I’ve posted a couple entries here in the past couple days about a visit to Spokane by Dena Belzer, an Economist with consulting firm Strategic Economics out of Berkely, CA that specializes in connecting regional economic and demographic growth trends to real estate development activity and local policy initiatives. SRTC partnered with the Spokane Regional Health Department to bring Ms. Belzer here to talk about Urban Transportation Corridors (UTCs) and if they’re feasible for our region. UTCs are neighborhoods and districts that can accommodate new mixed use development and roads that can accommodate multimodal travel such as cars, bikes and pedestrians and are served by quality public transit service.

Ms. Belzer’s visit was in conjunction with the work on our long range transportation plan, Horizon 2040. The economic downturn has shifted the emphasis for transportation planning from reducing congestion to identifying projects that will also work to revitalize the local economy. UTCs are one such possible investment, which is why we are taking a look at them.

Besides participating in several events (we really got our money’s worth out of her) while here, Ms. Belzer also took the time to sit down for an “interview” with me on some questions I had after listening to her speak. So here were my questions and her thoughts and answers.

Q. What’s your impression of our region after spending a couple days here and driving around? What jumped out at you, good or bad?
A. There is a lot of under-utilized land in the core of the region. Before rushing to fill it, officials who make decisions need to determine what is a good scale of urbanism for Spokane (how dense they want to zone).

Q. What are some of the things we have going for the area?

A. There are already a couple neighborhoods and areas working well that could serve as models for other areas. For instance, she cited how the Garland and Perry districts and downtown Hillyard already have businesses, restaurants and bars in a close proximity to housing and fairly frequent transit service. The lower south hill area of medical centers and services are also areas to watch, according to Belzer, as they are large employment areas served by frequent transit service.

Q. How would you “sell” a concept such as Urban Transportation Corridors in an area like Spokane?

A. I would stress how they can help the local economy by providing convenient access to jobs, shopping and entertainment while conserving on gas. Spokane may be a fairly inexpensive place to live as far as housing but someone is absorbing the cost, such as the cost of gas to drive to work in areas that don’t have good transit service. The cost of transportation exceeds what you save by living in less expensive housing far from services. There are also health costs as you spend more time driving than walking or bicycling.

Q. Where would you want to live if you moved to Spokane?

A. Downtown of course. While downtown has employment, shopping and eating establishments now, it has a very large footprint for a downtown area; bigger than what is being utilized. Infill should take place downtown before expanding out and letting businesses go to the suburbs.

Q. You said there are some easy ways to increase density. What are some examples?

A. Townhouses and “stack flats” are inexpensive ways that don’t feel like a traditional apartment, as well as making smarter parking choices. The goal isn’t to fit as much into a small area as possible, but to develop in a quality way.

Q. There has been talk in recent years about moving the STA Plaza. What are your thoughts?

A. Ideally, you infill your downtown area, making it a destination for even more commuters than currently work downtown. Moving the Plaza (such as to the eastern edge of downtown) would punish commuters and force them to find other ways to get to work, such as driving alone. This uses more gas and more parking, when the original point was to do with less parking.

Q. You mentioned the “high price of free parking.” What are some of those costs?

A. There’s a 900 page book by that name, but I’ll give just a few examples. Free or cheap parking encourages people to drive their cars to work because they have a place to park when they get there. Reducing available parking or raising the price cuts down on driving alone, which in turn cuts down on greenhouse gases, vehicle miles traveled and money spent on gas. Parking lots and garages are a fiscal loser for cities as they don’t generate much revenue, where a business on the same site could bring in more.

Q. The topic of snow storage and management comes up over and over when I talk to people in the public about issues with our transportation system. Do you have any ideas on that topic?

A. When adding new sidewalks to a project, they should be constructed with planting strips for trees. Not only do those trees add an aesthetic value to the street, but the parking strip provides snow storage space. On wide streets with lower traffic, reduce the number of lanes and add items like greenspace where snow can be stored and for better atmosphere.

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