Jul. 23—Development in the Latah Valley has been largely stalled due to concerns about traffic along U.S. Highway 195, but that hasn't stopped developers from continuing to push for approval of new projects.
The latest proposal, known as Westwood Hills in planning documents, would bring 44 new homes to 12 acres in the Grandview/Thorpe neighborhood. It's on land located east of South Scenic Boulevard, south of West 22nd Avenue and west of Canyon Bluffs and Westwood Lane.
While the city is in dire need of more housing, a slate of other proposed projects in the area have been held up, constrained or subject to conditions after the Washington State Department of Transportation threatened the city with a development moratorium last year due to concerns about the safety and flow of traffic along U.S Highway 195.
That highway is the predominate way for growing volumes of cars to move north and south through the booming valley.
Meanwhile, the Spokane Regional Transportation Council is currently working with WSDOT, the city of Spokane and other jurisdictions and agencies to conduct a study of how those problems can be solved.
The most recent project to make its way through the city's approval process is a 45-home development known as Tangle Ridge that's located further south, near the end of Tangle Heights Drive.
That project received approval from the city's hearing examiner this spring, but construction can only move forward after "a financial commitment is in place ... for the construction of the J-turn improvement" at the intersection of U.S. 195 and Meadowlane Road, according to the hearing examiner's April decision.
"This commitment may be defined as an agreement between several developers to fund and construct the J-turn within a specified time frame, not to exceed six years, as agreed upon by city staff and WSDOT," the decision reads.
Asked whether the developer would make such a commitment, Todd Whipple, whose firm Whipple Consulting Engineers, Inc. is acting as the agent for the developer, Tanglewood LLC., said yes.
The developer of Westwood Hills isn't waiting for the city to require changes to lessen the development's impact on area roads.
Gary Rogers first presented his plans for the 12-acre lot in February 2020.
When he did so, Rogers got strong pushback from neighbors who were concerned about all those new cars coming and going from the development's planned single exit and entrance on Scenic Drive.
That would have meant the traffic from 44 new homes would have been funneled onto 16th Avenue, the Grandview/Thorpe neighborhood's only access street.
Joy Sheikh, chair of the neighborhood council, said that proposal made people "super unhappy."
Rogers heard them loud and clear.
"After that meeting, I sat back and was not comfortable with the plan that we had proposed and felt like I was asking them to like something that I didn't even like," Rogers said. "I put myself in that neighborhood and said, 'I wouldn't like it either.' "
So he went back to the drawing board.
He retained an architect and designer to offer input as Rogers rethought what he "wanted to accomplish."
The result is a new proposal that will essentially split the new development in half, with those on the northwest side still slated to come and go via Scenic Drive, and those on the southeast side to enter and exit via Westwood Drive.
Westwood Drive leads to Thorpe Road, where a J-turn allows a relatively safe way for cars to head north on U.S. 195.
For that plan to become a reality, though, Westwood Drive will have to become a public road again, some two decades after it was privatized as a result of litigation between the city of Spokane and the developers of an apartment complex now known as Canyon Bluffs.
While Rogers acknowledges there are some "hurdles you have to clear to fully achieve that second access," he's optimistic that will ultimately occur.
"The city has agreed to it in concept, and Canyon Bluffs has agreed to it in concept," Rogers said. "As we go through dotting the i's and crossing the t's in the approval process for the plat, it will flush out any potential problems and give us an opportunity to resolve them."
Asked whether he expects the changes will satisfy the project opponents, Rogers said: "I have no expectations. I am hopeful that they will acknowledge the effort that's been made."
He also said he hopes people understand that the project is "infill of a development that was started 40 years ago," he continued. "So it's going to get developed, and anybody who lives in that neighborhood has known that for all that time."
But Sheikh, the neighborhood council chair, said her concerns about the project remain.
She said new housing has already been popping up all over the neighborhood on disparate lots and larger parcels.
They are leading to an unsustainable level of pressure on a neighborhood with some 200 houses and only one way in and out.
That creates a dangerous situation, she said, in the event of a wildfire or other emergency.
She believes it also represents a threat to the character and wildlife, including moose and bears, that inhabit the area.
"It's just really sad to watch," Sheikh said.
She acknowledged, though, that the neighborhood near downtown is the kind of place that in "any other major city would be packed with houses" and "that development is going to happen."
But she believes it's long past time the city and WSDOT come up with the infrastructure improvements necessary for it to occur in a smart and safe way.
Rogers said he's done his best to accommodate neighbors' concerns while also meeting the outsize demand for homes in the city.
"There is a desperate need for housing," Rogers said. "We are glad to be able to meet that need. It's time."
The revised plan for Westwood Hills will be the subject of a community meeting on Monday at 6 p.m. at Life Springs Fellowship, 4213 W. Garden Springs Rd.