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Comments

Jim

Just one more example of our lack of design standards and slumlord owners "remodeling' on the cheap in order to start collecting rent. We get what we don't fight to prevent - more tacky faux facades, primed for yet another makeover in 30 years.

Mariah McKay

Boo hiss! What would it take to implement building design standards in this area of town? Is it a matter of neighborhood planning? How would a neighborhood plan be enforced?

Spencer Grainger

At least they're not demolishing the building. Maybe the next owner will have some class. The facade will still be there waiting. So will we.

rob

We'll.....still a little early to tell, but it doesn't look promising!

Jim

Yes even downtown is a neighborhood and deserves public input to assure minimal standards. I assume the city's community development folks could point us in the right direction - or even the Mayor's Office.

Kate

If you ask me, those struts are begging for some kind of ridiculous inofficial decoration. Like, I don't know, you could impale papier-mache heads on them. Or put a bunch of cardboard cutouts behind the struts so it looks like they're in prison.

Contrarian

"Public input to assure minimal design standards . . ."

Hmmm. I take it that means, "Enact some laws empowering us busybodies, who do not own the property and have invested nothing in the project, to dictate the aesthetics of the project and the uses of the property to those who are making it happen. After all, we may have to look at it occassionally."

What's next, Jim -- dictating skirt lengths? Hair styles? Shoe colors? After all, we all have to look at each other from time to time.

Jim

You're finally catching on Contro - yes we want aesthetics around here like progressive burgs such as Missoula and Bozeman, actually most places now. Don't care about personal grooming really.
Sorry to ask for joining the 21st century.

Kate

I think it's also important to consider that aesthetics are very, very difficult to separate from functionality and economic success.

Owners may not realize it, but a building that reacts well to the street, is made of attractive and durable materials, and is located in an area full of other buildings built to the same standards, is more likely to be a successful project. It will attract more pedestrians, need less frequent investments in remodeling, and - when it comes down to it - the owners will be able to charge more rent for it.

Design standards are one of the ways a city can be a midwife for these kinds of successful, high-quality projects.

Though Planning and Architecture 101 night school courses for people who own real estate would probably be more fun and more effective ;)

Contrarian

I certainly agree with you re: aesthetics, Kate. But aesthetics, like all things human (indeed all things natural), are dynamic and evolutionary. Were that not the case the only styles we would see are classical Greek and Egyptian. It is more important to preserve that dynamic than to consecrate any particular design precepts, no matter how attractive they seem to us at present, via rigid bureaucratic mandates. The dynamic depends upon individuality, which requires free expression of tastes (just as intellectual progress requires free expression of ideas). It also requires an economic environment conducive to experimentation. The prospect of endless and costly hearings before anyone can build anything amounts to a wet blanket thrown over the entire process.

Kate

You know Contrarian, that's an interesting point. But I wonder what kind of design standards you're thinking about when you describe them as stylistic restrictions on building, or a way of keeping architecture and planning from evolving.

Maybe it would be helpful to think of design guidelines in terms of something more abstract than facade materials, planting choices for greenspace, or other things that are immediately visible *choices* made by a building's owner. To regulate style is immensely silly.

But what about quality control? That's something universal, isn't it?

Take a look at Kevin Lynch's "The Image of the City". It's a classic study of 3 American cities and their qualities, using the ability of their residents to picture the cities in their minds as an indicator for design quality.

Lynch wrote the book in the 1960's, so a few of his claims about the POWER OF ARCHITECTURE are overstated... think of those aspects of the book in terms of a historical document from a time in which people were more gung-ho about progress than today.

I'd be really interested to hear whether you think creating or preserving the urban qualities described in the book is a worthy goal for a city. And whether it's possible to promote that as a matter of policy and regulation.

(In fact I would love to hear everybody's opinions of Lynch. MetroSpokane book club, anyone?)

Jim

Just look around here and see the result of of what Contro calls, "the free expression of tastes." Developers around here are good at building on the cheap. One example is someone who preserved a hisorical hotel - deservedly so and did a great job. It is a city treasure, historically and architectually. But a newer addition was built that has no design merit whatsoever - in fact has been described as soviet utilitarian. I think we can demand better, without making things a bureaucratic mess, and have a more pleasing urban landscape. Why allow a Travel Lodge with vinyl siding to be built in the downtown core. Sure it's close to the Convention Center, but it has ruined the historical character of the area, at the expense of allowing someone's "free expression of taste." Only the owner benefits from having the no vacancy sign up a lot, while we have lost this space forever. There are endless examples to choose that are similar all around town.

Contrarian

That is good advice, Jim. If you look around Spokane, free expressions of taste abound. Examples include the Davenport (despite the ugly addition), the ONB, the Paulsen bldgs, Review Bldg, Courthouse, Steam Plant, City Hall, St. Johns, etc. etc. All of those were built without benefit of any bureaucrat's "guidelines." All are now landmarks. How many would now be landmarks had they been obliged to conform to some 19th century bureaucrat's conception of "good design"? Or been built at all?

When developers build "on the cheap," that is because that is all the market will support at that time, in that location. If they could not be built "on the cheap," they would not be built at all. And then there is no momentum.

Jim

It is pretty much a stretch to compare 100 year old workmanship with the crap that is built now. The buildings you list are constucted with quality materials and labor. That is why it is so important to to preserve them, which I believe is where this conversation began, examining a brick facade that is getting prepped for a false front - take your pick, vinyl or aluminnum. In the early Spokane development days folks had an ethic and wanted to build a city that would look like Chicago. It ended about the time it began however. These days developers and contractors have an ethic to make money and could care less about design and conformity with the surrounding urban landscape. That is why we must create and enforce codes or we will have a city that looks a lot like the University City Mall.
Check out the grand buildings of downtown Lewistown Montana some time for a great example of quality workmanship done by Eastern European mason immigrants. A wonderful place.

Kate

Contrarian, I don't understand why you are defending the practice of "building on the cheap" as an economic necessity, particularly because you seem to think that left to themselves, market forces will automatically create a perfect built environment.

Your argument seems to boil down to the idea that property owners have unlimited rights to do what they like with their property. A corollary to this must be that property owners need to have these rights in order to be able to make their own decisions about use, design, and other aspects of their property, because these decisions are necessarily the most rational ones, as they are driven by market forces and economic needs.

Yet here we have a situation where many property owners are proving that assumption to be false. They are unable to see that if they wish to get money out of their property, they have to invest money *in* quality design and materials.

And their bad decisions are affecting the city as a whole negatively.

Are you really saying that a city has no public interest in attempting to improve the quality of its building stock?

Contrarian

Kate --

There is no such thing as a "perfectly built environment." Perfection implies exact conformance with a standard, and there is no such standard. Or, rather, there are as many standards as there are builders (and critics). What market forces will do is assure that (most of the time) only that which is economically feasible is built.

No, property owners do not have "unlimited rights to do what they want with their property." Your right to your hammer does not entail a right to hit me over the head with it. More germane, my right to build does not entail a right to build something dangerous to neighbors or passersby. It does entail a right, however, to build according to my own aesthetics, whether my neighbors like it or not, just as my right to free speech allows me to say what I wish, whether the neighbors like it or not. If they disapprove they can refuse to listen to me, or decline to patronize the businesses in my building.

Many Supreme Court decisions have held that the 1st Amendment protects artistic expression, as well as speech per se. Since architectural design is unquestionably artistic expression, I believe a compelling case could be made (and will be made, eventually) that mandatory design standards imposed by government violate the 1st Amendment.

But that is a legal, not a philosophical or even economic argument. The economic argument is that you get the best *feasible* design when builders are free to build what they wish, and are not fettered by politically contrived (and thus arbitrary) mandates. You will not get (to borrow one of Jim's examples), a Travelodge built to the standards of the Davenport. To build to that standard would place the property in a different market niche --- one that Spokane market probably could not support at present. Hence it would not be built. At the same time, the moderate-priced niche would remain unfilled in Spokane, meaning those budget travellers would stay in the Valley or Post Falls instead. Keep in mind that in the era when the Davenport, ONB, et al were built, much schlock was built also. Most of those buildings are no longer with us. But had they not been built the economy at the time would not have been able to support the Davenport.

To be sure, there are many things builders can do which would improve the appearance of their properties without prohibitive expense. Your "night class" suggestion is an example.
A series of seminars on urban design, in which all downtown property owners are invited, might be helpful. Buy them dinner and most of them might come. :-)

MetroSpokane

The issue with this building is it's anti-urban, and the contrast with its previous incarnation are obvious.

-Built to the sidewalk - Yes!
-Parking in back - Not an issue
-Permeable facade - NO!

It's the last rule that degrades the public space and all that investment in public infrastructure that gives us the most heartburn.

Downtown is an urban place and therefore the default position should be adherance to these three rules. The architecture and details are secondary in our opinion. Let the burden be on the property owner to demonstrate a need for a variance. (Thanks to City Comforts for the compelling explanation of the 3 rules)

Contrarian

I agree completely with those precepts, Metro. I even agree largely with Kate's & Jim's aesthetic judgments. The question is, How do we raise the standards? Via education and community feedback, or by erecting bureaucratic obstacle courses that entangle and discourage ALL development?

Kate

Contrarian, I completely agree that we as a society need to have more open and nuanced discussion about what a city is and how it should be. That could lead to more quality development and a community that's more aware of urban planning and design issues. It would be great to see that happen. Maybe that's what MetroSpokane is up to here. ;)

However, if you've ever worked with landlords... you will know that the community needs to have both an arena for constructive discussion, and options to regulate quality.

Speaking of quality, when you say that architecture is artistic expression and that we are making aesthetic judgements, you're ignoring some important *functional* aspects of how buildings and cities work. It *is* possible to quantify things like how well people are able to orient themselves in the city, how frequently pedestrian traffic passes a certain spot, how often greenspace is used. It's SCIENCE!

What Metro calls anti-urban buildings and situations just aren't that good if you look at them with objective criteria. And if you have smart bureaucrats, they will realize that that - not concerns about building with "typical local" materials or styles - is what they need to regulate, and nothing else. It has to be a very soft touch, and focus exclusively on quality control issues. That is not discouraging development, it's discouraging crappy development.

I would love to see the First Amendment aspect discussed in the Supreme Court though. That would be just fascinating.

Kate

And ok, "perfect built environment" was a strawman. :P

chiaroscuro

I am going to have to agree that there needs to be some type of covenant or just a smidgeon of government involvement with the 'look and feel' of buildings in spokane. We all have to live in this city, and I can't build my home out of bubble gum or toothpicks, I'm sure my neighbors would have quite a problem with it. Spokane is a Walmart town, and this 'cheap as possible' mentality seems to extend to the buildings themselves. Business WILL continue, as long as there is a demand for it. God forbid the business be told that their buildings are fugly, and do nothing positive for the value of the other buildings around them.

I will stand 100% behind any movement that works to eliminate 'eyesores' in my city. The coolest, most popular cities owe much of their tourism and business to the simple fact that THEIR CITIES LOOK SO DARN COOL. That's why people travel out of Spokane to go on vacation. If we lived in Rio or San Diego our city would be hip enough that we wouldn't actually have to leave to be amazed by the architecture and nature around us. As it is, driving down the freeway and looking at downtown, it's difficult not to feel ashamed that we are the second largest city in one of the most beautiful states, yet our buildings and roads look like those of a run-down backwater. :/

Jim

Yep Chia it's no dirty little secret that we have allowed things to deteriate badly around here. We are an old city so we need to save the good historically significant buildings and build new projects that make a statement. Leaving this up to developers and contractors does the opposite. I am truly depressed by the urban and suburban blight that has festered here. The Logan District has become an inner city slum, thanks to slumlords and neighbors who hae failed to demand better. Driving down Sprague Avenue just east of downtown is really sad and it gets worse the further you go until you bump into the latest manifestation of strip mall crap. We should be ashamed and unite for better standards here. It is a tough business climate these days, but economic development is the key to elevating our tax base and making public improvements. Businesses that are successful often partner with the public sector to make a better urban landscape. The greenway along the Boise River is an example of commercial development and a city working to create a beautiful park along th river for employees and the public to enjoy.It is difficult to enjoy a good view of the Spokane River around here, with the exception of the Centennial Trail accross from G.U. I talk about this endlessly but most folks don't seem to care.

Kate

Jim, I'd be interested to know why you get the feeling people don't care. Next time you talk to someone about the urban design problems in Spokane, ask them why they are so apathetic:

*Do they get the feeling there's nothing they could do to change the situation?

*Do they spend their lives mostly in their private homes and in their cars?

*Are they economic-values conservatives like Contrarian, who think the state has no business regulating these issues?

Knowing the reasons behind the apathy could really help you come up with an effective strategy for your consciousness-raising efforts I think.

Jim

Very good questions Kate. I believe that in the case of your first two questions, people can change the climate and make the effort to get away from the comfort of home and a computor screen and get involved. It's as simple as attending public meetings and grows from there. Community organinizing and involvement shifts power from top down to the ordinary person. Many ordinary persons with a common cause suddenly have power. As far as the third question, I'm not sure. i know that if you have enough of number three and apathy we will never see change for the better.
I ponder how it happens so well in a place like Bozeman. There is a major University with a lot of academic types who won't allow developers to try to pull any cheap shots on their beautiful landscape. The demographic is probebly different too. A younger population, more folks moving in who want to protect what attracted them in the first place.Thanks for your involvement and well spoken dialogue which is part ohe process don't you think?

Contrarian

I've always thought it incredible, and distressing, that public schools teach kids nothing about economics. Not a single class, in most schools. Nor are they exposed to it in college, unless they are econ majors. Many of the comments above reveal that failure. Chiar and Jim presume that economic development is a product of government, and that quality development can be obtained by fiat: ". . . neighbors who have failed to demand better."

Unfortunately, that has never been the case and never will be. Economic development cannot be obtained by demands. It occurs where economic conditions spur and encourage it. The more favorable those conditions, the higher the quality of development. Economic development in Spokane tends to be low-budget because the local economic climate cannot, at present, support anything else. There is no Micron or Simplot (Boise) here. There is no Microsoft of Boeing or Starbucks (Seattle). There is no Nike or Pendelton or Jantzen or Intel (Portland).

Spokane will see quality development when, and only when, economic conditions favor it --- when home-grown businesses expand here, instead of in Post Falls (see the current JoB story on ALK-Abello), and when national companies elect to expand here rather than in Boise. They will do that when doing business here promises to be more profitable than doing it elsewhere, and not until then.

What can Spokane do to improve its economic climate? Well, before we can answer that, we need to set aside the urban planning journals and read up on elementary economics.

Kate

Contrarian, you're right, it's very frustrating that we don't learn any economics until college. I like the fact that you mentioned the development of local economy.

I'm curious, what conditions do you think Spokane needs to develop in order to help out its local businesses? I guess I don't see why that should be incompatible with the improvement of urban design and urban qualities.

Contrarian

That is probably too complex a question for this forum, Kate, especially since this thread is about to drop off the page. Perhaps at some point Metro will add a permanent sub-forum devoted entirely to that topic.

Jim

I do not need to acknowledge or defend whether I am a product of public education or not and do not need a dismissive lesson in economics. I thought the original discussion was about urban design. True, economics influence the market and design but this is irrespective of our individual right and need to influence public and private design in our urban environment. Never was the theory that economic development is driven by demand ever presented. Someone who snears seemingly at public education seems to never have learned to read well. I'm sure that Contro will have the last word, but I will bow out, as the tone is starting to distract from positive discussion again.

Kate

Contrarian is arbitrarily refusing to explain the deep diametric opposition between decent urban design and ELEMENTARY* ECONOMICS...

Must... maintain... civil tone of discussion...

*ELEMENTARY = 2nd Grade**


**Private School 2nd Grade that is!


...OK, it's not working. I guess this is the point at which Jim has the right idea, because I'm tired of being told my fascist plans to try and make people actually build buildings that won't fall on their heads in 20 years are doomed to be smashed with the Hammer Wielded By The Invisible Hand - but not being told why.

Contrarian it's precisely this attitude that drives planners away from potentially fruitful discussions with planning naysayers, and back to our urban planning journals.

Have fun with your last word, and don't forget to turn the lights out when you leave the thread.

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