Council votes 6-1 to accept negotiated agreements that will guide new retail developments at Spokane’s southern entrance.
Thirteen months ago, city leaders delivered a major case of heartburn to residents of the city’s Southgate neighborhood by opening large tracts to “big box” retail development. Monday night, the Spokane City Council Monday approved a settlement that, while not ending the heartburn, at least gives the neighborhood new leverage in guiding the development of the large tracts that straddle South Regal Street and the Palouse Highway.
Monday night’s 6 to 1 vote formally ends the legal dispute between the Southgate Neighborhood (and other citizen groups), the city, and the developers of the properties, including KXLY and the Black Development Company. With help from the Center for Justice, Southgate resident Ginger Patano, the Southgate council, Neighborhood Alliance, and Futurewise, had appealed the city’s comprehensive plan amendments first to the Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, and then to Superior Court. Under terms of the settlement, the appeals will now be dropped.
Although she quickly complimented the Center’s Rick Eichstaedt for his work in negotiating the agreement with the city and developers, Patano found herself struggling a bit for words to describe her feelings after the vote last night. The mixed feelings she said she and her neighbors had about the agreement comes from their strong opposition to having big box stores on the properties.
“I think no one in the neighborhood wanted this,” Patano said. “But this is better than just giving them carte blanche.”
Patano agreed that the turning point in the controversy was the Growth Management Hearings Board’s convoluted ruling last October that sided with the city and developers. Even though ruling against Patano and the Southgate Neighborhood Council, the hearings board also concluded, among other things, that the city had failed to engage in neighborhood planning as required by its own comprehensive plan. The board also found that the comp plan was in “conflict” with the city’s development rules on the depth of public involvement required.
The hearings board ruling, coupled with Washington state’s unusual law on “vesting”–that makes it all but impossible to stop a development once it gets a foothold in the application process–clearly put Patano and the other appellants in a difficult spot. The effect of the “vesting” rule is that even winning an appeal on the merits of the law is likely to be academic because of the strong protections developers have against being retroactively penalized for errors committed by permitting entities.
“This is just the beginning of an unknown phase. We have to make sure, as a neighborhood, that we’re in touch with all these processes and that we hold these officials and developers accountable.”–Southgate resident and urban design expert Kerry Brooks.
Given that reality, Eichstaedt said that he approached Spokane assistant city attorney James Richman while the hearings board decision was on appeal and asked if there was an opportunity for the parties to work together as the city crafted agreements with the Southgate developers. Richman agreed, Eichstaedt said, and as a result the development agreements were negotiated with a number of improvements that would address at least some of the neighbors’ concerns. Click here to read one of the representative settlement agreements.
Specifically, the development agreements approved Monday night include:
*An “integrated site plan” process that will give neighborhood council standing through the design review process to have input into final design decisions.
•Major concessions on the store footprints that would be placed on the parcels.
•Dedicated pedestrian and bicycle paths through the properties.
•An extensive stormwater treatment system that should, according to the developers, have the additional benefit of resolving existing drainage problems in the area that periodically flood residential basements.
•A provision for a community plaza paid for by the developers.
•various design amenities that will enhance the aesthetic and engineering qualities of the developments.
•”Viewscape” guarantees that allow people using the property to have unobstructed views of Mt. Spokane and Browne’s Mountain.
•Provisions for developers to pay transportation and environmental impact fees to help fund public infrastructure improvements in the vicinity of the developments.
“Part of our settlement agreement, and I think it’s an important one, says that if the city is thinking about changing the comp plan or development regulations with regard to neighborhood planning, they have to meet with the neighborhood to talk about what that looks like, to try to reach consensus,” Eichstaedt says. “There is some strong feeling that whatever direction this ends up going that Southgate in particular have an opportunity to be at that table for these discussions. If the neighborhood and the city can’t reach consensus on what this looks like, the agreement says the neighborhood gets the opportunity at both the plan commission and the city council to present their version. So, in essence, we get a little mini-amendment for Southgate to the public participation requirements of a comp plan change. So that’s an enhanced participation piece, as part of the settlement, that they’re (Southgate Neighborhood) getting.”
There were already signs, Monday night, that the neighborhood involvement via the integrated site plan would be crucial down the line. For example, Eichstaedt and developer attorneys Stan Schwartz and Stacy Bjordahl conceded that there remained a difference of views over the meaning of the word “dedicated” as it applied to the pedestrian and bicycle connections required by the settlement. But Eichstaedt said he was confident the issue would be sorted out through the site planning process laid out in the development agreements.
Eichstaedt had two main messages to deliver to the council Monday night. The first was to not tinker with the agreements because the Southgate Neighborhood Council’s backing was predicated on the agreements as presented to the council. Secondly, Eichstaedt said, “for this to work, all of us need to be diligent–the neighbors, the city council, the city staff and the developers–that the promises and commitments that are made in these development agreements are actually followed through on.”
Notwithstanding the neighborhood’s support for the agreements, Council member Richard Rush objected to it, largely because of how the council had handled the issue leading up to the decisions it made last year to approve the comprehensive plan changes (including the necessary re-zoning of the properties) to allow the “big box” developments to proceed. In doing so, Rush noted that, according to developer representatives on hand Monday night, there were, as yet, no tenant commitments on any of the properties.
Rush seemed especially concerned that the accommodating the development in the area would require additional public investment, particularly in transportation infrastructure.
“It’s giving me pause,’ Rush said, “that we are making this change now, when we don’t really see any immediate benefit coming now from that change. The city is essentially committing an embedded infrastructure liability with regard to circulation. One of the things that the property owners were asked for, as part of these negotiations, was contributions to a street grid in the neighborhood, and that was summarily dismissed. So we’re going to create even more traffic problems in that area than we have now.”
Rush also complained about a ten year “sunset” clause in the agreement that, he said, raises the question of whether the development agreements will be enforceable in the future, especially if the properties change hands. He also complained that the city had rejected the neighbors’ preference for a pedestrian oriented center, for one that was automobile oriented.
“We really don’t know what kind of development is going to be best for this area,” he concluded. “We don’t know what the future holds for development. We’re sort of writing a blank check here that has liability for the neighborhood and liability for the city. And because there is no pay off to the neighborhood or the city because there are infrastructure challenges, I’m going to oppose the agreements.”
Rush’s criticism clearly caught council member Al French by surprise and he jabbed back to underscore the concessions that the property developers had made through the agreements.
“I didn’t realize we’d be re-debating the whole issue of why we approved this project in the first place but since we seem to have gone down that path I just want to point out that there are those in the community that say the cc has violated the comp plan and that we haven’t adhered to the principles of the comp plan and, from my standpoint, this is one of the areas where I think it’s a legitimate complaint because what we’ve done is we’ve said between the developer and the neighborhood, strike the compromise that works for both.”
French also emphasized that studies have shown there is an unmet demand for retail services in this section of the city that is not only putting stress on other neighborhoods, but also sending sales tax receipts to other jurisdictions.
“We are currently losing revenue to the City of the Spokane Valley because folks on the South Hill are traveling to the valley to get their goods and services, as opposed to trying to travel to the north,” French said. “The amount of traffic that goes through the East Central neighborhood as a result of folks going up and down Thor-Freya is such that we’ve heard from the East Central neighborhood complaining about the amount of through traffic through their neighborhood.”
A goal of the comprehensive plan, French said, was not to shift burdens from one neighborhood to another.
After the meeting, Kerry Brooks, said that while he supported the agreement, the burden of whether it will work or not falls on him and others in the Southgate neighborhood. Brooks is an associate professor at Washington State University’s Interdisciplinary Design Institute and an urban design expert who’s worked on the Southgate Neighborhoods land use committee and helped organize its stakeholder planning group.
“This is just the beginning of an unknown phase,” Brooks said. “We have to make sure, as a neighborhood, that we’re in touch with all these processes and that we hold these officials and developers accountable.”