Spokane’s Best Neighborhoods –
Hipster Rating (out of 10): 9
Predominant Housing Prices:
Ownership: About $150,000
Rentals: About $500
Housing Density: Moderate in most places
Mixed Use Rating: Good
The University District is a relatively new phenomenon within Spokane. When Gonzaga University gained national notoriety in the late 1990s, enrollment skyrocketed. Once a small school with about 4,000 students, Gonzaga is now well over 10,000. Growth was so fast and furious for a few years, administrators have consciously decided to slow the enrollment rate to better allow for managed growth.
In the meantime, Washington State University began aggressively purchasing parcels located just across the Spokane River from Gonzaga with plans for an expanded Spokane presence. Eastern Washington University, already with a hub downtown, partnered with WSU to establish a refreshed presence in Spokane.
With all this activity, it wasn’t long before it crystallized within the minds of City boosters that a formal plan for University District development is a good economic development strategy.
Today, five universities have a presence within the University District: Gonzaga, Washington State, University of Washington, Whitworth, and Eastern Washington. And let’s not forget the step-child of the bunch – Spokane Community Colleges.
An Identifiable Center
The center of the University District is the Spokane River. Crisscrossed with footbridges and trails, access between campuses, housing, and commercial uses is no problem.
The University District’s boundaries are quite distinct. A Burlington Northern rail line represents the District’s hard southern boundary. Due to its limited crossing points, positive economic impacts of the University District have a hard time migrating across the tracks into the Sprague Avenue area. Plans are in the works, however, to construct an ornate footbridge across the tracks in the hopes of spurring more investment.
To the west, the University District stops at Division Street, separating downtown from the neighborhood. To the east, the District generally stops at the Spokane River. The northern boundary is the most subtle as the District fades into predominantly single family homes of its neighbor.
A Front Door
The University District has great front doors, the most ornate located on the busy intersection of Sprague and Riverside. However you may enter the District, most ingress points tell the traveler that they have arrived.
Mixed Land Uses
The University District has a fine mix of land uses. Somewhat ironically, what is lacking most is high density housing options. Enticing housing developers that will construct well planned units in a manner that further stimulates all that student energy represents an opportunity both for real estate developers and the District.
The University District’s Architecture tells the story of different development eras. On the Gonzaga side of the Spokane River, ornate and more traditional campus oriented architecture abounds. On the other side of the River, more contemporary structures are intermixed between old historic warehouses and brick buildings. Much of the private housing for students are converted Victorians that were once single family homes.
Structures that Address the Street
There’s a mixed bag here. On the new side of the District, most structures don’t address the street but the inner campus promenade. What street-side travelers get is a sea of surface parking. On the Gonzaga side of the District, the environment is much improved. Somehow, planners back in the late 1800s figured out how to accomplish the dual goals of addressing the street and addressing the inner campus.
Streets that Generally Connect
Aside from a few terminating at the Spokane River, most streets connect within the University District.
Most blocks within the U-District have detached sidewalks, even on the newer side of the River.
Although patchy and ripe for new plantings in some areas, much of the University District has street trees.
The U-District is quite walkable. Trails, detached sidewalks, foot bridges will all lead you to the multitude of mixed uses throughout the neighborhood. And, not to mention, downtown is about 5 minutes away.
Increasing student oriented residential housing density is the foremost challenge for the University District. The good news is the bulk of the U-District is within a tax increment area, by which there are still a number of years remaining on the TIF-clock. The University District Public Development Authority (a creature not unlike urban renewal authorities in other states) already exists and is a fine mechanism to establish residential development relationships with the intent to execute development deals.
Which brings me to challenge number two: analysis paralysis. Given the dearth of brainpower within the U-District, the Public Development Authority Board is stacked with, you guessed it, presidents from each of the respective universities, alongside other private sector professionals and civic boosters. This creates a board environment whereby voting members are more likely to discuss the philosophical aspects of given proposals, rather than concentrate on what it will take to close a transaction.
As uncomfortable as it may be, reduce the size of the PDA board to five or seven members. Stack the board with planners, private sector development professionals, and perhaps an attorney or two. Allow the university presidents to participate in an advisory capacity, and get to the business of generating more TIF dollars before the clock runs out.