To incentivize redevelopment, City explores increasing height limits near Riverfront Park

Current building code allows for buildings along Spokane Falls Boulevard with roughly this “maximum building envelope”––in other words, the largest a building can possibly be built on these sites. (PHOTO: City of Spokane)

In the early 1970s, in the lead-up to Expo 74, civic leaders in Spokane decided to make a major change to downtown. In addition to relocating the railyards off of what became Riverfront Park, business groups and planners demolished broad swaths of heritage buildings on West Trent, then Spokane’s “skid row.” To distance the area from its seedy past, the street running through it was renamed “Spokane Falls Boulevard.” The short-term vision was to provide an ample amount of parking for the swarms of regional and international visitors who would soon descend on downtown, with future opportunities on the sites to be determined. Naturally, these plans never materialized.

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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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It’s time to bring a German-style Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market) to Spokane

weihnachtsmarkt-annaberg
In much of northern Europe, the Weihnachtsmarkt (German for “Christmas Market”) has become not just a tradition, but a cultural institution. Imagine a Christmas Market in Spokane alongside Winter Glow and a revitalized, newly urbanized ice skating rink. (PHOTO: Grenzenloses Erzgebirge)

The launch of the Facebook page of the Spokane Chinese Lantern Festival got me thinking about the different types of cultural events that would fit Spokane in the future. Not long ago, it was difficult to imagine these types of festivals taking place in our city. But with the rise in popularity of Craft Beer Week, Inlander Restaurant Week, Terrain and Bazaar, the Spokane Winter Glow Spectacular, and now the Chinese Lantern Festival, it’s not hard to see bright possibilities for the future. Personally, I think Spokane needs to next develop its winter offerings to include a German-style Christmas Market.

In Germany, even small villages host Weihnachtsmarkten. Vendors sell hand-crafted goods, like ornaments, gifts, and toys. Typically, there’s fresh local food available, like wursts, kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes), and other delicacies. Oh, and the glühwein (mulled wine) flows generously. Imagine how a small- to medium-sized Christmas Market could work in Spokane. I could see it taking place near the Rotary Fountain in Riverfront Park, to complement the soon-to-move ice skating rink in the Gondola Meadow and Spokane Winter Glow Spectacular, the large winter lights show. While open container laws would likely put a damper on any plans to allow patrons to roam freely with mulled wine, perhaps a wine garden (weingarten?) could be established. Or maybe a waiver of the open container law could be granted for this specific event, as has occurred in other cities.

Either way, a Christmas Market would be a really cool way for downtown Spokane to continue to distinguish itself during the holiday season. There’s even the possibility of adding a Spokane-esque twist, like curated booths a la Bazaar, or maybe a way to include winter-releases from local craft breweries. With eight months to go, perhaps something could even happen this year. Let’s make it happen.

What are your thoughts? What cultural festivals would you like to see take place in Spokane? Do you think a Christmas Market would be a good addition to downtown Spokane during the holiday season? What other new attractions would you like to see this Christmas?

Idea #24: Convert Main Avenue to a Pedestrian Mall

The Church Street Marketplace in downtown Burlington, Vermont was originally conceived in 1958 and constructed in 1980. In the time since, it has been recognized time and again as a prime example of good urban design for public space. It’s managed by a public commission. (PHOTO: vermont.org)

I must admit that this is an idea that’s been gnawing at me for some time. It struck me last June during Terrain’s Bazaar, which was taking place on Wall Street between Main Avenue and Spokane Falls Boulevard, then grew on me during my time in Germany this past fall. In many of Europe’s cities, the central avenue in the city center is closed to vehicles. The result is a much more pedestrian-centered experience with a vibrant, exciting city life. What if we took this same logic and applied it to downtown Spokane?

Let’s convert Main Avenue between Lincoln Street and Bernard Street into a pedestrian mall.

At first glance, this may seem like a radical idea. Why would we want to convert six city blocks into a limited access, pedestrian-only experience? Why would we want to restrict vehicular access? The answer, of course, is vibrancy. The on-street experience would be greatly enhanced by the addition of new street trees, new public gathering places and amenities, and pedestrian-specific features. Imagine farmers’ markets, food trucks, flash mobs, and handicraft vendors all gathering in one place downtown. Imagine winter carolers and summer gallery openings. And imagine it all being outside of the control of the Cowles family, which recently proposed to take 17 feet of public right of way at the Wall Street pseudo-“pedestrian mall” for a “mystery national retailer.”

The prospect is tantalizing. But it would require a concerted effort at programming. A public commission or non-profit board a la the Seattle Center’s management structure or that of Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square would work well. And we’ll have to work on finding solutions to the traffic problem (especially cross-traffic on Stevens and Washington) as well. But we can do it. We can replace lost parking, improve traffic flow downtown, and build a vibrant community all at the same time. So let’s get behind a pedestrian on Main Avenue. Let’s make it happen.

What do you think? Do you support the idea for a pedestrian mall on Main Avenue? Do you think it could spur investment along that street, where parking lots have languished undeveloped for years and years? What would you like to see programmed at a pedestrian mall downtown? Share your thoughts below in the comments, on Facebook, on Twitter, or in person. We love to hear from you.

Huntington Park and City Plaza officially open to the public

Downtown Spokane is known nationwide for the Spokane Falls. With Avista's Huntington Park, the falls become more accessible (and beautiful!) than ever before. (PHOTO: Avista Utilities)
Downtown Spokane is known nationwide for the Spokane Falls. With Avista’s Huntington Park, the falls become more accessible (and beautiful!) than ever before. (PHOTO: Avista Utilities)

After almost a year of construction, last Friday, Huntington Park and City Plaza officially opened to the public. The new park and plaza, funded by Avista Utilities as a gift to the city in its 125th Anniversary Year, offer an up-close and personal view of the Spokane Falls. Featuring refurbished staircases, a new grassy area, and a shelter of sorts, the park is a marked improvement from its previous iteration. Even better, it offers a clearer entrance area: the soon-to-be-christened City Plaza offers an amphitheater-like area, a direct connection to Riverfront Park, and clear entry to the entire complex that doesn’t make it feel like you’re trespassing.

Perhaps more than anything else, Huntington Park offers a tantalizing vision of what Spokane’s future could look like with a potential full renovation of Riverfront Park, additional shoreline and river access improvements, and direct trail connections through the Centennial Trail and Kendall Yards. And we can’t help but notice that this park with dramatically increase property values for the Post Street Substation/Washington Water Power Building and City Hall. Perhaps it’s time for Avista to relocate the substation and turn it into loft condos? Better yet, perhaps the City could swap City Hall with a developer willing to build a residential tower. Anything to get more residents downtown!

Huntington Park and City Plaza are certainly the types of projects that will get them there.

What do you think? Have you visited Huntington Park yet? Would you buy a loft condo in the Washington Water Power Building? Do you think City Hall should relocate and sell to a developer?

Downtown Spokane Partnership Proposes to Gut Library, Insert Retail

In today’s list of weird news, it looks like the Downtown Spokane Partnership is in very early discussions about the possibility of selling off and moving downtown’s Public Library in attempt to create more retail space. The news broke in the Inlander on Saturday, and the proposal is already drawing an extremely negative response on social media.

Downtown Spokane Partnership President Mark Richard says that the downtown area has had to turn down major national retailers due to the dearth of available large-scale commercial/retail real estate. “They’ve had to turn down H&M and other larger prospects downtown because we don’t have the space to provide them,” Richard said to the Inlander. River Park Square is indeed thriving, but so is the library; according to the spokesman of the Spokane Public Library, Eva Silverstone, 22,000 people per month use the downtown branch, with usage up year-over-year. Contrary to popular reports, the library is not fading, growing ever more popular with each passing month.

Still, downtown needs more retail space, and there are few good options. Mobius, the new(er) science center located across from Nordstrom, could move into a new space as it has been struggling in its current site. But that would only open up space for maybe one large-format retailer, like H&M. Riverside, Spokane’s historical “Main Street,” could be used to open up additional retail, with connections via Post, but unless a lot of retail opens both on Post and on Riverside at once, I can’t see people opting to walk two blocks out of the way just for one store.

My vote? Go all out. Demolish (or extensively remodel) the Macy’s Building and complete the Bennett Block redevelopment project as soon as possible. Then add an 8-12 story mixed use building next door on the current Diamond Parking lot. Finally, develop Riverside as a new retail node upon completion of those projects. (How would you add significant new retail opportunities to downtown? Comment below!)

It may seem like overkill, but indications from mall leadership are to the contrary. “If I had another two blocks of street front we would [still] be full,” Bryn West, the general manager of River Park Square told the Inlander last fall.

We’ll keep covering this story as it develops.