Do you want to see 75-foot tall buildings around Mission Park and the area leading towards the Mission bridge? The Planning Commission is about to recommend that to the Spokane City Council on Monday, Jan 29, 2024.

This is part of the “South Logan TOD” — a transit-oriented development zoning plan for the area now served by the City Line bus system. I think the goal is a good one — encourage development (housing, retail) that in turn encourages more residents/customers to ride a bus instead of drive a car. It’s one ingredient in the simmering stew of a sustainable city.

The specific goal here is increasing the number of people who live within a half-mile of the City Line bus stops. Specifically, that’s several blocks surrounding Mission from Cincinnati to the river, and Cincinnati from Mission down through GU’s campus to where Spokane Falls Blvd turns into Trent.

There’s a lot of empty land on that south end that can be rezoned mixed-use/residential. It makes sense to build up density in that space. The freeway off-ramp can handle it, the new bridge on Trent can handle it, and there are proposals for improving Hamilton access. I have no complaints with that section, neither did any of the residents who came to the planning workshop at Gonzaga’s campus in 2023.

What did we say wasn’t right? Increasing zoning height around Mission Park in existing neighborhoods. What does the Planning Commission want? To double zoning height in the existing neighborhoods.

The current height: 35′ (up to 3 stories)
The proposed zone change: 75′ (up to 6 or 7 stories depending on design)

The designs are here:

This is just the beginning — Spokane has scheduled several development plans for more neighborhoods, and expect to use South Logan TOD as a template. If the City Council passes this, look for this kind of doubled zoning along all city bus routes.

What does 75′ zoning mean? It means that when a developer owns enough lots side-by-side, they can tear down what’s there and build something really big.

Well, research has shown us what happens when existing neighborhoods are zoned for high density:

  • Higher heat index. The existing green space already gives the Mission area a lower heat index than surrounding areas. SpoCanopy is desperately trying to increase green space and trees, especially in poorer communities such as Logan Neighborhood. The High Density zoning proposal takes us in the wrong direction.
  • Less community engagement. Logan already has a problem with getting non-owners to participate in local government (not guilt tripping or laying blame on y’all; renters are less likely to think about an area’s long-term problems. Want to buck the trend? Join the Logan Neighborhood Council!)
  • Displacement. Contrary to the TOD document’s belief, most of Logan’s residents are not Gonzaga students. (1st and 2nd year students are required to live on campus, and those units are not in the TOD’s calculations). But the strongest indication that the high property values have squeezed out families is in the Logan Elementary student population: 284 students, down almost 30% in the past five years. The TOD document assumes the area’s low income is “likely” from the large student population, but 85% of the Logan Elementary students qualify for free lunch, proving that the families are truly low-income. TOD gentrification tends to raise property values, resulting in higher rents that these families cannot afford.

Why would they do this to an existing neighborhood? Based on the proposal, here are a few ideas why:

  1. Focusing on “average units per acre” instead of average residents per acre. Going by the numbers, the non-GU area supposedly has only 3 units (houses, apartments) per acre. Those of us who live here know that many of those houses actually have up to 6 students or a couple of families living together inside, giving us the desired density anyway.
  2. Focus on property owners instead of residents. Let’s take a little look at SCOUT, the database of city property. Approximately 11% of these units are owner-occupied. Interestingly, one owner has 14 properties concentrated next to Mission Park, including an entire block of Sinto. It’s not hard to imagine all of those homes gone as soon as that owner has permission to build a 7-story apartment block. The Planning Commission argued that this is a 30-year plan without any immediate change; to me that means they didn’t check the public records of property ownership. Think the neighboring owner-occupied lots will see any benefit?
  3. Focus on number of units rather than benefits of owner-occupied units. Even though these houses are mostly rentals today, each is on an individual lot; some could still be sold to owners who would occupy the unit. Incentives to replace the homes with apartment buildings turns the space into permanent rentals, reducing opportunities to own. This in turn reduces community involvement and community stability.

So am I a NIMBY? Is change bad? Is growth inherently wrong? Not at all. I’m in favor of medium growth that puts home ownership within reach. How? Owner-occupied duplexes. It’s sustainable urban development that promotes community, uses land efficiently while still having green space, maintains the character of our existing neighborhoods, promotes ownership and still increases the rental market. I’ve lived in one for more than 30 years and I love it. The City has already changed zoning to allow duplex modifications to single-family homes. FHFA is empowering those purchases. Maybe the City can come up with other incentives?

Please work with Logan Neighborhood to pull back proposals for excessively-high zoning changes. A thriving community needs residents with secure, affordable housing. High-density rezoning of an existing neighborhood only benefits a handful of developers, not the community.

Deeper Reading:

The Conversation: High Density Neighborhoods Make Life Worse for the Poor – Results from Australia

Zillow’s panel of experts: Fix zoning to improve housing affordability – results of a survey support “middle housing” – ADUs, duplexes and triplexes in zones previously limited to single-family houses

Do Low-Income Families Build Wealth Through Homeownership? – a researched paper supporting low-income home ownership.

Transit-oriented development causing displacement – results in Vancouver, BC

Advocating as a Renter – one woman’s journey to neighborhood work.

Study finds Renters want a sense of Community due to Experience Era – which of these ideas would you like the Logan Neighborhood Council to try?