"Advanced urbanist" Brent Toderian reviews downtown Spokane


Urban consultant Brent Toderian says that the Spokane River gorge is downtown Spokane's most - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
  • Daniel Walters photo
  • Urban consultant Brent Toderian says that the Spokane River gorge is downtown Spokane's most

Brent Toderian is famous as an urban planner. (The guy has 50,000 Twitter followers, far more than most former city planners.) He was the chief planner of Vancouver, B.C. — leading the city through the 2010 Winter Olympics — before being controversially booted out by the Vancouver City Council in 2012.

Now, he runs a consulting firm called TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, where he preaches the doctrine of  "advanced urbanism" to cities across the world. He's been the subject of multiple Vox articles — including on how to deal with not-in-my-backyard objections to more density.

This week, Jim Frank, founder of Kendall Yards developer Greenstone, opted to bring in Toderian personally to provide a critique and assessment of the downtown-adjacent development. His conclusion: Kendall Yards is almost flawless as a suburb — but also says the standard should be higher for a community that acted as an extension of downtown.

Kendall Yards, he says, was the rare sort of development that actually had built in character. But he sees a few possible improvements: more density in some areas of Kendall Yards, more houses that are closer to the street instead of separated by big front lawns, housing on top of restaurants; even something as simple as selling low-cost foldable shopping carts at My Fresh Basket, a little like a dolly, would let pedestrians easily cart their groceries back to their house when shopping. All of those things could make the community just that much more walkable.

But while visiting, Toderian also waded into broader observations about his first impression of Spokane's downtown core.

We spoke with Toderian — while he was finishing up a slice of Veraci pizza on the second level of Greenstone's Kendall Yards office — all about what downtown Spokane is doing well — and what it could be doing a lot better.

Downtown Spokane is not a failure, he says.

"But it's not the success it could be," he says.

1) Spokane's downtown streets are its biggest weakness — and he's not referring to issues with potholes.

"You've got incredibly wide streets here," Toderian says. "That’s not a compliment... Your streets are wide, car-dependent and often one-way. None of which is a good thing for a well-functioning downtown."

Not only are these sorts of streets hard to navigate by car — make one wrong turn and spend minutes trying to get to get back on course — they're not particularly bike or pedestrian friendly. He calls them "traffic sewers."

They're the sort of thing that can make it more difficult to create downtown housing.

"When it's perceived as an office place, and a bit of a harsh one because of the width and speed and business of the road, that's a harder sell," Toderian says.

But the good news? He says that Spokane's wide streets make for a great canvas to improve the infrastructure. There's room to work, adding all sorts of amenities that make downtown streets better for cyclists, pedestrians and drivers.

"All you need is political will," he says.

2) Downtown Spokane has a too-much-parking problem.

One theme you'll come across a lot if you listen to Toderian: He thinks Spokane, like most American cities, is too focused on automobiles. And parking lots are a particular bugaboo for urbanists, who see the parking lot as a waste of space, a subsidy for cars and the enemy of a walkable, dense downtown.

"I'm relatively confident that if I asked the community the problem with the downtown they would say that there's not enough parking," Toderian says. "Almost every city thinks they have a parking problem. And the reality is that they do. The parking problem being that they have too much of it. It's made it a nice place to park, but not necessarily an attractive place to be. Or to go too."

Reducing the number of parking lots downtown has been a passion for Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, who argues for more parking structures and much fewer surface parking lots. That's one option, Toderian says. But not necessarily the best one.

"Parking structures are definitely better than surface lots," Toderian says. "But that's like asking me, would I rather have a kick in the stomach or a punch in the head. You have too much parking."

But those surface lots are an opportunity too, he says: You can turn those parking lots into housing.

"The most important transportation strategy you can have for downtown is more housing," he says.

If people are already living there, he says, they don't have to worry about how to get there.

3) Downtown can do better for cyclists than simply painting more bike lanes.

Right now, if downtown Spokane cyclists are lucky, they'll be able to ride on painted bike lanes next to cars. If they're unlucky, all they have are sharrows — those little painted arrows on the asphalt that tell bike riders where to go — or nothing at all. Not good enough, Toderian says.

"Sharrows are not bike infrastructure," Toderian says. "Painted bike lanes are not bike infrastructure. Bike infrastructure is safe, separated protected bike lanes."

He notes that features like the Centennial Trail do count as bike infrastructure, but they only go so far. He talks a lot about multi-modal infrastructure, though we may know it as "complete streets."

"It’s basically freedom. It’s choice. It’s not being car-dependent," he says. "You're actually seeking to make the other choices enjoyable. For many reasons. Public policy. Urban health. Climate change. Public infrastructure costs."

But he says that's not an anti-car message, ultimately.

"If you're convinced you need to drive, the best thing for you can hope for is for more people to walk, bike and take public transport," Toderian says. "Cities need to prioritize walking, biking and public transit, at least until they catch up to the car."

4) One Main Avenue concept looks amazing.

So what would better streets look like?

"I’ve seen the proposed design for the Main Avenue transformation," Toderian says. "I was quite impressed by it."

One proposed design takes the wide street and narrows it dramatically: A bike lane is separated from lanes of cars by a row of trees. And then wide sidewalks are separated from the bike lane by another row of trees.

"It rebalanced the street in a way that is enjoyable for more people and not just cars. I
t's that kind of amenity that makes the downtown market liveable," Toderian says. "Not only do I support that, I think it’s the kind of investment that cities are making as a catalyst for the residential market."

He talks a lot about "sticky streets,' streets that make you want to slow down and enjoy the street." It's not just about sidewalks or bike lanes, he says, but patios and seating and outdoor cafes.

5) The Central City Line is great — but it's not really "Bus Rapid Transit."

Toderian notes that a key component of a good transportation network in many cities is "bus-rapid transit." In some conversations, Spokane has referred to the Central City Line — the forthcoming electric bus route between Browne's Addition and Spokane Community College — as "Bus Rapid Transit," or BRT.

But without lanes dedicated entirely to the bus, it doesn't meet the true common definition of BRT, Toderian notes.

"That's express bus. That's high frequency bus," Toderian says. "That's good, but not the same as BRT. BRT allows you to avoid the traffic."

Yes, frequency is critically important for transit, he says. Frequency is freedom. But down the road, if traffic gets too high, the advantages of a bus without a dedicated lane wanes.

"If there's not much congestion, you don't necessarily need a separate lane for buses," he says. "But if the bus is stuck in the same traffic as the car, it doesn't help."

6) Our old buildings are great. The newer ones? Not so much.

"It looks like you haven't built [many] new buildings relatively recently," Toderian says. "My visitor's eye saw evidence of old buildings being refurbished. I'm thinking of the building with Auntie's Books, for example."

Buildings like those give the downtown character, he says.

"But the buildings built since the 1960s, if they're not negative, they're at best nothing special... Right now the architecture that's saving your downtown from architectural mediocrity are the beautiful old buildings," Toderian says. "Thank goodness you didn't tear all those down for surface parking lots."

He suggests that the city should provide more specific design standards for downtown buildings. That doesn't necessarily mean more expensive construction, he says.

"What I'd like is a higher expectation. Which often comes from a city culture. A city confidence that you're ready and interested and expecting better, and you know what it looks like when you see that. There's a bit of confidence level. There's a culture. And there's a skill set associated with that," Toderian says. "You should have a robust conversation about the architecture in your downtown. Because it's part of the identity building, the branding, the character creating in your downtown. It's what positions downtown as being different from different places."

7) The city's biggest asset is the river gorge — but we may be able to take even more advantage of it.

The best feature of the downtown, Toderian argued, wasn't a building at all. It was the city's  natural wonder: the gorge.

"This is a waterfront in a way... but the gorge is in some way an even more dramatic geological landscape," he says. "When I saw it I was thinking to myself, have I ever seen something like this, running immediately adjacent to a downtown. The closest thing I could think of was the river valley in Edmonton, Canada, but it's not as dramatic as you have. Remarkable asset."

And in Kendall Yards, he notes, the gorge is incredible. We have an "immediate relationship" with the feature.

"This community, Kendall Yards, takes tremendous advantage of the gorge in augmenting its quality of life," Toderian says. "I'm not sure the rest of the community does, except right at the park."

He says it's a question, not necessarily a conclusion. But at first glance, it didn't seem like the city had taken advantage of the gorge on the southern side of the Spokane River, across from Kendall Yards, in the same way.

"Is there a connection? Is there a gorge-front promenade?" Toderian asks. "Are there street-end views?"

8) He's skeptical about the necessity of height limit increases near the park.

City Council President Ben Stuckart has been arguing that, currently, the height restrictions on several lots across from Riverfront Park have been preventing development on several vacant parking lots.

But Toderian isn't quite as eager to prescribe raising height limits as some urbanists are. His view is it generally depends on the context. He hasn't looked at the details of the Riverfront Park height restriction proposals.

"It's probably the wrong conversation," Toderian says. "If you want to create a market interest in housing, it may not be about greater height. That might just change the assumption of land value. What it needs is investment in the livability of the downtown. The downtown has to be perceived as a place that people want to live."

The proposed Main Avenue redesign, he says, is a good start.

"What you want is the downtown, in many ways, to outperform the suburbs for amenities. Because that's the trade-off," Toderian says. "People will trade in the suburbs for less space in the urban settings, because of the amenities. Amenities can be institutional things like daycare. But it's often commercial things like a walkable grocery store, and being able to walk downstairs for fresh sushi."

That's one thing he says Kendall Yards does well.

"It's not just about waiving the parking requirements and allowing bigger heights," Toderian says. "I won't say it's focusing on the wrong things — but it's not focusing on enough of the right things."