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.
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!
Last year, Seattle adopteda bold, transformative Comprehensive Plan they called Seattle 2035. In addition to recommitting to a growth strategy that places most new housing and jobs in mixed-use urban villages, Seattle’s new Comprehensive Plan makes transit-oriented development near future Link light rail stations a policy priority and begins a transition toward parking maximums and the use of new, more relevant, and transit- and pedestrian-focused metrics to evaluate new projects. In many ways, despite taking nearly two years to write and pass, the document expresses a strong, cohesive vision for Seattle’s future––one that recognizes its status as a city that will welcome 120,000 residents by 2035. It also adopts racial and social justice standards that have already become a national model.
Spokane is not Seattle, but it too has been revising its Comprehensive Plan through what it calls the Shaping Spokane process. In fact, the City is at the tail end of the process, and City Council is expected to vote on the update next week. Unlike Seattle 2035, however, despite four years of deliberations––almost twice the time it took Seattle to write a model Comprehensive Plan––the Spokane equivalent, Shaping Spokane, punts on most of the major development and planning issues facing our city. And in at least one case––that of our hard-won Complete Streets ordinance––it does critical damage.
First, let’s acknowledge that the Shaping Spokane plan does some good things. For example, it adopts a housing policy which clarifies existing rules on accessory dwelling units (ADUs), encourages mixed-income housing opportunities where possible, and clarifies existing language on housing quality. The document even includes an “affordable housing requirement” policy which essentially encourages the City to develop a mandatory inclusionary zoning program. Many pieces of the Transportation chapter contain strong endorsements of public transit and frequent transit in particular.
First, let’s note that this is not a full-scale update; city staff call it a “mid-cycle revision,” and a more in-depth process will have to wait until the next update. But given that this revision took four years, I would have expected stronger progress from City Hall. As has been typical of recent Spokane history, the Shaping Spokane document does not set out many major steps toward implementation, preferring instead the passive route of “whatever happens, happens.”
Centers and Corridors, for example, have languished despite being Spokane’s attempt at pedestrian-oriented urban districts. Jim Frank of Greenstone, the developer of Kendall Yards, has famously said that the type of development underway in that urban district would not be possible without the Kendall Yards Planned Unit Development agreement. Indeed, some developments flout the zoning guidelines to such an astonishing degree that casual observers have to wonder whether developers think they’re getting away with some clever ruse. The Target in Southgate, the first implementation of Centers and Corridors on a greenfield development, is a sea of surface parking surrounding a single use––big-box retail. And another development on the KXLY site across Regal is set to get underway soon. Are our City’s planners considering these high-profile land use planning failures when writing Shaping Spokane?
Shaping Spokane doesn’t make a serious effort to place Spokane at the forefront of livable cities across the country. No major actionable objectives and metrics for success (i.e. 100,000 sq. ft. of new affordable housing development) on core issues. No real talk of parking maximums, of reductions of parking requirements which make projects exorbitantly more expensive for little real benefit. No changes that could make affordable rental housing easier and less costly to build. No discussion of municipal fiber, despite much of our city lacking access to affordable internet service due to the Comcast monopoly. No big push for policy aimed at the future of transporation technology (driverless vehicles). Nothing aimed at reducing setback requirements, no major updates to the development code. No bold pushes––they’ll have to wait until the mid-2020s(!), by which time we’ll be well behind our peer cities.
Perhaps most critically, under the guise of economic development, the Comprehensive Plan attempts to gut our hard-won Complete Streets ordinance. Under the Shaping Spokane plan, City staff would be allowed to essentially submit projects at their sole discretion to the 6-Year Street Program, where they would jump the list over other qualifying street projects and would not be subject to Complete Streets requirements. Under this Comprehensive Plan update, City staff vaguely assert that “[these projects] will typically address only the most pressing transportation elements first with other integrated elements added over time.” In other words, features like sidewalks, transit elements, and bike lanes would not be constructed as part of a “Roadway of Significance”––they’d be added at a later date.
The only problem? Shaping Spokane sets out no metrics or guidelines for this provision’s use. The wording is so vague that nearly any project with some form of economic benefit (the provision does not set a dollar amount or number of jobs such investment would support) could be named a Roadway of Significance, and there would be no timetable for full build-out of Complete Streets elements. Even if current City staff may care about sidewalks and bike lanes, and fully intend to construct them at later dates for these projects, we don’t know what future City staff would do. The Comprehensive Plan is meant to transcend staffing changes and personnel moves. That means that effectively, this provision could eliminate Complete Streets––and all the sidewalks, bike lanes, transit stops, and ADA curb cut-outs it requires––entirely. It is so poorly written that the only solution that would completely eliminate the risk of abuse on the part of City staff would be to strike it entirely.
So here’s what you can you do to voice your concerns with this process, express a desire for a bolder, more comprehensive strategy in the next Plan Update, and support Complete Streets/oppose “Roadways of Significance.”
Attend the next City Council meeting. The Comprehensive Plan update hearing will take place Monday, June 19th at 6:00pm PT in the City Council Chambers at City Hall. Attend the meeting, voice your concerns, and speak your mind with Council.
Email City Council with your thoughts. Locate your City Councilmember here. Share your thoughts on this Comprehensive Plan update––in particular consider the gutting of Complete Streets in this draft.
Shaping Spokane will pass in its current form if there is no major opposition from the public. But we hope that you will consider attending the Council meeting or emailing your Councilmember––at the very minimum to eliminate the absurd “Roadways of Significance” provisions in this Comprehensive Plan update.
At the end of the day, most of Shaping Spokane is status quo for Spokane, which isn’t a tragedy. But it is a major abdication of regional leadership and a significant missed opportunity to lead the way into a more urban, walkable, and mixed-use future. If we don’t step up soon, and lead the way on sustainable planning, affordable housing, walkable urban districts, and convenient transportation, we will continue to watch other cities pass us by––and sadly, we will fall further and further behind.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: What do you think? Is this Comprehensive Plan a step backward or forward for Spokane? Do you think we should be thinking more boldly about the future of our city? Do you think we need updates to Centers and Corridors or to Complete Streets? Share your thoughts in the comments below, on Facebook, on Twitter, or in person. We love to hear from you!
North Monroe might just be the coolest urban district in Spokane. In addition to the abundance of hip shops, restaurants, and bars which have recently opened or relocated to the area, which stitches together the Emerson-Garfield Neighborhood, the corridor has for many years played host to one of the best collections of antique and vintage shops in Washington State. Between Boulevard Mercantile, Tossed & Found, 1889 Salvage Co., and many others, thrift shoppers and vintage enthusiasts have an abundance of options and opportunities to search for hidden treasures. In recent years, the district has also added a number of boutique retail and other shops, like Brickyard Barbershop and Kingsley & Scout.
But the real magic of North Monroe might not even be the craft coffee at Vessel Coffee Roasting, the craft beer at Bellwether, or the food at Prohibition. No, the real magic of North Monroe lies in its inherent contradictions. Like Spokane, it lies at the bleeding edge between the positively mundane and the relentlessly urban. Not content to pick just one, it embraces the past, present, and future all at once, playing host to vintage shops, craft coffee roasters and breweries, and the creative, positive Urban Art Co-Op. The district reflects the polarized nature of our city and our nation, as typified by both the aggressive, hostile signs seen in the windows businesses like Azar’s and the warm, welcoming spirit of the North Monroe Business District social media presence, which attempts to support all businesses in the area––not just the ones with which they agree. Like Spokane, North Monroe has one foot in each camp of the new urban divide, constantly questioning what it wants to become, while simultaneously exuding everything that’s hip, cool, artsy, and entrepreneurial about the city.
That might just make North Monroe our most interesting, coolest urban district in one of the coolest neighborhoods—Emerson-Garfield.
And now, thanks to the leadership of numerous highly-dedicated area residents, city staff, and our elected officials, this urban district is about to get a lot more attractive. The City of Spokane has announced that the North Monroe redevelopment will be moving forward as planned, with construction beginning in spring 2018. The project, which will add various pedestrian- and business-friendly features, such as wider sidewalks, curb bulb-outs, enhanced and widened parking, street trees, among other amenities, would create the opportunity for the district to evolve into an urban neighborhood on par with South Perry, Garland, or West Broadway. In addition, it will widen the traffic lanes while narrowing the street as a whole, going from four to three lanes total and making driving a more hassle-free experience. Taken together, these types of traffic improvements induce visitors to stay longer, spend more, and return more often. And stay more safe! For a vibrant urban district like North Monroe, that’s huge––and it will greatly benefit local business owners.
In the meantime, it will be critical for agencies and organizations like the City of Spokane, Spokane Transit, Avista, and all of the others which will be performing work associated with this project to perform broad, intentional outreach to affected business owners. Construction can take a significant toll on businesses, and it’s now on project supporters to prove that this is the right investment for the right time in Spokane history. The North Monroe Business District will also be performing outreach, and we encourage readers of this blog to patronize the affected businesses––even those which oppose this project––over the course of construction.
In addition, the City of Spokane should consider including a generous bonus in the construction contract for an early completion. This would entice the general contractors to speed up work––potentially even by working through nights and weekends––to complete the project has quickly as possible, minimizing impact on the businesses and organizations along the corridor.
In the end, though, North Monroe will certainly be better off for it. The coolest urban district in Spokane will become immeasurably cooler, and the businesses along the corridor will be the primary beneficiaries of easier access, increased and friendlier parking, and a more walkable urban environment that invites residents to participate in the community, rather than stay in their homes and cars. North Monroe may even surpass South Perry or Garland as a “destination neighborhood.” But even if it doesn’t, the Emerson-Garfield Neighborhood, the community, and the city will all gain. I am super excited to walk down North Monroe, grab a coffee at Vessel, keep wandering down the street through the local thrift and vintage shops, like Boulevard Mercantile, then finish with Happy Hour at Prohibition or Bellwether. And I hope you all are too.
COMING UP: This weekend, join neighborhood residents, community groups, and local nonprofits to brighten up and improve the North Monroe area at Cleaning from the Corridor. A number of teams will be volunteering in the district, and it gives you an opportunity to meet local business owners and community leaders as you improve the neighborhood. Find more information at the link above.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: What do you think? Is North Monroe the coolest neighborhood in Spokane? What’s your favorite business or restaurant in the district, and why? Are you excited about the planned revitalization and reconstruction of the street? And would you invest in the corridor, given the opportunity? Share your thoughts on Facebook, on Twitter, in the comments below, or in person. We love to hear from you!
Here’s one I just couldn’t wait until Monday to share. Wonder Spokane, LLC has proposed a stellar, game-changing adaptive reuse of the former Wonder Bread Building on the North Bank of the Spokane River. The 111,000 square foot former bakery sits at 821 W Mallon Ave, directly across from the Spokane Arena. At its peak, the plant produced 500,000 pounds of bread products each week, until it closed in 2000. Now the investors of Wonder Spokane, LLC, apparently led by Denver lawyer and businessman Pete Mounsey, believe the building can be a promising site for redevelopment, as they’ve applied to attend a Pre-Development Conference* with the City.
Their version of the Wonder Bread Building would see it completely transformed and restored, adding a partly-glass third story and other unique amenities. The first floor of the historic building would occupied by a market hall concept much larger than Spokane’s only other existing market hall, Saranac Commons. The second and third floors, meanwhile, would be occupied by leasable office space, with an event space and rooftop patio on the third floor. In addition to the redevelopment of the historic building, the developer proposes an attractive-looking parking garage with two completely separate retail spaces on the west (Lincoln St) side. The sum total of these investments would be a complete revitalization of the North Bank of the river and significantly more life on this crucial corridor connecting the Spokane Arena with Kendall Yards. We look forward to hearing more details as the developer shares its plans.
The former Otis Hotel, located at 110 S Madison in Spokane’s West End, has been vacant since 2007, when the low-income residents who then called the building home were evicted (often in not-so-great circumstances) to make way for a new condo development. Ultimately, that condo development failed in the recession, and ownership passed from investors to banks and back again.
Now, it again looks like a developer is exploring redeveloping the property. While at this point the developer is unknown, ZBA Architecture, which perhaps most famously served as the architect for the Community Building/Saranac remodel, has attended a Pre-Development Conference with City staff. The Otis Hotel project would remodel and modernize the former SRO units on the second through fifth floors into studio and one-bedroom apartments at a total construction cost estimated at $4.5 million. With floor plans ranging from 250 to 510 square feet, and ultimately as many as 100 apartments occupying the building, it’s safe to classify the project as a “micro-apartment” project. The first floor would likely see remodeled retail space.
Indeed, while the pre-development conference includes no construction timeline, and a Pre-Development Conference is not a building permit application, we should take this news as confirmation that there is significant interest in redeveloping the former Otis building.
If you live in the Spokane area, Proposition 1 is the most important measure on your ballot this year. By funding the STA Moving Forward plan, the measure will expand regional transit services by adding the first high-frequency bus rapid transit routes, several new transit centers, and late-night service on multiple lines. In addition, it will provide the necessary funding to maintain existing service levels. But lost in the noise has been an honest conversation about what exactly the measure will do. So let’s break it down.
The building, first constructed in 1909 and extensively remodeled in 1947, sold to an investment group named Wonder Spokane, LLC. Investors include Pete Mounsey, a Spokane native and resident of Denver, Colorado who most recently remodeled the Lincoln View Apartments on the lower South Hill with local architecture firm Nystrom + Olson. The group has no specific plans, but notes that mixed-use is a strong possibility. Zoning code would allow up to twelve stories on the site.
Last year, we heard that a developer was interested in constructing a 26-story condo tower at 230 N Division St, a former auto shop on a prominent site at the edge of the University District and the East End of downtown Spokane. The proposal seemed to be as serious as any in technical terms (planning documents featured relatively detailed architectural renderings), but unrealistic given the relative distance from the city’s central core and the not-altogether-great history of then-involved developer Lanzce Douglas.
Now, a new developer has submitted a Pre-Development Conference for a major development at that site. University Housing Partners of San Clemente, California already developed the already-popular 940 North project on Ruby. Now, the firm has proposed a six-story mixed-use project featuring five floors of housing aimed primarily at WSU Spokane and EWU Spokane students. The $20 million project would include 12,000 square feet of retail along both Spokane Falls Boulevard and Division Street, a critical factor in engaging the street level. 100 parking spots would be tucked behind the street as we suggested in our post on the original proposal for this site. And renderings (more after the break) feature significant architectural interest and color.
Spokane’s venerable skywalk system has served the city and the region for almost fifty years, allowing pedestrians the ability to cross between buildings without braving the elements. At one point, the system was the second-largest in the United States. Today, it features around sixteen of the above-street passageways. But while the system once received significant use (one 1984 study found 43,200 crossings in a single July day) and allowed small businesses to thrive in the second floor of downtown buildings, the skywalks today sit with minimal use.
Moreover, the skywalks harm downtown vitality, because they pluck pedestrians from the street, where they would improve the sidewalk environment. There are two major issues with this. First, more eyes on the street tends to lead to less crime and certainly less perception of crime. If you talk to some people, crime is the number one issue they refuse to go downtown. Second, because access to the skywalk system is controlled largely by the owners of the buildings that they connect, the skywalks at a certain level may separate well-heeled professionals and shoppers from the urban poor, the homeless, and the lower class. This creates a perception of vagrancy on the street level, and of course, it’s a huge ethical and social justice concern. The magic of the sidewalk is that it encourages social mixing, creating a public sphere which allows for interaction, communication, and learning.
But here’s the thing: we’re still expanding the skywalk system, despite the fact that it’s outlived its usefulness. Walt Worthy and the Public Facilities District in 2014 constructed a new skywalk to link the Davenport Grand and the Convention Center. And now, Cowles Company, the owner of the Spokesman-Review, KHQ, and River Park Square, intends to replace two sets of skywalks in the Macy’s Building, which it recently purchased. The second-floor skywalks to River Park Square and to the Parkade Building will be removed and replaced on the third-floor.
It’s great that Cowles Company intends to expand the downtown Spokane commercial district to the east, but we need to have a conversation about the skywalks. Especially in this case, they irreparably damage the beauty of a historic structure with many decades of history in Spokane. They harm downtown vitality. And especially in the case of the Parkade skywalks, which are not air conditioned or heated, offer no additional utility to pedestrians. It’s time for them to be removed.
So let’s have a conversation. Let’s issue a one-year moratorium on skywalk construction. During that time, we’ll have a long-term discussion about the future of the system. Will they be gradually removed over time? Will some of the skywalks, such as the skywalk from River Park Square to the Macy’s Building, or from River Park Square to the Crescent Court, be retained? Is there anything we can do to enliven the skywalks, or alternatively, encourage people to explore the street level?
We hope to see this conversation, but it’s only going to happen with swift action. Contact your City Councilmembers and ask them to consider a temporary skywalk construction moratorium.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: Do you think we need to have a long-term discussion about the future of Spokane’s skywalk system? Do you use the skywalks? Do you think there’s a way to retain the skywalks but also improve downtown vitality on the sidewalks? And what do you think about the ethical and social justice implications? Share your thoughts on Facebook, on Twitter, in the comments below, or in person. We love to hear from you!