Following an increased interest in development in certain neighborhoods here in recent years, the city has updated its center-and-corridors design standards. Now city officials have begun to seek further input as they move toward a scheduled update of the comprehensive plan, which guides the future development of the city and its defined Urban Growth Area.
Last year, city council member Amber Waldref took the lead organizing an update to the centers-and-corridors design standards, speaking with business owners and property developers about needed changes.
“In 2000, the city adopted its comprehensive land-use plan, which set goals for growth and development of mixed-usage areas,” says Waldref. “The initial design standards developed then were still in effect until last year.”
The city’s comprehensive plan focused on the concept of Centers and Corridors, designating certain areas as places where residential and commercial-use developments flowed together.
Waldref says there are about 20 different centers and corridors within the city. Corridors tend to be longer streets or avenues, while centers involve heavy retail concentrations.
Some developers have expressed concern over whether the new standards are too strict, particularly sections outlining the placement of drive-thru lanes, and the need for buildings to be built up to the street. Last month, plans for a Burger King restaurant at the corner at the southwest corner of the busy intersection of Monroe Street, Indiana Avenue, and Northwest Boulevard were shelved due to design concerns.
At that time, Marshall Clark, president and broker with Clark Pacific Real Estate Co, said he was struggling to assist the property’s owner, Lloyd Torgerson, in finding a suitable tenant for the site. Clark said he saw the new design standards, as well as upcoming planned changes to Monroe Street, as being anti-business.
“Companies have reasons for where they decide to locate and invest, and by imposing these added layers of bureaucracy, the city makes it more difficult for them to make a living,” he asserts, in more recent comments to the Journal.
He points to the example of a now deserted lot on the corner of Hamilton Street and Mission Avenue, the former site of a Magic Touch Carwash.
“Since the ordinances were passed, that lot has sat vacant because no one is interested in developing it due to those restrictions. Meanwhile, the McDonalds location just up the street, which was built before the changes, is consistently busy,” he contend, adding, “These changes start as well-meaning ideas for making an area prettier or safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, but they’re not practical and they’re making it harder for business to be successful.”
Waldref says the city’s intent for centers and corridors is that they bring employment, shopping, and residential activities into shared locations and encourage economic growth through new development.
Spokane’s municipal code says new development and redevelopment in these areas is encouraged to promote cohesive development patterns with mixed uses, higher density housing, buildings oriented to the street, screened parking behind buildings, alternative modes of transportation, and safe pedestrian environments, as well as smaller blocks featuring narrower streets with on-street parking.
While initial design guidelines were put in place to set standards for developers to follow, Waldref says that there was little interest shown in creating development in those areas for several years, particularly following the 2008 recession.
“Now, in the last few years, there has been more investment in those areas,” she says. “Once development started occurring, it became clear that the standards weren’t doing what the community thought they would to support building design and interaction with the street.”
The centers-and-corridors design standards specify requirements for building and site designs, including entrances, facades, curbs, sidewalks, parking, drive-thru lanes, building materials, roofs, signage, and treatment of historical context and landmarks.
Waldref says it took a year to update the standards, with many changes focusing on the specific language of the guidelines, such as turning “should” into “shall.” She says “shall” verbiage now designates design standards that are mandatory, while “should” statements designate those with some room for flexibility.
“When the language says should, it doesn’t mean you have to do it,” she says. “The concern was that too many statements like that allowed for one developer to follow the guidelines, and another within the same block to decide they don’t have to.”
Waldref says the response from the community through public feedback was that certain standards must be phrased as mandatory.
“Most of the language changes involved building orientation with the street, allowing for easy entrance and access for pedestrians,” she says.
She says another of the key updates to the design standards was a change in how designs are reviewed and approved.
“It was suggested to us by architects and designers that if we were adding ‘shall’ statements, it would be helpful to have a review board to discuss cases where flexibility is still needed,” she says.
In cases where a design must deviate from the standards, it can be brought before the review board, which then would determine whether there are alternatives that would allow it to still meet the intent of the standards.
“Since the updates were made, I don’t believe we’ve had anyone come to the review board with a case, but I would like them to start being an active part of building design in centers and corridors,” says Waldref.
Tami Palmquist, an assistant planner at the city, says that apart from the Shari’s location, so far the planning department hasn’t seen many new projects come in that would be hindered by the updated standards.
“We have seen smaller projects and additions, but no major developments since the new standards went into effect,” she says. “Some projects have seen challenges, but for the most part, people are used to the need for higher development standards in center-and-corridor areas and are willing to work through them.”
Looking ahead, Waldref says the city’s comprehensive plan is due for an update in 2017, and city planning officials have begun gathering input for possible changes.
She says future changes in centers and corridors might involve a deeper look at things such as zoning and site-specific recommendations.
“It could be that we need to expand centers and corridors in certain areas, or reduce them in others,” she says. “What I’m hoping to see in the future are design standards that are more specific to each area. Each of these communities is different, and design should be sensitive to those differences.”
Louis Mueller, another of Spokane’s city planners, says the city is working on a minor update to the comprehensive plan right now that involves mainly reviewing each chapter to make sure the standards still conform to state regulations.
“These will be minor changes, in preparation for the larger scheduled update to the plan that is due by June 2017,” he says. “For that, we’ll be taking an even deeper look at the plan to determine whether the centers-and-corridors strategy is achieving intended goals for growth and development.”
Mueller says he is a co-lead planner on one of the larger proposed updates to the comprehensive plan, an addition to its transportation chapter known as Link Spokane.
That’s a process, he says, that integrates the plan’s transportation and utility components. In combining the two, he says, city street projects would include work that needs to be done both above and below ground into one cost-effective project.
“This way, when we look at doing these streetscape projects on the surface, at the same time, we’ll also be retrofitting the street for better below-ground infrastructure like storm and wastewater management,” he says.
Mueller says updates to the comprehensive plan also include a new implementation chapter that will detail a schedule for when and where the city’s own projects will take place.
He says as part of the process of updating the plan’s chapters, a task force has been developed to examine infill development regulations.
“We’re re-examining the issue of how we can make development that is more intensive fit in with existing developments,” he says. “City Council has been working with the planning department to take another look at those regulations, and how we can update them to continue encouraging development.”
The city of Spokane’s website says that the Infill Development Committee will examine strategies for single-family, multifamily, and combined residential and commercial development on vacant and underdeveloped lots in designated centers and other appropriate areas where residential and mixed-use growth is encouraged.
The committee is expected to prepare a preliminary report for general public comment and an open house Aug. 30, to allow for public feedback. It then will make its final report and recommendations in September.
Waldref says she is happy to see more discussion of infill development, as it relates to concerns brought forth by community members during earlier updates to center-and-corridor design standards.
“Infill creates opportunities for developers to build townhomes, duplexes, and other two-story buildings which serve as transition zones between commercial and residential areas,” she says.
“Transition zones will be a big consideration moving forward. Many communities want to see development happen, but they also want to make sure it looks good, is compatible with existing buildings, and transitions well into surrounding areas.”
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