Friday, June 22, 2007

City of Spokane Street Development Standards Challenged

This morning was a perfect ride day. It was 68 degrees at 9:30 AM, clear skies, and I had the day off. My plan was to go to a quick hearing at city hall and be off... home by 2pm.

The hearing lasted 3.5 hours, and I never thought of leaving once.
This is thick stuff and I try not to bring this kind of crud to my blog, but if you live in Spokane, and you believe Spokane can be a great place, then this stuff matters.

If you otherwise enjoy reading the stuff I have here, consider this a blog-tax.

Here's the goo, if you want to cut the chase, see the numbered list at the end...

In Spokane we have a Comprehensive Plan. If you only read one piece then just read Chapter 4, the Transportation Chapter. In my mind that's the meat. It's easy and fun reading. Really: it's not about how wide a street must be or the depth of the gravel that must be laid down -- it's really about a vision of a city that prioritizes pedestrians and bicycles and other forms of mass transit over single occupancy vehicles. It's a beautiful and progressive vision that would turn Spokane into a world class city.

Anyway, the comp plan is that: a Plan. Where the rubber meets the road is in the Spokane Street Development Standards. This is the document that codifies the chapter 4 of the comp plan. When engineers go and scope out a project, they go to this document. According to the Growth Management Act, we must have a comp plan and the Development Standards must be consistent with the Comp Plan.

Today, the Comp Plan says: if you go and build new roads, you must follow the plan outlined in the comp plan. However, if you are re-working existing roads, you don't have to follow the comp plan. This is what the hearing was all about. We're doing these massive resurfacing projects throughout the city and there is no provision for implementing the comp plan as we do them.

So, we've got $110M or so being poured into the infrastructure of Spokane over the next 10 years to do these massive projects on big arterial and some side streets. We'll have to live with many of these roads as they are configured today for the next few decades. That's huge. Especially when you consider how we could be doing some pretty simple bits to redesign for complete streets at an incremental cost now that is tiny compared to what we will surely have to retrofit in the future.

The Hearing
The hearing was fascinating in so many ways. I'm still processing. Aside from Richard Rush, the petitioner of the hearing, there were no familiar faces and no audience to speak of besides me. It's interesting to me that this kind of hearing is not better publicized by the city, nor is it attended and reported on by the local news, as the consequences are vast for all of us.

The petition that Richard Rush was arguing was denied. In a nutshell: He failed to show sufficient evidence that the city's exemption as stated in the Development Street Standards on existing roads was inconsistent with the Comp Plan.

The hearing examiners were all sympathetic in their denial of the petition -- one of the examiners was a long time county commissioner, the other two examiners had pushed the GMA at the state level some years past.

They all agreed that the final implementation of the Comp Plan exception for existing infrastructure was poor and not the right thing, but as hearing examiners they could only make a motion on the legality of the case, which was: is the language adopted by Development Street Standards consistent with the Comp Plan. They had to agree it was since the language in the Street Standards, as the city lawyer argued, "does not conflict with or preclude the comp plan from being implemented."

This is nearly an impossible argument to win -- basically, to win it on these terms, you have to show that the codes written in the Street Standards directly contradict or conflict with the standards recommended in the comp plan. Of course they don't contradict it; instead, they barely mention specific street facilities to incorporate, saying that there's nothing to preclude them from putting more facilities on if necessary. Slick.

The examiners, who travel all over eastern Washington hearing and ruling on these cases, said in the cases that they hear about bad implementation of comp plans they almost always have to do with exemptions granted in the plans that are too broad. That is the case here. we've basically said: if you build new stuff: follow the comp plan. If you are doing work on existing infrastructure: it's up to engineering on how to implement it.

My Take Aways
1. We must make the language in the comp plan much more prescriptive. Today it is too descriptive. For the purposes of painting a vision of what Transportation could look like in Spokane, the comp plan is a masterpiece. As a document that prescribes and specifies implementation or as a plan for codification, it needs to be tightened way up. We need more shalls, not shoulds.

2. At the end of the day, legally, the decisions about what kind of street facilities/amenities will be (or likely, will not be) added to an existing street (i.e., Bernard re-surfacing; 37th resurfacing; Maple/Ash resurfacing) is squarely with the head of engineering. This is a huge loop hole that was baked into the Development Street Standards that must be fixed.

We must have a process baked into any significant projects (such as the massive resurfacing projects being accomplished with the 10 year bond money -- the effects of which we will have to live with for many decades) that guarantees that the policy and goals laid out in the comp plan are taken into account and signed off by planning, engineering, and other relevant departments.

This doesn't mean we'll implement every last standard in the comp plan on existing streets, but it will mean that when we resurface a street as huge as 37th (as the City did, between Grand and Bernard last year), the majority of which runs next to school property, we would look at facilities such as sidewalks on both sides, bike lanes, pedestrian buffers, street trees -- all of which can easily fit on this massive street -- and would slow the traffic to a reasonable speed while creating an inviting place to walk or ride a bike.

It is an awful stretch of road to ride or walk on at the moment. And unless someone comes up with gobs of money to retrofit it in the future, it's likely to be an awful road well into my daughter's lifetime.

3. Who we elect matters. Much of this is about political will. If people elect other people that care about this stuff, it will change. Find out how your local representatives think.

4. If more folks understood the spirit and direction of the comp plan and the vision of the city that it paints, I believe they would stand behind candidates and perhaps even tax initiatives that supported the real implementation of the comp plan. The benefits of the comp plan are extremely difficult to sound-byte, but very easy to rail against if your a typical anti-tax crusader.

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