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.

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.

Everyone should be able to live downtown

Buder Haven and the Marilee––two “housing first” developments designed for people experiencing chronic homelessness––show that downtown is the perfect place for affordable housing. So why aren’t we building more of it? (PHOTO: Architexure Photography)

Downtown Spokane is, unquestionably, the most desirable place to live in the city. Between one of the nation’s most beautiful urban parks, our region’s highest Walkscores, stellar transit access, and excellent dining, shopping, and entertainment, it’s not surprising that people want to live in the core. And in recent years, rental and ownership prices for downtown- or downtown-adjacent housing has reflected this reality.

Continue reading “Everyone should be able to live downtown”

Otis Hotel renovation moves forward

After lying vacant for more than a decade following a botched condominium plan, the Otis Hotel is set to reopen…as a hotel. (PHOTO: Spokane Historic Preservation Office)

It’s hard to believe that the Otis Hotel has already been vacant for more than ten years. But indeed, the former SRO hotel (which also went variously by names like Willard, Atlantic, Milner, and Earle) closed its doors to more than 200 low-income residents on September 1, 2007. In the time since, the Great Recession scuttled condominium plans and a tangled ownership structure complicated multiple bids at renovation.

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Four new luxury lofts join downtown residential roster above Nudo and Fire

Four new luxury housing units have been added above Nudo and Fire on West Sprague in downtown Spokane. (PHOTO: Tony Roslund/HDG Architecture)

In terms of number of units, it’s not a very large addition, but four luxury, high-design new housing units have been added above Nudo and Fire at 820 W Sprague in downtown Spokane.

On paper, this development might not seem notable, especially due to its small size and luxury price tag. But it seemed worthy of sharing, mainly due to its beautiful design. Architects and interior designers at HDG Architecture have crafted a luxurious set of modern, airy spaces which exude all of the sophistication you would expect of a big city, without losing the authenticity, character, and charm of Spokane. And of course, this being HDG, there are some special flourishes which befit their status as one of our region’s most recognizable design firms.

Jump after the break for more photos and details.

Continue reading “Four new luxury lofts join downtown residential roster above Nudo and Fire”

College Avenue Apartments quietly rise just north of Kendall Yards

College Avenue Apartments, designed by Spokane-based HDG Architecture, will include 27 new apartment units. (PHOTO: HDG Architecture)

Just north of Kendall Yards, a new apartment building, the College Avenue Apartments, is rising out of a former vacant lot. Located on the 1300 block of College Avenue, this high-design building will feature 27 apartment units totaling roughly 33,000 square feet. Designers at HDG Architecture say that a strict budget resulted in a clean, simple design for this wood-framed development. And indeed, constructing the building to the street and including bike racks and other pedestrian-oriented amenities will certainly be appreciated in this urban environment.

We visited the site on Sunday, and have construction progress photos below.

Continue reading “College Avenue Apartments quietly rise just north of Kendall Yards”

Could Spokane land Amazon’s second headquarters?

Over the past decade, South Lake Union in Seattle has developed into essentially an entire neighborhood centered primarily around Amazon and its employees. With the announcement that the e-commerce firm would like to set up a second headquarters, could Spokane be a competitive option? (PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday morning, Amazon announced that it would seek proposals from communities for a second headquarters, roughly equal in size to its South Lake Union campus, to be developed somewhere in North America. The e-commerce giant, which recently completed its purchase of natural grocer Whole Foods Market, intends to spend as much as $5 billion to develop a 50,000-employee campus outside of its Seattle base. In an unusual move, instead of searching privately for a suitable location, the company has opened a formal Request for Proposals from interested communities.

Naturally, communities from Los Angeles to Baltimore have already started throwing their hats into the ring for the massive investment. As is typical, this got us thinking. Could Spokane launch a credible bid?

First, let’s look at Amazon’s high-level requirements.

The firm is looking for collaborative bids from metro areas, and has a preference for areas with more than one million people, a stable business environment, strong talent attraction, and big thinking. While Spokane does not meet the first criteria (the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene Combined Statistical Area has a population of about 700,000, and that stretches “metro area” to breaking point), arguments can be made that the other requirements can be met. The Spokane area certainly has a history of big thinking, having boldly pushed for and hosted a World’s Fair in 1974, against all odds. Its beautiful natural environment, strong quality of life and recreational opportunities, and low cost of living are certainly attractive assets. And observers say Spokane’s economy stays relatively stable even during recessions. Area leaders from Coeur d’Alene to Spokane cite business satisfaction as a major priority.

Next, let’s dig deeper. Amazon cites a number of priorities and key decision drivers in selecting a site location.

  • Site and Building Location. Amazon keeps it relatively vague, looking only for “the best buildings available”––whether redevelopment site, public-private partnership, or a greenfield area. In Spokane, while a decade ago Kendall Yards would have been a stellar choice, today we could focus on the South University District. With a new pedestrian bridge under construction, abundant vacant and redevelopable property, and a new Avista project in development, this area has the makings of a great urban neighborhood. If the property acquisition and consolidation can be properly managed, it has the potential and space––Amazon or not––to become our South Lake Union.
  • Capital and Operating Costs. Spokane has a leg up on the larger communities: comparatively, it’s quite cheap. Our energy costs are below the national average, and building costs are low compared to coastal cities. Washington State is generally more expensive than other states, so any bid would require a state-level partnership.
  • Incentives. Spokane has a basket of limited incentives it can offer, but localities are generally constrained in Washington State, and without a port district we have very few powerful options. Meanwhile, any successful bid would have to win out over incentive-rich states like Texas and Georgia. So for Spokane to have a competitive application, it would have to leverage state-level partnerships and potentially even legislative action.
  • Labor Force. 50,000 employees is a lot––especially somewhere like Spokane. Is our labor force workable for a high-tech firm like Amazon? At present, probably not, although our education system has strong points between WSU, EWU, Whitworth, Gonzaga, and UI. To balance out this broadly negative point, combined with Spokane’s relatively small size, Spokane could latch onto a statewide proposal in cooperation with cities like Seattle, Bellevue, and Tacoma and instantly gain access to a wider talent pool which craves Spokane’s lower cost of living and strong quality of life.
  • Logistics. Spokane has all the basics––easy access via I-90, a major rail hub, and abundant direct flights across the West Coast to Seattle, the Bay Area, and other locales. We’d lose points on lacking nonstop flights to the East Coast, including New York and Washington, D.C.
  • Time to Operations. Revamping the Avista Development proposal for the South Landing of the pedestrian bridge could be a way to expedite construction. Given that Amazon wants at least 500,000 square feet for Phase I, additional property would need to be assembled and entitled, which would take additional time.
  • Community Cultural Fit. We’d gain points on our universities and commitment to education, as well as our history of big thinking. We’d lose points on workforce and cultural diversity, and we’d probably lose a few points on business climate among elected officials. While most would be nominally on-board, some fringe elements (see: Matt Shea, Spokane Valley City Council) could raise questions.
  • Quality of Life. We’ve touched this already. It’s great!

So would Spokane be able to put together a competitive proposal on its own, with cities like San Jose, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Baltimore in the running? Probably not.

But a statewide proposal focused on expanding and retaining Amazon, potentially leveraging sites in Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma, Vancouver (WA), and Spokane, could be difficult to beat. This would allow the Washington State government to assist in incentives and by utilizing tools not available to localities. It would also distribute the benefits of any such development across the state rather than concentrating them in already-prosperous areas, like Seattle. Anchored by strong transportation infrastructure, such as the expanded Seattle transit system, an expanded I-90, and potentially even statewide high speed rail, even residents outside of Amazon employees or Amazon-adjacent employees could see considerable benefits.

In Spokane, this could mean a smaller campus of 10,000 – 25,000 people in the South University District, with the remaining employees split among localities across the state. Bellevue (which recently received a major Amazon expansion), Everett, Tacoma, Vancouver (WA), and Seattle are all credible choices.

Is it bold? No doubt. It throws out the rules of the Amazon RFP process, creating a campus structure for Amazon more like a state university system (for example, WSU has locations in Pullman, Spokane, Everett, the Tri-Cities, and Vancouver) than a tech company. But it’s sufficiently creative and interesting that it wouldn’t be tossed out of hand.

Is it unthinkable? No, it isn’t.

If our area economic development officials are watching the hoopla over Amazon HQ #2 with envy, looking on as communities with more than a million people excitedly launch bids, they should hop on the phone with communities like Seattle, Bellevue, and Tacoma. They should call up the Washington Department of Commerce and our state legislators. Amazon is an important firm to our state, no matter how you feel about it, and the HQ #2 process puts all of that at risk. What better way to double down than to collaborate with communities across the state?

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: What do you think? Should Spokane launch a bid for the new Amazon headquarters, either on its own or with partners from across the state? How important is Amazon to the statewide economy? Do you see it on the level of Boeing or Microsoft? In Spokane, where would you put a new Amazon campus? Share your thoughts on Facebook, on Twitter, in the comments below, or in person. We love to hear from you!