Spokane laps Seattle, legalizes fourplexes across the city

Here’s a selection of duplexes. Each of these housing times is now legal anywhere you can build a single-family home. (PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons)

On Monday night, Spokane City Council adopted a package of interim zoning rules which establish the city as a nationwide leader in re-legalizing housing. After years of debate and task forces and Council hearings and focus groups, it is now legal to build a duplex, a triplex, or a fourplex anywhere you can build a single-family home.

The rules actually go further than the package I briefed earlier in the month, after amendments during the legislative process. When everything shook out, the final package:

  • Allows duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes anywhere you can build a single-family home
  • Removes unit limits on townhomes and rowhomes
  • Reduces the required lot width to 36 feet in single-family (RSF) zones
  • Reduces the minimum lot size for attached homes to 1,280 square feet
  • Decreases and in some cases eliminates parking requirements near transit, and increases bike parking requirements to compensate
  • Allows developers to round up in their density calculations (for example, if calculations yield 5.2 units allowed, you can now build 6 instead of 5)
  • Applies new design standards similar to the city’s standard design requirements to all of these new unit types

It’s a bold, transformational package that forms the biggest change to our city’s Comprehensive Plan framework since it was first adopted in the late 1990s. While growth will still be concentrated in certain areas, it will be allowed across the whole city, which will increase housing diversity in existing neighborhoods, like Garland, West Central, and Lincoln Heights. In the long run, this will improve housing affordability and choice.

While it seemed earlier in the day like it could be a divided vote, the package ultimately passed unanimously (7-0) on a Council generally seen as divided 5-2 between progressives and conservatives.

After an overwhelmingly positive public comment period with just one opponent to the package, a buoyant Council shared their thoughts on the ordinance. CM Cathcart said it would be “one of the most important votes [he] will take on the Council.” CM Bingle noted how “fun” it had been to work on the issue, given the shared understanding among the Council of the fundamental need for more housing. CM Stratton said it was important to “take a chance and try something new,” suggesting that she would regret not taking action, knowing that other things hadn’t worked. 

Even CM Kinnear, who had earlier in the day expressed a desire to limit triplexes and fourplexes to areas near transit and jobs, ultimately came around, saying “we need more housing! I was going to vote no on this, but I realized that we need more housing…I was concerned about the triplexes but if that’s my only issue, I still need to go forward and support this.”

Once it was clear how the vote would land, Council President Beggs took a moment to congratulate the city for its leadership. “When Spokane leads, the state follows,” he said, noting that Spokane led the way with sick and safe leave, “ban the box,” and now with housing.

The interim zoning ordinance is a novel way to pass a significant zoning change, which may be part of the reason we saw such limited opposition. Because the rules were passed in response to the city’s housing emergency, they’ll be in effect for one year before a public hearing this September and ultimately permanent changes to the Comprehensive Plan next year. During the coming year, developers will have an opportunity to “vest” their proposals under these relaxed rules, but all indications so far suggest that permanent rules will be adopted with relative ease.

Over time, assuming these changes stick, you’ll have more housing choice across the city, depending on your preferences and the point in your life. Say you love the Garland District (or perhaps just Little Noodle?), but you don’t want to spend time and money maintaining a lawn. Right now, you wouldn’t have very many options within walking distance of Garland proper. But in the future, maybe you could rent a unit in a triplex and have some space for yourself without the need to do yardwork. Over time, maybe you’ll start a family and decide to purchase a townhouse or a small single-family home nearby. Later, you could even consider downsizing to a single-floor unit in retirement. The idea is that Spokanites will be able to find more housing choices in all neighborhoods across the city.

Of course, none of this is going to happen overnight, which might offer some comfort to community members who fear (inevitable) change. 

But in the long-run, this package—and the change in thinking that it represents—has the potential to dramatically improve housing outcomes across our city. Evidence is abundant that allowing more of these small-scale housing units can improve a neighborhood’s affordability without displacing longtime residents. And as more people live in a neighborhood, transit service tends to improve, healthy food options tend to become more available, and economic mobility even appears to improve. That’s the future to which we can look forward.

With this small step, Spokane has set the standard for Washington on housing reform. Now it’s time for other cities—like Seattle and Tacoma—and ultimately, the legislature, to follow.

City poised to allow missing-middle housing

It’s hard to believe, but this structure houses not one, not two, but three housing units. That means it can house three families on a lot that previously would have only housed one! (PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons)

Support this zoning package!

Want to express your support for this transformational package of zoning reforms? Send a quick note to City Council now.

A version of this piece originally appeared in The Urbanist on July 5.


For years, West Coast cities have been facing a housing emergency, as chronic under-building of housing met massive demand, spurred by good jobs and the high quality of life that we all love. During the pandemic, this challenge has been particularly acute. And now it’s spilling over into second-tier cities.

Spokane is no stranger to this phenomenon. The city’s Housing Action Plan, which was completed a year ago, found that more than 40% of residents were cost-burdened, with housing prices fast outpacing income growth. More recently, renters have been arriving home to massive rent increases, in some cases doubling their rent. And in May, the median home price hit a record $450,000 — a 20% year-over-year increase, and a stunning 55% increase over the past two years. 

These trends are not sustainable, and it’s one of the reasons I and many of my fellow advocates have been calling (in some cases for years or even decades) for massive zoning reform and better renter protections. Evidence is abundant that allowing more of these small-scale housing units can improve a neighborhood’s affordability without displacing longtime residents.

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In its original formation, missing middle housing types ranging from duplexes to small apartment buildings. (Credit: Opticos Design)

Now, finally, key Spokane leaders announced their intention to finally do something about it — and do something bold. 

City Council President Breean Beggs, Mayor Nadine Woodward, and Councilmember Michael Cathcart proposed a pilot program which would allow, for at least the next year, “missing middle” housing on a broad scale. Mirroring the model championed by Representative Jessica Bateman (Olympia) in the legislature, this package would, among other actions:

  • Allow duplexes citywide;
  • Allow triplexes and fourplexes within a quarter-mile of all frequent transit lines and a half-mile of all Centers and Corridors zones (essentially Spokane’s version of an urban village);
  • Remove unit limits on townhouses;
  • Reduce the required lot width to 36 feet in most residential single family (RSF) zones;
  • Reduce the minimum lot size for attached homes to 1,280 square feet; and
  • Apply design standards similar to the city’s standard design requirements to all of these new unit types.

This has the potential to become the most transformative package of zoning reforms since the city’s “Centers and Corridors” plan concentrated development in an urban village framework. If adopted, it would create options to live in triplexes or fourplexes in parts of almost all neighborhoods across the city. Many of these neighborhoods previously allowed these housing options, or feature these options as “non-conforming,” often low-quality units. This would relegalize them and also go a long way toward improving housing quality. 

Even better, City staff and the Plan Commission have been doing the legwork behind the scenes (through a program called “Shaping Spokane Housing”) to improve the residential development code to make these reforms meaningful. These amendments address issues like lot size transitions, dimensional standards, design rules and parking requirements for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and townhomes, and short plats (lot divisions). Too many cities have neglected these in the weeds issues in their housing work, but many of them were adopted by Council on Monday.

The before and after, if this program passes, could dramatically improve housing choice across almost every neighborhood in the city.

Here’s how this “pilot program” will work.

First, the City Council will adopt an interim zoning ordinance sometime in July to apply these changes for the next year. While passage is not guaranteed, the announcement of this program cut across key divisions on the City Council and elected leadership, and most Councilmembers have expressed a willingness to try allowing additional density in existing neighborhoods.

Second, a one-year window begins in which the new zoning rules would be in place. During this time, developers (or homeowners!) would have an opportunity to “vest” their proposals under this more permissive code. At the same time, City staff and planners will begin community outreach for the adoption of permanent rules along these lines. A public hearing is expected in September. Staff will also collect feedback from developers and community stakeholders on how well the new rules are working, and any potential necessary tweaks.

Finally, by next summer, Spokane City Council is expected to adopt permanent updates to the Comprehensive Plan and development code based on findings from the pilot.

This novel adoption pathway in some way eases the path to long-term allowance for additional missing-middle housing. In particular, it might help assuage the concerns of some neighborhood groups, by proving that the risk of swift, major change is vanishingly slim. But it also raises the stakes on City leadership to get it right. It is critical that staff gathers feedback carefully, and not just from loud voices. It needs to hear from property developers, from renters, from housing advocates, from young people, from businesses which would benefit from more customers, and from homeowners ready to downsize who would gladly take a unit in a fourplex on their property if a developer offered. 

In the next year, Spokane has an opportunity to take a massive leap forward on housing choice. It will be up to us to make sure it sticks.

Support this zoning package!

Want to express your support for this transformational package of zoning reforms? Send a quick note to City Council now.

Downtown stadium questions remain unanswered

Downtown stadium proponents released a new, glossy set of renderings for their proposal. The stadium would be built north of The Podium near the Spokane Arena.

A version of this piece originally appeared in the April 2021 edition of Spokane-Coeur d’Alene Living magazine. Subscribe at spokanecda.com.


The proposal for a downtown stadium has returned, and by all accounts the School Board is in a sprint as it makes a choice between the downtown option and continuing down its path of replacing Joe Albi Stadium at the Albi site.

It’s hard to believe that the downtown stadium proposal was first mooted almost three years ago. Back then, advocates proposed a five-thousand-seat stadium north of the under-construction sportsplex to house high school athletics, a minor-league soccer team, and other events. The proposal deserves more scrutiny now, in light of the coronavirus-induced downturn and a worsening local housing affordability crisis. It also deserves more scrutiny for the simple fact that it would be located downtown, on some of the most prime real estate in eastern Washington.

Unfortunately, most of the questions raised years ago remain unanswered today.

Continue reading “Downtown stadium questions remain unanswered”

Spotted: Renderings of a 21-story East End tower

Who knows if this is a real proposal, or if the current concept still looks like this, but I spotted this set of renderings for a 21-story tower on the East End of downtown on Main Street. The dramatic tower draws on the historic Paulsen Building and others downtown, but adds structural steel and glass, as well as a striking green facade. Located on the current site of Cruz Custom Boots and the former Riff dive bar, and on the north side of the block which will soon host the 206 W Riverside apartment building, this property is currently owned by the Cruz family, which apparently commissioned the sketches.

Spokane-based ALSC produced the images, which it notes illustrate a 185,000 square foot retail, office, and residential building. ALSC further notes that the concept exceeds current zoning regulations, which is unsurprising given the generally low- to mid-rise character of the area.

Who knows their level of interest, commitment, and financing available to this project, or whether it will come to fruition. (We do know that the Cruz family may be looking for nearby retail space for a development office and preview center.) But the visuals sure are striking.

BRT considered along North Division

BRT stations like this could be coming to north Division. SRTC is studying major land use and transportation changes along the corridor.

The Spokane Regional Transportation Council has partnered with WSDOT, the City of Spokane, Spokane County, and Spokane Transit Authority on a major transportation and land use study along the North Division corridor. The Division Connects project is analyzing the future of transit along the corridor, with the US-395 North Spokane Corridor set for completion in nine years.

The project’s key objectives include:

  • Identifying a preferred concept for bus rapid transit (BRT) along North Division.
  • Developing options for all modes within the corridor, including pedestrian and bicycling improvements.
  • Identifying opportunities for land use improvements.
  • Recommending capital project implementation plans to fund improvements.

The first phase of work involved production of a “State of the Corridor” report, which was completed in late spring 2020 and reviewed the existing travel patterns and land use patterns along North Division. It mapped the existing streetscapes along the corridor, travel times, transit ridership, and transit reliability.

The second phase, underway now, is analyzing four scenarios for possible streetscape improvements to accommodate BRT, bicyclists, and pedestrians. Let’s dive deep into the weeds.

Continue reading “BRT considered along North Division”

139 units coming to West Riverside

A local developer has filed for building permits on a new, six-story apartment building on the site of a former Umpqua Bank branch at 206 W Riverside in downtown Spokane. The project would feature 139 one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments and 63 parking spaces, plus amenity space and possible retail at the ground level. The $22 million project is located along the City Line bus rapid transit line and the planned Riverside protected bike lane, which should make it appealing for students at the University District and those using alternative mobility options. Unfortunately, because the City does not require the inclusion of affordable units as part of new developments, there are no assurances that rent will be attainable for our local workforce.

The former Umpqua Bank property has been vacant for many years, and has been subject to significant speculation about its future, particularly after it was purchased by developer Kevin Edwards for $1.4 million in 2019. The pending building permits would expire in August, so we should expect this project to get underway before the end of the summer.

The city’s Design Review Board, which provides comment and guidance to developers and architects on major projects, recommended the development at a meeting in December. Seattle architect GGLO, which worked on many of the most notable multifamily and office projects in Seattle, designed the project, and Bouten Construction of Spokane will be the builder.

City explores car-first changes on 37th

In the 1980s, the City of Spokane began acquiring property for a project known as the Ray-Freya Crossover. These properties are generally still held by the City.

In 2017, the City Council wisely removed a South Hill project known as the Ray-Freya Crossover from the city’s 6-year Arterial Street Plan and the Comprehensive Plan. The project, which was sharply criticized by the community, would have created a new arterial connecting Ray and Freya through Ferris High School, and had been proposed in various forms since the 1980s.

In a compromise with City traffic engineers, the City Council funded a project analyzing car-oriented traffic alternatives to the project. That study is now underway, and we have our first look at the suggestions.

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We must (gradually) defund the Spokane Police Department

The unjust killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department has rightly caused a groundswell of anger and frustration across the United States, which has manifested itself through at least 350 large, peaceful demonstrations in all 50 states. Protesters have expressed a variety of demands, but fundamentally, they center the right of black, brown, and indigenous Americans to exist in public space without fear or terrorization.

As we saw with Amy Cooper’s racist 9-1-1 call in New York, public space is inherently racialized. It’s our job as urbanists to advocate for fundamental change.

Spokane is not at all immune to these challenges. Spokane Police Department has a long-standing history of violence and unjust use of force, and continues to disproportionately use force in low-income neighborhoods and against black, brown, indigenous, and disabled Spokanites. Our community has been advocating for reform and change for years.

And yet, just months ago, an officer knelt on a citizen’s neck during an arrest in a similar manner to the way that former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. The Spokane Police Guild continues to hamstring independent oversight, and last year, members of the department shouted death threats at a citizen during an arrest. And that’s just a start.

Clearly, long-standing calls for change have not been enough. We need to dramatically recommit to the cause of abolition and decarceration right here in Spokane. In this short piece, I’ve collected a few ways we could get started.

Continue reading “We must (gradually) defund the Spokane Police Department”

The future of Spokane depends on your vote

Upward view of U.S. Pavilion in Spokane's Riverfront Park, with rainbow-colored light show.
The fantastic U.S. Pavilion and the rest of Riverfront Park only came about because we believed in our city. Future successes will depend on our ability to keep moving forward, even in spite of obstacles. (PHOTO: City of Spokane)

I started writing this blog back in 2014. Spokane Rising started primarily as a way to maintain my connection to home while I was away at school, but I also wanted to fill a gap in coverage of the legitimately exciting things that were going on across the city.

STA was in the middle of a conversation over its Moving Forward plan. The Bartlett, an aspirational music venue which recently announced its coming closure, had just opened its doors. Kendall Yards was just getting underway. And Avista was putting the finishing touches on Huntington Park, which felt like a total revelation. It’s wild to think about where we were as a city five years ago, when I started the blog, versus where we are now. Let’s just say we are rising.

Continue reading “The future of Spokane depends on your vote”

Spokane needs compassion and social justice, not a “cure”

Homelessness is indeed more visible in Spokane, but we don’t need a “cure”––we just need compassionate, social-urbanist policies. (PHOTO: City of Spokane)

On Thursday, local developer Larry Stone (who is leading a project called The Falls on the former YWCA site on the North Bank) released a bad “Seattle is Dying” knockoff called “Curing Spokane.” Among other things, it calls for the sale of Spokane’s landmark transit center, a new jail, and free parking downtown.

The video is so distasteful and offensive that it really isn’t worth a response.

But because it offers “solutions” which not only don’t fit Spokane’s context, but also wouldn’t actually address homelessness, I think it’s worth asking what a social-urbanist response to our current homelessness crisis might look like. Follow along after the jump to explore some compassionate solutions that would dignify human life and offer all Spokanites––regardless of income or housing status-–an opportunity to thrive.

Continue reading “Spokane needs compassion and social justice, not a “cure””