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!

Is the West End of Downtown Spokane the new East End?

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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)

Yeah, it’s a somewhat counterintuitive question, given that during the revitalization wave that swept downtown Spokane during the early 2000s, it was the West End, and not the East End, that received a majority of the conversation. (The West End refers to the area roughly between Monroe and Maple along Sprague, Riverside, and First Avenue in downtown Spokane.) And why wouldn’t it? It’s near a significant arts corridor, including the historic Fox Theatre, the Bing Crosby Theatre, the Knitting Factory, and a number of other establishments. The area also was the original host of Terrain.

But the West End has also been plagued by significant challenges. The Commercial Building, the former SRO hotel which housed what was once bandied about as a promising Blu-Ray startup, now sits empty, still subject to lawsuits. Terrain moved to its new location in the Washington Cracker Company Building last year, which, while exciting, removed a night of significant attraction from the calendar. And the Otis Hotel continues to sit vacant, fenced-off, and unattractive, a relic of a scuttled RenCorp-organized condo redevelopment. (That building may be for sale.)

But on the other hand, there are significant signs of life on the West End that give us reason to believe that there may be an upward swing underway in the district. Here’s a list of the exciting and important projects ongoing on the West End.

1400 Tower || This project, from developer Mick McDowell, will construct a $20 million, 17-story condominimum building with 52 units. Plans include a three-story parking garage accessed from Peaceful Valley, a plaza on the Riverside Ave side, and luxury amenties.

West End Lofts || The Norman-Jefferson Building will be remodeled to include 10,000 square feet of first-floor retail and around 24,000 square feet of residential space on the upper floors, for a total of eight loft condos. This project lies at the opposite end of the block which also houses the former Otis Hotel building.

Steel Barrel and Zona Blanca || This exciting project includes a brewery incubator led by Steel Barrel Brewing and a ceviche bar, Zona Blanca, owned by famed chef Chad White. A number of other breweries will be sharing the space, including Young Buck and Little Spokane. This should lead to a brewery district of sorts, with River City Brewing, Iron Goat, Steam Plant, and Orlison nearby. NoLi Brewing also pondered opening a downtown taphouse last year, but we haven’t heard anything since.

Montvale Hotel and Montvale Hall || This block has been undergoing significant transition, with the addition of Brooklyn Deli, Gilded Unicorn, and a number of other establishments. With the new owner Jerry Dicker and Ruby Hospitality in control of the Montvale Hotel and the Oddfellows Building, expect renewed activity and significant renovations, including a new events center called Montvale Hall. Hopefully this new activity will spur redevelopment of the Music City Building, which formerly housed Terrain.

1207 W 1st Ave || Preliminary planning documents indicate a proposal for a restaurant in the building located at 1207 W 1st Ave, which currently houses storage for North by Northwest. No specifics are given including the type of restaurant, and a pre-development conference does not guarantee future development, but the applicant notes the intention to create an outdoor patio area on the site.

Certainly these projects and more indicate that there is a level of interest in the West End that hasn’t been seen since before the economic crisis. Hopefuly development in this area will continue to surpass expectations, and we’ll keep you posted as these projects move forward. Share your thoughts below in the comments on what you hope to see in the area next.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: Are you seeing a renewed interest in the West End of downtown? Would you live or work in the area? Would you oepn a business there? Is there a building that you’d particularly like to see redeveloped, like the Otis Hotel? And what of the idea of a “brewery district?” Would you be a fan of such a development? Share your thoughts below in the comments, on Facebook, on Twitter, or in person. We love to hear from you!

A closer look at three important ways to improve the Jensen-Byrd District plan

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This is the site plan for the Jensen-Byrd District, as proposed by JB Development, a partnership between Wally Trace and McKinstry. A few changes would dramatically improve the development plan for the site, making it more inviting for the next fifty-plus years. (PHOTO: jensenbyrd.com)

When the Jensen-Byrd District plan was revealed in full for the first time last week, we rightfully noted the spectacular form and scale that the plan took. At 250,000 square feet, it’s the largest downtown Spokane development in nearly a generation. And by including space well-suited for high-tech and biotech companies, it could mark a turning point in Spokane’s overall economy.

But it’s important to note also that the site plan has some significant pain-points, challenges which we expect to be resolved before the developer is granted a building permit. It’s easy to forget that once a building is built, it’s likely to remain there for at the very minimum, fifty years (well, most of the time). That’s why we need to ensure that this development is held to a high standard: the University District is intended to drive Spokane’s economy in the 21st century and beyond. To create a place fit for the next fifty-plus years, we need to do better than the current plan. Here are some concrete steps to making that happen.

1. Create a better, more inviting, and more distinct north landing for the University District Pedestrian Bridge. In the current plan, a pedestrian crossing the bridge northbound will land facing the parking garage, where it’s unclear whether there will be a clear path forward to the Jensen-Byrd Building itself. At this landing, there should be some wayfinding information, as well as other active space, such as retail on the first floor of the parking garage. Imagine an inviting cafe or coffeehouse with outdoor seating and programmable space. There should also be an easy path through the parking garage to the Jensen-Byrd. (It appears that there may be an alleyway of some kind for this purpose; how could this alley be made more inviting for pedestrians? Overhead lights? Restaurant space a la Mizuna?)

2. Develop a phased master plan for the overall site, including development for the surface parking lots included in the current site plan. There’s zero justification for the surface parking lots to remain on the site plan, given the 450-space parking garage included in the first phase. This land would be better put to use in the interim as open space or public parkland; in the future, it should be developed to support the continued growth of the University District. As of now, however, we don’t know when or whether that will happen. This planning and building approval process should include specific planning for these sites.

3. Repave the section of Main Street in front of the Jensen-Byrd Building with brick, and close it to vehicles, to create a more inviting pedestrian landscape and a plaza of sorts for events and special occasions. Even if the street is not closed to vehicles, it would be more vibrant, more interesting, and more programmable if paved with brick. Imagine Friday food truck gardens or Saturday farmers’ markets on this site. Paved with brick, this could become a huge selling point to any potential tenant of the Jensen-Byrd District development.

Overall, these three changes could go a long way toward improving the Jensen-Byrd District plan. It’s unclear what degree of flexibility to public comment the developers will have, but it’s worth a shot. Fortunately, it’s likely that design review will be required for this project. We will share information on public comment when it becomes available.

In the meantime, your best bet to offer feedback for the project is to use the comment form on the development’s website. Be sure to select “other” for the contact category so it’s directed to the right people. Perhaps we can make a difference in improving this project.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: Would these improvements help improve the Jensen-Byrd District plan to make it more future-proof and vibrant? Would you approve of a better connection from the Pedestrian Bridge, given the large amount of public funding going to that project? What about brick paving for Main Ave? Share your thoughts on Facebook, on Twitter, and in the comments below. We love to hear from you!

 

Idea #28: Bikeshare system

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Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare has been successful in enabling last-mile connections and easy tourist connections. It has also exceeded expectations in placemaking, remaking many of its station areas into plazas and new public space. (PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons)

Across the country, bikeshare systems are adding to the array of multimodal and diverse public transportation choices while allowing an opportunity for private companies and vendors to capture a new market. In addition, these bicycle rental and subscription services can help to build new urban spaces, diverse and innovative squares, and centers for public life. Even a simple intersection can become a “place,” if enhanced with a bike station, benches, and perhaps curb bulb-outs or other streetscape enhancements.

It’s time for Spokane to join these cities.

Imagine the potential of a bikeshare system with stations in Browne’s Addition, the University District, near Gonzaga University, on Hamilton, in the Garland District, in the South Perry, and in multiple locations downtown. Imagine the potential of being able to grab a bike downtown and ride to grab a pizza at the Elk in Browne’s Addition, then take a Spokane Transit bus home. Imagine the potential of riding from the Garland District to Kendall Yards, and never having to worry about finding a bike rack or carrying a lock. Instead, you can just drop the bike at a station.

And bikeshare would take advantage of our growing bicycle infrastructure in Spokane, including added bike lanes on Main Avenue and other area roads and streets. It could help to grow Spokane’s bicycle culture from niche to mainstream. And that’s something that could benefit us all, through a more active streetscape and a greater availability of alternative commuting options.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: What do you think? Would a bikeshare system work in Spokane? Where would you like to see a station? Do you see bikeshare as a viable option for commuting, or more of an alternative for tourists and convention guests? Share your thoughts in the comments below, on Facebook, on Twitter, or in person. We love to hear from you!

BREAKING: Massive 250,000 square foot Jensen-Byrd District promises adaptive reuse, space for tech/biotech companies

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If everything goes as planned, by 2018, the Jensen-Byrd Building in Spokane’s University District will grow into a mixed-use area of its own, featuring tech/biotech offices, retail, retaurants, and an athletic center over 250,000 square feet. (PHOTO: jensenbyrd.com)

 

Earlier this year, WSU Spokane awarded a contract for remodel and reuse of the Jensen-Byrd Building to a partnership of Seattle developer Wally Trace and the local office of design-build energy efficiency firm McKinstry. We knew that the partners had significant plans for the site, but now we’re getting our first look at the project.

And it’s absolutely spectacular.

Not content to simply remodel the historic Jensen-Byrd warehouse, JB Development will develop a massive, 250,000 square foot adaptive reuse of the main building and the Pacific Produce Building and construct a new 442-space parking garage, a 50,000 square foot retail and fitness center, and an 84,000 square foot mixed-use tech/biotech office building. The result will be what they are calling the Jensen-Byrd District. Aimed at tech and biotech companies, the buildings will feature the large floor plates, modern data connections, and retail amenities that large companies expect, but which don’t exist at this point in our city.

In other words, if marketed correctly, these two buildings could help Spokane land a major tech or biotech tenant. It’s a dream that’s been building for a while, with significant investment in the University District (including the Pedestrian Bridge, expected to be complete in 2018) in pursuit of attracting private companies. With the right targeted action and marketing, now we have a specific site that could accommodate those demanding tenants.

Jump after the break for more discussion and renderings.

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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.

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

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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.