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.

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Will we learn old lessons as we study parking downtown?

There are 12,658 parking spaces in the core of downtown Spokane. The City has initiated a parking survey to better understand users’ desires, but does it take account of old planning lessons? (PHOTO: City of Spokane)

As part of the Downtown Plan update due this year, the City of Spokane has contracted with Nelson\Nygaard to conduct a comprehensive study of parking options and usability in downtown Spokane and the University District, evaluating at a deep level how people travel downtown, the incentives they receive or don’t receive, and potential future improvements to the user experience. The survey is now live, and we encourage readers to take it.

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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.

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To incentivize redevelopment, City explores increasing height limits near Riverfront Park

Current building code allows for buildings along Spokane Falls Boulevard with roughly this “maximum building envelope”––in other words, the largest a building can possibly be built on these sites. (PHOTO: City of Spokane)

In the early 1970s, in the lead-up to Expo 74, civic leaders in Spokane decided to make a major change to downtown. In addition to relocating the railyards off of what became Riverfront Park, business groups and planners demolished broad swaths of heritage buildings on West Trent, then Spokane’s “skid row.” To distance the area from its seedy past, the street running through it was renamed “Spokane Falls Boulevard.” The short-term vision was to provide an ample amount of parking for the swarms of regional and international visitors who would soon descend on downtown, with future opportunities on the sites to be determined. Naturally, these plans never materialized.

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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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After 10 years, Spokane looks toward major downtown plan update in 2018

Under the cover of Fast Forward Spokane was a relatively forward-thinking, future-focused plan document highlighting policies related to environmental sustainability, housing, land use, and various other areas. The plan is being revised in 2018. (PHOTO: Fast Forward Spokane Plan)

The Fast Forward Spokane plan was released at possibly the worst possible time. In November 2008, the housing market had already burst. Big banks were already well on their way to a major bailout. People were losing their jobs in record numbers. But even at the height of the Great Recession, Spokane was finalizing a significant and visionary update to its Downtown Plan.

That plan turns 10 years old next year.

To mark the occasion, city officials will be working with residents, businesses, community groups, and other stakeholders to revise the document with an eye toward the next 10 years of development. Naturally, there will be many opportunities for community and stakeholder engagement. To that end, until early January, we intend to take a deep dive each week into our hopes and policy desires for the 2018 update. And we want your feedback! Continue reading “After 10 years, Spokane looks toward major downtown plan update in 2018”

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.

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Otis Hotel micro-apartments in early-stage development

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The former Otis Hotel building, along with the Commercial Building next door, is one of the final missing links in the redevelopment puzzle along the East End. A number of projects are proposed or underway in the growing downtown district. (PHOTO: historicspokane.org)

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.

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Major new mixed-use housing development proposed in the University District

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The developers behind the 940 North student housing building are back at it with the “University District Apartments” building, proposed for 230 N Division on the East End of downtown Spokane. The six-story building features significant architectural interest first-floor retail. (PHOTO: spokanepermits.com)

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.

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It’s time to put a moratorium on new skywalk construction

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Spokane’s skywalk system was once the second-largest in the United States. It served its purpose for almost fifty years, but recently their presence has been more of a hindrance to the success of downtown than a benefit. (PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Why?

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!