Since the earliest days of human settlement in the inland Northwest, the region has marked a critical juncture between conflicting forces. In a dramatic fashion, it is here that the dry, barren desert of the Great Basin comes together with the ponderosa pines and snowcapped peaks of the Selkirks. It was here that some of the earliest settlers of the Oregon Territory clashed with the Native peoples who had called this region home for hundreds and hundreds of years. It was here that David Thompson established the first long-term European settlement in what would become Washington state, noting the critical crossroads at which the area lies. It was here that one of the most important railroad centers in the entire western United States decided with Expo ’74 that it wanted something new, something fresh, something better. Indeed, the history of the inland Northwest is positively littered with critical transitions, crossroads, changes, conflicts. They’ve challenged us, renewed us, torn us down, and built us up. They’ve made us what we are.
Well, today, Spokane lies at one such critical crossroads in its history.
On Monday, David Condon vetoed the City Council’s creative vesting loophole closure. This ordinance would have put the extension of vital services like water, sewer, roads and infrastructure to “vested” developments on hold in the event that an appeal is filed with the state’s Growth Management Board over an Urban Growth Area (UGA) expansion. This means, essentially, that any disputes about the expansion of the UGA would have to be resolved before the City of Spokane provides services.
It seemed like a common-sense move. Wait until the expansion is ruled valid to extend services. Simple. Easy. Straightforward. Condon even argued in opposition to the expansion of the UGA in a 2013 letter to the Spokane County Commissioners, stating quite bluntly that “existing and new taxpayers are burdened by the costs of extending and maintaining extra miles of roads, utility lines, pipes, pump stations and general urban services.” As the Inlander‘s Luke Baumgarten argued in a great piece on Tuesday, Condon knows this. He’s well aware of the costs. So why did he veto the ordinance? We may never have a complete answer, although the campaign contributions of the Spokane Home Builders’ Association may provide some clues.
Still, the reason doesn’t really matter. The more important point is that this move represents more of the same for Spokane. More single-family subdivisions whose cookie-cutter homes sit on the market for six months to a year before selling for significantly less than the asking price. More empty, uninspired, and low-budget strip malls. More surface parking, more Walgreen’s. More McDonald’s, more Target, more big-box, less pasture. Same ol’, same ol’, same ol’. As always. Luckily, there’s a growing well of discontent with sameness. With a greater awareness of the depth of our city’s crime problem thanks to social media, many are concerned about crime, safety, and aggressive policing. Neighborhood activists have begun organizing in support of stronger, more effective land use guidelines and code enforcement. Kendall Yards illustrates the possibilities that can arise when we eschew conventional development styles. Still, the unemployed and the chronically underemployed lament the lack of available highly-paying jobs, and our brightest high school seniors continue to flee Spokane in order to escape to what they perceive to be greener pastures.
Our city deserves better.
There was a period around 2006 when it seemed that everything was going Spokane’s way. We were frequently listed as a “best place” to live, raise kids, play outdoors, start a business, own a home…the list goes on and on. Our 100-block WiFi HotZone was often mentioned in profiles of our city, and it seemed that every other week a developer was proposing a condo tower downtown. It truly seemed that we were on the verge of something great.
We all know what happened next.
The burst of the housing bubble and the resulting economic crash crippled our region’s job market and halted dozens of the large-scale developments that were supposed to start turning Spokane around. The Ridpath closed. WSU Spokane slowed construction at the University District. Marshall Chesrown’s vision of Kendall Yards was abandoned. The East Sprague revitalization project never really got started. The Vox Tower. The Gateway Office Building. The Sprague/Appleway Corridor “City Center” designation. Even the hotel at 3rd and Division. Each of these projects and dozens of others was scuttled by a poor economy, a stagnant vision, and austerity city and state budgets that, while necessary, may have slowed our recovery.
Now, six years removed from the height of the recession, our ego is still bruised. Our confidence, our courage, our conviction has not recovered. We fear rejection, we fear failure, we fear getting it wrong. We fear disappointment. Instead, we’re content with anything. Indifferent. Whatever. Do what you want and I’ll do likewise.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that, faced with the challenge of confronting a global economic meltdown and maintaining forward progress on livability and urban development, Spokane has regressed into the behaviors of “deadness” and “emptiness” and indifference that characterized the years well prior to the 2000 River Park Square remodel or the 1974 World’s Fair. Indifference may allow you to “get by,” by it isn’t whole. It isn’t real, authentic. It isn’t living.
We will be capable of so much more once we open our eyes and see the possibilities around us and get back up again. Spokane remains one of the most desirable cities in the West. Our climate truly mixes four distinct seasons with a flair for the delightfully unexpected. Our recreational opportunities are nearly endless. From walking, running, and biking the Centennial Trail to skiing and snowboarding the beautiful Selkirks. From backpacking the Colville National Forest to kayaking on the Spokane River, and from stand-up paddle boarding Lake Coeur d’Alene to camping in huckleberry picking in Mt. Spokane State Park and everything in between, it’s all here. We have one of the most beautiful downtown rivers anywhere in the world, and it’s topped off with a truly spectacular urban oasis in Riverfront Park. Despite the painfully slow rate of investment, we have some super cool neighborhoods in South Perry and Garland, and a fresh one in Kendall Yards. We have four incredible universities, including last year’s number-one ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs. Unlike many cities of our size, we have a low cost of living and an abundance of reasonably-priced housing. Our healthcare services are world-class, and they will be further bolstered with the addition of a full-time medical school in the University District.
Stated like this, our city sounds like a Bend, a Provo, a Boise, or even maybe an early Portland. (Those cities have succeeded in recent years by enacting strong land use guidelines and encouraging infill through development incentives and even more direct processes like redevelopment agencies.) And some industrious minds are starting to take notice. Quirky and hipster-ish venues are starting to pop up around Spokane. There’s Fellow Co-Working, the shared office space has attracted attention recently as a new model for our city. There’s the Bartlett, our beautiful new music venue, and Ink, the collaborative art space next door. I think of places like the Yards Bruncheon and events like Terrain. Things that wouldn’t be possible unless someone recognized that there’s potential here. More potential than most people seem to realize. If people knew what Spokane has!
Which leads us back to Condon’s decision on Monday and what makes it so troubling. The veto ensures that Spokane remains indifferent. Without the vesting loophole closure, Spokane and its suburbs will continue to sprawl out toward Deer Park and Coeur d’Alene, further spreading already-thin services and ensuring that a different vision for development in this city, namely infill on existing brownfields and underdeveloped land, will not even see the light of day. We will continue to spend millions of dollars to extend utilities and upgrade infrastructure when we could be better maintaining our existing system and growing where these services already exist. We will continue on the path toward mediocrity and sprawl, and our economy will suffer as a result.
Luckily, there’s a better, brighter future possible that will ensure that Spokane’s economy remains strong in the long-term, further enhance our quality of life, and empower our neighborhoods in our planning processes. It’s time for a community-wide, broad coalition of individuals and groups to come together in a common planning process to envision what we see our community becoming. Where we see our city in five, ten, twenty, fifty years. What will it look like? How will people get around? What will they do? Where will they work? Play? Live? We should be answering these questions constantly and amongst large and diverse populations.
We should be incentivizing infill by looking at creating a Public Development Commission or other body that would have power and the political and economic clout to buy up underused property and sell it to developers who share the community’s vision. We should be removing incentives to sprawl by increasing traffic impact fees in select areas and refusing building permits if they do not meet the guidelines set forth in the Spokane Municipal Code, the Spokane Comprehensive Plan, and in many cases, Centers and Corridors.
We should be empowering our neighborhoods by notifying them within 72 hours of development proposals that have been submitted within their boundaries, and then involving them in the process, especially in cases where the developers have made specific agreements in consultation with the neighborhood, as in the Southgate District. We should be engaging in neighborhood-scale planning and then enforcing those documents with the full power of the Spokane Municipal Code, and punishing noncompliance.
Let’s Do It
That’s not radical. That’s not absurd. It’s vision. It’s leadership. In many cases where the policy has not matched the implementation, in fact, it’s law. Sure, it will take some courage, confidence, and conviction. Certainly we’ll have to get off the ground and recognize that we are worth it. We are worth talking about, worth exchanging ideas about, worth dreaming about, worth envisioning a brighter future for. But it’s time for some action. Is Spokane ready to rise to the challenge?