Spokane Journal of Business

Commentary

Downtown plan actions should recognize greatest challenges

Those working on the downtown master plan should be lauded for collaboration in rolling out a vision to energize Spokane’s urban core. Their plan of action, however, should recognize the top areas of concern that were identified early in the drafting process for the 10-year master plan—public safety and homelessness.

The plan contains a lofty list of priority actions intended to guide development and nurture a well-organized, connected, and walkable downtown with thriving arts and culture, historic places, and welcoming public spaces.

While the priority actions appear to focus on areas most stakeholders agree on, the difficult and pressing issues of homelessness and public safety didn’t make the priority list.

That’s despite the fact that homelessness and public safety were identified as downtown’s “greatest challenges” in a survey conducted during the plan’s drafting process. Two-thirds of the survey’s 590 respondents cited homelessness as downtown’s greatest challenge, and 57% identified public safety as a top concern. Those concerns are significantly greater in sentiment than other top challenges, such as streetscapes, parks, and public spaces (48%); transportation and mobility (33%); and housing (29%).

The plan, as drafted now, seems to leave discussions about the greatest challenges for another day—or at least, another setting.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, a member of the plan’s steering committee, says social issues don’t belong in the plan, because they could set it up for failure if not all stakeholders are on board. For example, there’s no partnership agreement yet among jurisdictions that would need to be involved in a proposed regional effort to distribute housing and services beyond downtown to serve those experiencing homelessness. Consequently, Kinnear says, it wouldn’t be productive to make it part of the plan.

The city and stakeholders will work on such social issues independently of the plan, she says.

A worry among business leaders, however, is that if issues surrounding homelessness and public safety aren’t acknowledged and tracked among priority actions in the downtown master plan, progress in combatting them won’t occur. In an era in which the population of people sleeping on sidewalks and camping under downtown’s railroad viaducts has grown larger, that’s a legitimate concern.

In that context, if the plan doesn’t address downtown’s biggest challenges, it’s doomed. Anything else it could accomplish won’t matter if the city’s core can’t make progress on homelessness and public safety.

The plan can’t of itself solve the complex issue of homelessness in the city, but some proactive measures can be prioritized in the plan.

For example, it would be appropriate for the master plan to prioritize design standards for certain housing projects to provide services on campus, to avoid tenants disrupting activities on neighboring properties.

Regarding public safety, the Downtown Spokane Partnership, which also is involved in developing the plan, wants to incorporate the concept of crime prevention through environmental design. Such design elements are intended to help reduce victimization, deter decisions that precede criminal activity, and enhance a sense of safety. Some simple elements of prevention through design include enhanced lighting and avoidance or removal of line-of-sight barriers that can hide criminal activity.

The proposed downtown master plan has gone through a thorough public process and continues to do so as a comment period is still open. Later this month, it will be taken up by the city’s Plan Commission and eventually forwarded with recommendations to the City Council.

Hopefully, at some point in that process, it will recognize downtown’s greatest challenges enough to include actions to address them.