Streets, Good ‘ol Boys, and Bureaucrats

…in a city without seats, a beach chair can be king.

Janette Sadik Khan, from her book Streetfight (2016)


In spring of 2016, the Audubon-Downriver Neighborhood Council invited Spokane’s traffic engineer, Bob Turner, to discuss pedestrian safety on Northwest Boulevard in front of Audubon Park. Members of the neighborhood council requested the city consider traffic calming measures to increase safety for pedestrians who criss-cross Northwest Boulevard getting to and from the park and, not to mention, to Finch Elementary School.

Mr. Turner, with years of experience navigating the unique nuances of politely saying no to crowds of people, sure enough, politely said no to members of the neighborhood council that evening based on his opinion that the priority for Northwest Boulevard was to efficiently move vehicular traffic.

Keep Bob in mind for a moment as I tell you about another traffic engineer.

About 10 years ago, Jannette Sadik-Khan (Transportation Commissioner of New York City) came up with a crazy idea to place simple, affordable, plastic folding chairs in the middle of 46th and Broadway in New York City, otherwise known as Times Square. Mayor Bloomberg had her back and, in 2009, her idea materialized into a few dozen cheap folding chairs placed smack in the middle of one of the world’s busiest intersections in one of the world’s largest cities.

Times Square June 2009
Times Square in June, 2009, soon after cheap folding chairs were introduced. Where are Spokane’s urban visionaries?

I wonder how Mayor Condon would respond if Bob Turner walked into his office and suggested closing down the intersection of Post and Main, right in front of River Park Square, to experiment with folding chairs, just as Sadik-Khan did with Mayor Bloomberg for Times Square? Suffice to say, David Condon is no Michael Bloomberg and Bob Turner is no Sadik-Khan.

Similarly, in 2011, the city’s former Planning Director (Scott Chesney) sat down with me at the Steelhead Bar and Grill and excitedly pitched the concept of converting Main Street in downtown Spokane from a one-way street to a two-way street, and sold me on all the great city-building potential that a two-way Main Street would bring with it. In response, I said, “Hell, yeah. Let’s do this.”

Since then a grass roots movement has lobbied city hall to convert Main Street into a two-way. A clear majority of business owners along Main Street support the concept, with one notable exception: the owners of River Park Square. Unsurprisingly, the idea to convert Main Street was spiked by city hall and those that purport to advocate for downtown’s best interest.

In 2008, Washington, DC, Mayor Adrian Fenty hired Gabe Klein to run his transportation division. Prior to his tenure in DC, Klein had an untraditional education within the field of transportation. He started one of the nation’s first car-share programs and launched it in DC. Thereafter, he muddled his way through the local bureaucracy to establish DC’s first formalized food truck policy. With no academic degree in transportation engineering, planning, or even public administration, Klein certainly walked into the position of Director of the Washington, DC, Department of Transportation with a different perspective.

One of the projects that he’s most proud of was painting two bike lanes right down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. Thus, in the world’s most powerful city, on its most powerful street – a street that many an international motorcade traverses, a street the President traverses, members of congress, tourists, and locals – now has two big, bold, and beautiful bike lanes right down the middle of it. I think we’re on safe ground assuming L’Enfant would be proud.

Pennsylvania Ave Bike Lanes
Bike lanes on the world’s most powerful street.

Streets are the backbone of every city. Streets and the potential they hold are fundamental to city building, fundamental to quality of life and, indeed, fundamental for attracting industry. There’s a reason why it’s called “curb appeal.”

Downtown Spokane is the hippest place in the metro. If there is one place ripe for experimentation, it’s downtown. If there’s one place ripe to ride the cutting edge – like placing cheap, plastic folding chairs in the middle of a busy intersection – it’s downtown. If there is one place that should look, smell, and feel like a 21st century city, it’s downtown Spokane.

And so I’m curious, where’s the experimentation? Where’s the bold ideas? Where’s the expertise? Do you even know who L’Enfant is?

There’s a reason why our local political circles hired two former county commissioners to run two prominent “economic development” organizations within the metro, and it’s not because they know how to build 21st century cities. It’s because they’re good at toeing the line; they’re good at fundraising; they’re good at sharing a narrative. Do we really think the Downtown Spokane Partnership or Greater Spokane, Inc. are willing to back bike lanes in the middle of a street, or chairs in the middle of an intersection, or a two-way Main Street?

Nope. Why was a two-way Main Street spiked? It’s because the owners of River Park Square are among the largest donors to the Downtown Spokane Partnership (not to mention, GSI). And so these private, yet quasi-public, organizations do the bidding of those that can afford to pay to play. It’s the same circle of individuals that migrate from board to board recycling the same stale ideas, asking for another study, another special committee, holding meetings to discuss future meetings.

Such is exactly why innovative city building theories are not allowed the crisp, cool, and deep breath of fresh air that they deserve. Is it stuffy in here? Spokane’s political environment is stifling. No good idea goes unpunished. Good ideas are whispered in back rooms, quietly, like your harboring a dirty secret.

There’s a reason why Spokane is not a 21st century city; it’s because of ourselves. Where are Spokane’s visionary city builders? The bridge to the future is not Greater Spokane, Inc. or the Downtown Spokane Partnership. The bridge to the future is outside their narrow box. The bridge to the 21st century won’t come from institutional players or, for that matter, former county commissioners whose sole purpose is to placate, not innovate.

I want to put some chairs in a street. I don’t want former county commissioners — non-experts –dictating to me what a city is. I want Sadik-Khan. I want Gabe Klein. I want innovators, not keepers of the status quo. We have enough Bob Turners.

Allan Jacobs published a book called Great Streets in 1993. At the end of his book, Jacobs outlines eight essential characteristics that all must be deployed simultaneously to create a great street, and another 13 features that sure help. They are listed below. As you traverse around metro Spokane from street to street, try counting how many of Jacobs’ design elements are incorporated into the streetscape. It’s precious few. Now is also a good time to point out that GSI lobbied against the city’s complete streets ordinance Spokane City Council adopted a few years back. It’s safe to say, Spokane is progressing into a 21st century city despite Greater Spokane, Inc., and the Downtown Spokane Partnership.

Below is the recipe for how to build a street. I suspect GSI and DSP would be against this, too. You want change? This is how to do it. Enjoy.

  • Places for People to Walk with Some Leisure
  • Physical Comfort
  • Definition
  • Qualities That Engage the Eyes
  • Transparency
  • Complementarity
  • Maintenance
  • Quality of Construction and Design

“Qualities that Contribute”

  • Trees
  • Beginnings and Endings
  • Many Buildings rather than Few; Diversity
  • Special Design Features; Details
  • Places
  • Accessibility
  • Density Helps
  • Diversity
  • Length
  • Slope
  • Parking
  • Contrast
  • Time

Hell, yeah. Let’s do this.




*Image of Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes taken from flickr.