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.

Read more

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.

BRT considered along North Division

BRT stations like this could be coming to north Division. SRTC is studying major land use and transportation changes along the corridor.

The Spokane Regional Transportation Council has partnered with WSDOT, the City of Spokane, Spokane County, and Spokane Transit Authority on a major transportation and land use study along the North Division corridor. The Division Connects project is analyzing the future of transit along the corridor, with the US-395 North Spokane Corridor set for completion in nine years.

The project’s key objectives include:

  • Identifying a preferred concept for bus rapid transit (BRT) along North Division.
  • Developing options for all modes within the corridor, including pedestrian and bicycling improvements.
  • Identifying opportunities for land use improvements.
  • Recommending capital project implementation plans to fund improvements.

The first phase of work involved production of a “State of the Corridor” report, which was completed in late spring 2020 and reviewed the existing travel patterns and land use patterns along North Division. It mapped the existing streetscapes along the corridor, travel times, transit ridership, and transit reliability.

The second phase, underway now, is analyzing four scenarios for possible streetscape improvements to accommodate BRT, bicyclists, and pedestrians. Let’s dive deep into the weeds.

Continue reading “BRT considered along North Division”

Almost one quarter of downtown Spokane is occupied by surface parking

There are 295 acres of surface parking in Spokane’s urban core.

There are only 1,250 acres of land in the urban core.

That means that 23.6% of all of the land in Spokane’s urban core is occupied solely by the temporary storage of motor vehicles.

If we assume a ridiculously-conservative average density of 25 units per acre, we could infill these parking lots with as many as 7,500 housing units. To put that in perspective, the full build-out of Kendall Yards will include just 1,000 units. (Just 300 housing units have been built in that neighborhood to-date.) Now, not every available block will be occupied by residences; other uses, like office, retail, public squares, civic spaces, are necessary as well. But it’s a useful thought exercise.

This is the next frontier of Spokane development. There’s more space available downtown for redevelopment than three Kendall Yards (which is an 83-acre site). With this much available space, there’s ample opportunity for creativity and innovation in the local development team.

Among other strategies, perhaps we could at the very least compile a comprehensive database of potential infill sites. This database should include information on the ownership of the various parcels, incentives available for redevelopment, and various statistics, like median income in the area, information on available utilities, and nearby amenities. In addition, include information on the planning and development process for these parcels. What type of permit review would be necessary? Would a SEPA application be required? Think of it as a more in-depth version of a site-selector. The result would be a much clearer development picture for developers and investors.

Continue reading “Almost one quarter of downtown Spokane is occupied by surface parking”

Idea #27: Return downtown’s street grid to two-way traffic

main-street-concept
Downtown Spokane’s Main Avenue on the East End is currently under discussion for major improvements, including center-lane parking, new street trees, and pedestrian enhancements, like a mid-block crossing. (PHOTO: City of Spokane)
In late 2008, in the middle of the Great Recession, the struggling downtown area in Vancouver, Wash. decided to make a change. A cheap change, but a big change. In essence, it painted a yellow line down the middle of Main Street, changed some signage and traffic lights, and opened the street to two-way traffic.

The results were almost instantaneous. Within a few short weeks, the businesses downtown reported a massive surge in customers. And why not? Two-way streets better encourage pedestrian activity, smooth and slow traffic, and, perhaps most critically for Spokane, ease the difficulty of finding a metered parking spot. They’re also easier to navigate for visitors and residents alike. One-way streets are literally a relic of our nation’s Cold War-era past, built primarily to allow for swift evacuations and troop deployments in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

So let’s return to a two-way street grid downtown.

Sure, it’ll be harder to convert the Lincoln/Monroe and Division/Browne couplets, but other streets could be converted with relatively little difficulty. Like Stevens. Like Washington. Like Sprague. Like First Avenue.

And of course, like Main Avenue. City officials and East End businesses have been working for years on a project that would add center-lane parking on Main Avenue, but for little apparent reason maintain that street’s one-way status. That’s absurd. Converting the street to serve both eastbound and westbound traffic would enhance both the pedestrian and the vehicular experience, improving navigation, parking, and the streetscape. It’s time to stop talking. Downtown Spokane should be a people-friendly place, welcoming to all types of commuters–pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, and drivers. It should make navigation simple and easy, and walking a breeze. Vitality on the sidewalk should be the first and foremost priority. And the potential here is huge. So let’s make it happen. Let’s convert more streets downtown to two-way traffic.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: What do you think? Should Main Avenue and potentially other streets downtown be converted back to two-way status?  Why do you think there hasn’t been more progress on this in recent years? And would you be more likely to go downtown if navigation and parking were enhanced along with the pedestrian experience? Share your thoughts on Facebook, on Twitter, and in the comments below. We love to hear from you.

Idea #26: Incredibly simple and easy-to-use “night bus” service

3300028346_43483ec479_o
London’s “night bus” service is internationally renowned, becoming somewhat of a cultural icon. Spokane could operate a simpler, more streamlined service at relatively low cost. (PHOTO: Doug Wheller on Flickr)

Right now, if you go out on a Friday or Saturday night in downtown Spokane, you have relatively few decent transportation options at your disposal. While most bars close at 2am, STA service ends at 11pm, leaving you with the difficult choice between an expensive taxi/Uber/Lyft and a designated driver. That discourages people from going out, especially considering the hassles associated with parking and choosing a designated driver. The simple fix? Night buses on STA.

Such a system could model itself after similar successful programs in Europe, which have reduced traffic deaths and DUIs and increased economic activity. While London manages a large-scale night-time operation (and will soon introduce 24-hour Tube service on select lines), smaller cities (like Freiburg, Germany, where I lived last fall) make use of a more streamlined shuttle-esque model with a fixed route and the same starting point for all routes. Spokane could learn a lot from these systems as it works to develop extended weekend service.

  • Simple routes. All routes could start at the STA Plaza, for simplicity and convenience. Limit stops and use park and rides and transit centers as terminuses. Consider two north routes (including via Gonzaga University), a South Hill route (via Browne’s Addition), and a Valley route, at the bare minimum. Don’t do pickups; this is outbound service for those out downtown Friday and Saturday late nights.
  • Simple timetables. Assuming this service would be operated mostly on Friday and Saturday nights, cater to the audience. Make the departure times super simple. All routes could leave the STA Plaza at the same time. Use easy-to-remember departure times. In Freiburg, the five night bus routes left the Central Train Station at 11:11pm, 12:12am, 1:11am, 2:22am, 3:33am, and 4:44am. Spokane could use a variation of this model.
  • Simple fares. To simplify the fare structure, charge a $5 flat rate for everyone, regardless of whether or not they have a monthly or daily pass. This further separates nighttime service from daytime commuter service.
  • Simple connections, if necessary. Last-mile connections to taxis or Uber/Lyft drivers should be made as uncomplicated as possible; allow these operators to create a stand in park and ride/transit center lots.

Sure, Spokane isn’t Europe. But we do have a strong downtown late-night scene, especially in the Globe/Borracho/Nyne/Zola area. A super-simple night bus would allow these revelers to enjoy the night a bit longer and hopefully reduce instances of DUI. It would also be cheaper than a more complicated solution, and would offer far better fare recovery for STA. And what better way to introduce improved service than with one that would be so easy to use?

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: Would you use such a “night bus” system as described here? What holds you back from going downtown on a Friday or Saturday night? Would better nighttime transportation make it easier for you? What’s your vision for the future of later service on STA? Share your thoughts below in the comments, on Facebook, and on Twitter. We love to hear from you!

Unless we take action to improve transit now, 2040 in Spokane will be like 2015 in Seattle

In 2006, true light rail was on the agenda for the South Valley Corridor from Spokane Valley to Liberty Lake. It would have decreased travel times, lessoned traffic, and spurred development. It’s time to resurrect the idea, along with others. (PHOTO: David Evans and Associates)

It’s time for some cold, hard facts.

Spokane is growing. By 2040, the region will have added roughly 165,000 people. In other words, by 2040, the population of Spokane County will surpass 625,000. That’s not an insignificant number. In fact, that would put Spokane County at roughly the same size as the City of Portland. Consider the implications of such growth. More kids in schools. More homes and apartments in development (70,000 more units). More jobs and centers of employment (68,000 more jobs). And more cars on the road.

Already we’re seeing the start of this wave of increasing traffic. Consider South Regal on a weekday morning, where the prospect of three new big-box stores is already complicating rush-hour commutes. Consider Five Mile or Country Homes, where traffic has increased and neighborhoods have grown by orders of magnitude without any semblance of mitigation. Consider Hamilton on any weekday afternoon, where an increase in student population is driving record traffic. Area drivers are complaining of increased commute times and lost patience. This traffic costs us precious dollars. The increased load weighs heavily on our streets, which must be more frequently resurfaced. The increased pollution caused by idling in traffic harms our environment. Perhaps most importantly, the lost working hours cost us millions of dollars every year in lost productivity. And there’s no sign of relief.

Continue reading “Unless we take action to improve transit now, 2040 in Spokane will be like 2015 in Seattle”

POST-MORTEM: Who killed Proposition 1?

Proposition 1 would have provided millions of dollars in additional transit funding, including over 200,000 additional yearly hours of bus service. It seemed like a no-brainer. So why did it fail?
Proposition 1 would have provided millions of dollars in additional transit funding, including over 200,000 additional yearly hours of bus service. It seemed like a no-brainer. So why did it fail? (PHOTO: Yes for Buses)

Proposition 1 was a reasonable, balanced transit package that funded system improvements across the STA network. It eschewed big projects in favor of smaller-scaled, bus-centric investments, and it sunset after ten years in order to give voters a sense of accountability over the small 0.1% sales tax hike. So why did it fail? Several theories have been floated in the past few weeks, and I think that I might have a few answers.

THEORY #1: The “Yes” campaign did not sell the package strongly enough to people who don’t regularly use transit.

A former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Penalosa, famously remarked that “a developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

It’s clear that the “yes” campaign did not do a strong enough job of selling the measure to those who do not regularly use transit in the Spokane area. Instead, a large emphasis was placed on the “elderly, low-income, and disabled” riders who currently avail themselves of STA services. That’s great, and transit is certainly important for those groups. But what about everyone else? Certainly there would be benefits for everyone else?

Consider that perhaps advertising for the “yes” campaign should have emphasized that Proposition 1 would make transit available for more people, including the middle-class and wealthy, giving even those groups the ability to use transit. Perhaps ads should have focused on the traffic reductions that strong transit service can bring. Many drivers in Indian Trail, Five Mile, and the Moran Prairie have noticed wildly increased commute times, especially during the mornings, as new residential and commercial developments have been approved. Numerous WSDOT and federal studies have found that traffic congestion in the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene metropolitan area is set to double by 2030 as the population grows and streets and freeways struggle to pick up the slack. Sell transit to traffic-minded drivers! Transit means reduced traffic congestion. Moreover, by connecting transit to the ongoing talks about urban expansion in the Spokane area, a better conversation would have been started about the issues that lead to traffic in the first place. All of these issues are connected, and it felt at times like the “Yes for Buses” campaign neglected to drive this narrative home with voters.

THEORY #2: The package was too timid, meaning that voters could not distinguish the difference between current STA service and promised future service under Proposition 1.

This certainly applies to some individuals who see the benefits of transit but did not see real improvements in the STA system. And this could be either a fault of the STA Moving Forward plan or a fault of the advertising in the Yes for Buses campaign. By the end of 2014, the original proposal for the Central City Line, a streetcar, had been scaled back to a battery electric bus, for example. Well, what’s the improvement in terms of comfort or service of a battery electric bus? Not much. Certainly the streetcar proposal would have had a greater “distinction” factor that would have clearly offered a contrast with existing service. Some have even called for a resurrection of the South Valley Corridor light rail plan. And overwhelming 2014 passage of the Riverfront Park Bond proves that area voters are willing to spend money on flagship projects.

On the other hand, perhaps voters simply didn’t see how the package would benefit them. What would the sales tax increase mean functionally for me as a young person, for example? Easy. New weekend bus service would allow a Gonzaga University student to catch a bus back to campus as late as 1am or 2am. That’s far cheaper than shelling out cash for a Lyft or Uber ride. And that’s just one example. We could also talk about a high-performance line on from South Regal to North Monroe or the West Plains Transit Center. Either one would have produced material benefits to riders, but they weren’t the focus of the “yes” campaign’s advertising.

THEORY #3: Uncertainty and misinformation from elected officials (especially David Condon and the Board of County Commissioners) and local media (especially the Spokesman-Review and local TV stations) contributed to lack of public understanding of the measure.

Finally, outside of the Spokane City Council, most area elected officials were lukewarm at best on the proposal. Al French of the Board of County Commissioners was famously in favor, but his compatriots were less sympathetic. Spokane Valley officials decried the proposal. And David Condon was absent from the debate altogether, which certainly should become a campaign issue this fall as he looks toward re-election.

In the media, the proposal faced sharply negative billing. The Cowles-owned Spokesman released a negative editorial, and KHQ started trashing/editorializing on the Central City Line almost a year before the package hit the ballot. Other news outlets were slightly less critical, but failed to properly print facts, often conflating the Central City Line with the larger Proposition 1 package, despite its relatively small $17 million appropriation as part of the measure. Sometimes the modern electric trolleybus or streetcar study renderings were used as part of reports, despite the fact that they had been eschewed in favor of the battery electric bus. One breathless KHQ report even called the Central City Line a “light rail” system. Of course, this attracted the ire of conservatives and confused even more independent-minded voters.

CONCLUSION

It is clear that Proposition 1 failed largely as a result of ineffective campaign tactics on the part of Yes for Buses, but also due to its confusing lack of distinction from existing service and an absence of support from more conservative elected officials and editorial boards. Hopefully the proposal can be resurrected in the future, perhaps as a Spokane-only package a la Seattle’s similar arrangement to essentially “purchase” bus service from King County Metro within its city limits. In the meantime, we await an appropriate solution.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: What do you think caused Proposition 1 to fail at the polls in the Special Election? Are voters tax-weary? Was the package improperly or incorrectly sold to the public? Did lack of public official support create a vacuum for conservatives to pounce? We love to hear your thoughts. Be sure to share your ideas, thoughts, and concerns below in our comments section, on Twitter, on Facebook, or in person. We love to hear from you.

Friday Tidbit: World’s Smallest City with Rapid Transit

Lausanne, Switzerland is the smallest city in the world with a true rapid transit system. (PHOTO: @robertbeardwell on DeviantArt)

Lausanne, Switzerland, coupled with its environs, has a population of around 300,000. The city itself sits at 125,000. The Spokane metro area has a population of around 535,000. And about 210,000 reside in the city itself. 

Lausanne in 2008 became the world’s smallest city with a full-fledged rapid transit system. It has two lines, 28 stations, and provides 41 million annual rides. In 2018, construction will conclude on the third line on the system. 

Lausanne and Spokane are two cities separated by language, culture, urban form, and an ocean. But is there not something to be learned from our ambitious Swiss friend? No matter the doubts, we are not too small for great, world-class transit. Our revolution may not come in the form of a true metro, but it’s encouraging to see that at the very least, it’s possible. (Subway under the river, anyone?)

What millennials want–and why Spokane should cater to them

Walkability can help make or break a city as a vital, energetic, and vibrant place to live, according to the millennials that Spokane needs to attract. So why do we keep investing in policies created by Baby Boomers? (PHOTO: BethesdaNow.com)

We’re always saying that in order to succeed, Spokane needs to take time and energy to attract a key demographic: young, urban professionals. But what does it take to do that?

Millennials are markedly different from their parents in a number of ways, from dress to music to cultural attitudes. But perhaps most tellingly, millennials desire different things from their homes. Where the Baby Boomers originally valued safe, affordable homes in the suburbs, research reveals that more and more millennials wish to live in the type of mixed-use communities that Spokane needs to succeed. According to new data reported by The Atlantic CityLab, these young people are primarily concerned with four issues: walkability, good schools and parks, excellent public transportation, and new technology.

Sound familiar? We’ve been advocating these causes for months.

Unfortunately, it seems that Spokane currently caters more toward Baby Boomers than to Millennials. Our development policies favor large, suburban tracts on the urban fringe, as opposed to live-work communities like Kendall Yards. Public transportation and bicyclists constantly deal with the scorn of those who believe more money should be spent on roads. And while our schools continue to improve, they are not making the type of calculated investments needed to take area education to the next level.

So let’s invest. Let’s build a streetcar, a trolley, a light rail. Let’s improve our bike lanes, our crosswalks, our pedestrian trails. Let’s incentivize infill, and work with developers to craft creative plans for increasing density. Let’s make sure our schools have the proper tools to teach, from smaller class sizes to new curricula and learning methodologies. Let’s bring entrepreneurship and innovation to the high schools, the middle schools, and even the elementary schools, encouraging students and fostering a culture of creativity. Let’s improve Riverfront Park, adding new features for accessibility and new community gathering places under the Pavilion. Let’s create a city-wide fiber-to-the-home initiative, bolstered by the local business community. These investments have tangible returns and have proven to show real-world results. With them, we could become the number one city in the country for millennials. Seriously. Let’s take some time to make this happen.

Investment first. Then returns. That should be the strategy moving forward.

What do you think? What could the Spokane area be doing to attract more millennials? How do you think our policies line up with the perspectives of millennials? How could we become the #1 city in America for millennials? Share your thoughts on Facebook, on Twitter, in the comments below, or in person. We love to hear from you.

Idea #21: Bicycle transit center

The “bike center” concept offers a unique, low-cost opportunity to increase the number of individuals using alternative transportation to get to work. (PHOTO: Natural Resources Defense Council)

Spokane has a vested interest in decreasing the number of vehicle trips made per day in the city. Not only does driving alone to work markedly increase carbon dioxide emissions, but it also increases traffic, making Spokane feel more and more like a larger city. By taking drivers off the road and redirecting them to safe, convenient bicycle lanes, our city becomes more active, more engaged, more green, and more efficient. Unfortuntately, in order to do that, we must provide safe, convenient places to store bikes–and places to get ready for work. Enter the bicycle center.

It’s a simple idea, really. Let’s build a location downtown with rows and rows of indoor, protected bicycle storage. Hire an attendant to staff the facility during operation hours, or develop a card-key or smartphone-activated access system. Offer shower and locker facilities, and you’ve got a bona fide bicycle transit center that can be open for users at least nine months of the year. You could charge a small “subscription” fee and offer a drop-in rate for more sporadic users. We’ve already got the STA Plaza. Shouldn’t someone cater to bicyclists as well?

What do you think? Should a bicycle transit center be developed in downtown Spokane to encourage more workers to ride downtown? With increased bicycle infrastructure around the city, where would you like to see investments made to the system? Share your thoughts in the comments below, on Facebook, on Twitter, and in person. We love to hear from you.