample opportunity for creativity and innovation in the local development team.

Among other strategies, perhaps we could at the very least compile a comprehensive database of potential infill sites. This database should include information on the ownership of the various parcels, incentives available for redevelopment, and various statistics, like median income in the area, information on available utilities, and nearby amenities. In addition, include information on the planning and development process for these parcels. What type of permit review would be necessary? Would a SEPA application be required? Think of it as a more in-depth version of a site-selector. The result would be a much clearer development picture for developers and investors.

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An obsession with parking is destroying downtown Spokane

The Parkade was the original downtown parking garage. Built to help drive redevelopment during and after Expo 74, the Parkade features a bizarre architectural style and garish, unsightly skywalks, but mercifully, a much better pedestrian environment than the skywalks of today. (And even at the Parkade, it’s not great!) In order for Spokane to succeed, this needs to change. Fast. (PHOTO: roadarch.com)
(Because I know this is going to be a controversial post, let’s just get this out of the way. No, I am not anti-parking. I am, however, opposed to parking which takes no account of the real or perceived impacts of its existence. Parking which holds no regard for public space deserves to be ridiculed.)

Built in 1967 for $3.5 million ($25 million in 2015 dollars), the Parkade was a transformational building for Spokane. With space for nearly 4,000 vehicles, it met the needs of the city during Expo 74, and continued to drive development in the downtown core well into the 1980s. It even included many at-that-time “modern” features, like the skywalks, the entrances, and the sloping floors which have become commonplace in modern parking design. While changes in American automobile buying habits and modifications to the interior of the structure mean that it can now play host to “only” 1,000 cars, the Parkade remains an important anchor to the downtown community.

Importantly, however, the Parkade includes certain features which recently-built parking structures in Spokane conspicuously lack. Amenities like street-front retail (including downtown’s most important retail store, Rite-Aid). A unique (albeit polarizing) architectural style. Wide sidewalks, which in this case are covered, due to the unfortunate skywalk system. There’s even a public plaza on the south side of the structure (which has admittedly seen better days and could use some activation). To be sure, the Parkade is perhaps Spokane’s best-designed parking garage. (That isn’t to say it couldn’t use some investment, but it’s still holding up quite well for a fifty-year-old structure.)

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the parking garages and surface parking lots which have been constructed or proposed since the Parkade’s heyday. Instead, we have been given a patchwork of uninviting, drab, and utilitarian pedestrian environments which do nothing to activate public space and sidewalks. In some areas, such as the area near the railroad viaduct, this has resulted in crime and vandalism. In other areas, such as two parcels on the south side of Spokane Falls Boulevard across from Riverfront Park, surface parking has been allowed to fester where catalytic development would otherwise be possible and incredibly impactful. In still other areas, such as West Main at the Davenport Grand, parking garages have paid no attention to the impact that they have on the pedestrian and even the vehicular environment. The following is a list of sites which have seen (or in one particularly distressing case, will see) decreased potential for urban activation and excitement and a depressing pedestrian environment due to improper parking design. And then we’ll look at a solution.

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What’s the deal with downtown and parking?

Before Walt Worthy’s “Grand Hotel Spokane” broke ground, the Convention Center/INB Performing Arts Center complex had a huge parking crater just across the street. And yet, people still complain that parking is too difficult downtown. Why? (PHOTO: Streetsblog)

If you listen to some people, then downtown Spokane’s mostly paid parking causes all sorts of problems for downtown. The theory goes that a large number of people simply refuse to shop or work or locate businesses downtown because they don’t want to worry about finding a space and paying for parking. While we’ve already shown that downtown already has too much parking, the cost issue may or may not be a fair concern. Most other downtown areas nearby (i.e. Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint, Missoula, etc.) don’t charge for on-street parking, and often even off-street parking is free (i.e. Coeur d’Alene’s McEuen Park, which offers two hours of free parking). But is it a fair criticism? You’re never too far from a metered space in downtown Spokane, and if you park near Kendall Yards, you can get free parking and a beautiful five-minute walk. If you’re looking at off-street parking, our rates are comparatively a steal.

In Seattle, or Portland, or San Francisco, or San Jose, or Los Angeles, you’d be paying at least $15 for a two- or three-hour shopping trip. Here, $5-8 probably is the most you would pay. So why do people here freak out over the very thought of paying a small amount of money to park? Or at the thought of finding a place to park, when we have a great overabundance of parking as it is?

We think that three potential solutions could get more and more people downtown. Any of these three, or a combination, could make a big difference in combatting the negative perception that many Spokanites hold about shopping or working downtown.

1. Create a downtown “parking authority.” Under this scenario, all surface parking and street parking in downtown Spokane would fall under one management structure. The parking authority would be responsible for price setting, enforcement, and the creation of a common marketing scheme. No longer would you worry about whether you are in a City of Spokane, River Park Square, Diamond Parking, Convention Center, or Davenport spot. You’re just in a Spokane spot. Less worries. More convenience.

2. Through strong planning and capital investment, encourage more people to use transit to come downtown. This is a touchy subject as it is, but the fact remains that if you don’t use a car, you don’t even have to worry about parking. Let’s make transit even more convenient than driving. Let’s build out a streetcar, a trolleybus, a light rail. Let’s make bus service more efficient, more predictable, more frequent. Let’s build “stations,” with bulb-outs, highly-designed shelters, and ticket vending machines for off-vehicle ticketing. Currently, “choice” riders avoid STA because it lacks a critical experiential element. Make it more of an “experience,” and perhaps more users will ride downtown.

3. Make it free. Yup. I went there. If both other options were employed to reduce the number of parking spaces demanded, perhaps we could get rid of the meters entirely. It’s not like they provide a massive revenue stream for the City. Those funds could easily be replaced with small adjustments in other areas of the budget. And the vitality effect could be huge as individuals make more excuses to shop downtown. Besides, the positive publicity associated with free parking could be reason alone. Let’s go for it.

What do you think? With a historic parking surplus and significantly lower parking costs than other areas of the country, why are people so paranoid about what seems to amount to a relatively minor issue? Does parking stop you from shopping or working downtown? Do you think free parking or an investment in transit could make a difference? What of the parking authority idea? Share your thoughts on Facebook, on Twitter, in the comments below, or in person. We love to hear from you.

Downtown Spokane’s parking surplus

Surface parking lots take up a considerable portion of downtown Spokane; seen here in red. Green represents Walt Worthy's under-construction Convention Center Hotel. (PHOTO: Google Maps)
Surface parking lots take up a considerable portion of downtown Spokane; seen here in red. Green represents Walt Worthy’s under-construction Convention Center Hotel. This is obviously an imprecise study. (PHOTO: Google Maps)

Look at all that space devoted to the temporary storage of vehicles. And that’s not even all of it! That’s just a small sampling of the surface parking lots located north of the railroad viaduct in downtown Spokane. I’m aware that I missed a few in West Downtown, but this paints a stark picture of an unfortunate reality. Surface parking diminishes urban vitality and wastes valuable space. Structured parking, while more expensive, is also more dense, and can allow for innovative first-floor retail and offices, or residences located above the parking.

In Spokane, speculative buyers have snatched up surface parking lots on prime development sites, knowing that their value will only increase in coming years. But this creates a problem: lots aren’t sold because the owners want too much for them, and developers wouldn’t be able to turn a profit at higher land costs. As a result, we get gridlock. Perhaps the issue could be at least partially solved by creating a public development commission or other authority with the power to buy up underutilized properties and sell them directly to the developers with the strongest and most realistic proposals for the sites. Portland has had tremendous success with this model, revitalizing neighborhood urban districts and breathing fresh life into its downtown area.

One site in particular that we’d like to see developed is the two-block surface parking lot centered at Spokane Falls Boulevard and Stevens (the lot between the Bennett Block and the Liberty Building). The Bennett Block is undergoing a major renovation, and the site seems prime for a residential mixed-use high-rise or two with abundant glass and perhaps One Lakeside-esque balconies. Who wants to make it happen?

What do you think? Does Spokane have too much surface parking? Could our city be better served by building out our parking lots and better economizing space? What about the idea of a public development commission? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, Facebook, and in conversation.