City Council working on changes to Centers and Corridors guidelines

In the South Perry District, Wollnick’s and Perry Street Brewing offer an upscale, but properly-scaled experience for the neighborhood. South Perry is zoned CC1 under Spokane’s innovative “Centers and Corridors” guidelines. (PHOTO: Amy Graff)

Introduction

There’s a great book written by Jeffrey L. Pressman and Aaron Wildavsky called Implementation. It’s a dense read, used mostly by upper-division undergraduate and graduate students in political science and public policy, but more than any other text, it does an excellent job of explaining how policy so often becomes divorced from its implementation. In it, Pressman and Wildavsky argue that such a separation can cause policy failure.

Spokane’s dealing with such a problem right now. Enter the official City of Spokane document entitled Initial Design Standards and Guidelines for Centers and Corridors.

The document, published almost exactly twelve years ago, in August of 2002, attempts to set forth the types of buildings and developments that would be allowed under Centers and Corridors zoning. For example, it notes that “new development should not have only parking between buildings and the street,” and that “drive-through [lanes] shall not be located between the building and any adjacent street,” among numerous other standards.

A Primer on Centers and Corridors

It’s important to first note that three separate zoning types comprise Centers and Corridors in the Spokane Comprehensive Plan. The most restrictive (and yet also the most exciting), CC1, consists of areas where new development must be designed to be “pedestrian-oriented, automobile accommodating.” These areas, such as Hamilton, Monroe, South Perry, and Garland, comprise some of Spokane’s most up-and-coming neighborhoods and districts. Under CC2, new development must be designed to be “pedestrian-enhanced, automobile accommodating.” These areas, such as 29th and Regal and parts of Southgate, are targeted for CC1-style growth under less restrictive guidelines. Finally, there’s CC3, which allows areas which are zoned under different zoning standards to take advantage of the unique opportunities set forth in CC1 and CC2.

Should or Shall?

Notice that on page 2 of the Initial Design Standards document, a great deal of time is spent explaining whether specific statements represent mandatory guidelines for new development within CC1 and CC2 zones

Some of the guidelines contained in this document use the word “shall” while others use the word “should.” Regardless of which term is used, each guideline must be addressed by an applicant. The City will expect to see how the design of a project has responded to every one of the guidelines. The “shall” statements, with such wording, are absolutely mandatory and offer relatively little flexibility unless choices are provided within the statement itself. All projects must include these elements as described. However, guidelines that use the word “should” are meant to be applied, but with some flexibility.

The text makes very clear that “the “shall” statements…are absolutely mandatory.” Despite this, a McDonald’s was built in the Logan District’s Hamilton Corridor which blatantly and categorically violates the standard described above. In the Southgate District on the upper South Hill, Dave Black was allowed to build a Target store which followed just 21% the “shall” statements included in the Spokane Comprehensive Plan, the Spokane Municipal Code, and the 2009 Developers’ Agreements for the site. All across the city, developers are turning a blind eye to the Initial Design Standards, and the city’s own planning director and staff are allowing them. Which brings us to today.

Potential for Action

Today, we learned via Twitter that Councilwoman Amber Waldref is working on a proposal which would revamp the Initial Design Standards and Guidelines for Centers and Corridors document. Among the possible changes being considered? New language emphasizing housing of greater density, transit, and on-street parking. In addition, numerous instances of the word “should” would switch to “shall,” in theory making blatant code violation more difficult. I shared a brief Twitter exchange on the topic today.

The Problem: Divorced Policy and Implementation

Here’s the problem with Waldref’s (admittedly sincere and well-intentioned) proposal: it fails to recognize that even right now, Spokane Planning & Development Services is egregiously violating even the “shall” statements set forth in Initial Design Standards. Making a few changes to the document isn’t going to stop the executive branch from ignoring it. In essence, the problem calls back to Pressman and Wildavsky’s book. The policy and the implementation are divorced.

In order to policy to be successful, the mechanisms for its implementation must be written it directly. In other words, instead of focusing solely on changing the design standards to make them more restrictive, Councilwoman Waldref should also propose an enforcement mechanism to ensure that the standards are followed. Otherwise, the rules still have no teeth.

How to Fix Centers and Corridors

How, then, might we do that? Ideally, in addition to a general revamping of the design standards, the body would propose a new way to ensure that those standards are followed. Luckily, City Council has a number of options at its disposal. For example, it could create a more robust plan review process, perhaps incorporating Design Review into every major new project. Unfortunately, the current process is rather limited. It only occurs for relatively major projects, and its recommendations are just that: recommendations. If the Design Review Board’s suggestions were binding, the body would have more authority to ensure that Centers and Corridors zoning is not usurped.

Alternatively, the City Council could set steep penalties for failure to comply with the regulation, and then designate a body for code enforcement. Under this scenario, code enforcement would become a proactive priority within the City of Spokane, rather than relying on a complaint-driven, reactive system. Any new development found in violation of the standards would be forced to pay a fine.

Finally, the City Council could strip the Director of Planning & Development Services of the ability to approve or deny projects and place it in the hands of an employee not appointed by the executive (read: mayor) or in the hands of the Design Review Board or other planning commission.

A Populist Appeal

None of those suggestions are radical. In fact, these suggestions should be seen as a sort of populist appeal to the masses. Because they are guided by a simple idea: that policymakers and decisionmakers shouldn’t be able to give back-room deals and giveaways to developers or cronies. Our development as a city depends on strong, decisive, and well-reasoned plan review dedicated to impartiality and an unwavering commitment to the rules, guidelines, and standards that have been set forth in the Comprehensive Plan. We can commit to honesty, transparency, and independence in plan review. In development. We shouldn’t let the Spokane Homebuilders’ Association boss us around. Our Comprehensive Plan matters. Our Municipal Code matters. It’s time we acted like it.

What do you think? How can we ensure that Centers and Corridors zoning stays true to its intent of creating walkable, livable, vibrant urban neighborhoods and districts? Can substantial policy change be made by the City Council? Or do we need a change of leadership in the Mayor’s Office? Finally, why can’t the implementation of Centers and Corridors be built into the document itself? Share your thoughts on Facebook, on Twitter, and in person. We love to hear from you.