New development along Spokane Falls Boulevard would be a welcome improvement over surface parking lots currently situated on some of those sites. As the city of Spokane looks at lifting building-height restrictions on land across from Riverfront Park, it should be mindful not to place other hindrances on those sites that would impede potential projects.
Riverfront Park is downtown Spokane’s crown jewel, and nothing should be permitted on neighboring property that would take away from its luster. That said, the city’s core has much to gain from having new development—ideally mixed use with a heavy residential component—across from the park.
Building height restrictions, first put in place as part of a downtown plan in 2009, limit the height of new construction to 100 feet, or roughly 10 stories, with an option to tier a building’s height in stories leading away from a building’s street side.
That restriction has impeded development, claims Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership. He says landowners have told him about one potential hotel project along Spokane Falls Boulevard—considered prior to construction of the Davenport Grand Hotel—that a developer ultimately didn’t pursue because the project didn’t pencil out at 10 floors.
While that report is unconfirmed, what’s certain is that nothing has happened, in terms of development, on those sites during the past decade. Two of the parking lots—those located at the southwest and southeast corners of Spokane Falls Boulevard and Stevens Street—are among the downtown opportunity sites listed in the 2009 Downtown Plan Update, yet they remain among the few such designated sites where nothing has happened to date.
Although the city is considering lifting height limits, the city planning commission and staff have recommended other restrictions, such as a maximum building floor plate size, a minimum distance between buildings, and requiring residential units to be a component in any new project on those sites. While development of residential units across from the park would be a great addition to downtown’s housing inventory, such restrictions still have the potential to stifle progress as much as building heights. It would be better to let market factors determine the best size and use for a project, while adhering to design standards and zoning that applies to the rest of the city’s core.
The impetus for height limits and maximum floor plate sizes stems largely from concerns over the shading effects that tall buildings could have on the park. Shading scenarios commissioned by the Downtown Spokane Partnership and those on the city’s website suggest that development certainly could cast shadows on the southernmost part of the park, but they wouldn’t be profound. Most importantly, they would be negligible at midday and in summer months, when the sun is higher in the sky.
Certainly, nobody wants development neighboring the park to have an eclipsing effect on its features, but it doesn’t appear as though that is a realistic concern.
Make developers with potential projects along Spokane Falls Boulevard play by the same rules as the rest of downtown and make it more plausible that something will happen on those sites. Doing so could spur much-needed activity on what should be coveted sites for development.