Jess Walter: The Urban Outdoors

DUE TO A REPORTING ERROR I recently found myself at a public hearing. The topic was Kendall Yards, KY as I affectionately call it, the 77-acre town of Sandpoint that developer Marshall Chesrown plans to gently ram into my neighborhood over the next decade.

Like a lot of West Centralites, I’m guardedly optimistic about development on the north shore of the Spokane River, for several reasons:

  1. I support packing the urban core, increasing density, saving gasoline, and keeping the rapacious Spokane County Commissioners from cul-de-sacking every last bit of forest.
  2. Kendall Yards is being built on once-polluted railroad land, what is commonly called “a brownfield.” (Coincidentally, this was my brother’s nickname in gym class, for reasons I’d rather not get into.)
  3. The development-condos, townhouses and plazas-has a certain urban cool factor. (Although California splits were also “cool” once.)
  4. Housing prices in my neighborhood are finally going up and I stand to make money on a Spokane home for the first time. (I lived in one house seven years and lost $30K; when I tell this to friends in other parts of the country, they look at me like I’m speaking Urdu.)

So while I’m hopeful, I went to the hearing because we must be diligent guardians of a section of riverfront that has largely escaped human traffic, except for those humans looking for a place to get stoned.

At the hearing I sat next to my smarter friend Ken (not his real name).While I gleefully fell for the developers’ Jetson’s vision of sophisticated urban dwellers in jetpacks with clones to do their bidding, Ken (okay, it is his real name) came armed with a list of comments. (“Your traffic study’ appears to have been done on Etch-a- Sketch.”)

The planners dismissed Ken’s traffic worries by saying the 5,500 new West Central residents (a 60 percent increase) would largely be pedestrian and light rail commuters.

Ken: “Then you’re putting in light rail tracks?”

Developer: “Uh. No.”

Ken: “Why not?”

Developer: “The city isn’t requiring it.”

Ken: “But you’re putting in an easement.”

Developer: “Uh. No.”

Ken: “Why not?”

Developer: “The city isn’t requiring it.”

Jess: “Ooh, how about an Orange Julius!”

While I left the meeting still cautiously optimistic, it’s become clear that the city and county are so horny for development they’ll give it up to anyone with a real estate license and a tassled loafer. I know they’ve been waiting eighty years for this boom, but they’re blowing a great opportunity. Just look at Seattle, where twenty years into its economic explosion, public transportation still somehow involves the monorail, a form of transit that exists only at Disneyland.

This is why the city should demand that light rail easements be a part of every new development within three miles of downtown. With a little tax money, in five years we could have light rail stripping the north side of the river, dropping down into Peaceful Valley and going up into Brown’s Addition, cutting to Gonzaga, the lower South Hill, and over the river to SFCC. According to his website, Mr. Chesrown views KY as his “chance to give back to the community” (Wasn’t it the Vikings, describing their raiding and plundering, who coined this phrase, “give back to the community”?) For the record: I don’t blame Chesrown. It’d be nice if he “gave the community” a strip of light rail track, but he’s a developer who got a huge chunk of land for peanuts and stands to make eleventy kabillion dollars. Fine. If he can get Spokane people to live close together and walk four blocks to get coffee (and maybe get me a jet pack) I don’t care how much dough he makes.

The city and county, however, need to wake up. Inviting developers into your neighborhoods to do as they please is a like asking a meth addict to house-sit. When it goes badly, there’s no one to blame but yourself.

Written by Jess Walter.

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