Along with the usual procession of cars and trucks, Paul Edwards notices something different outside his bike shop on Argonne Road in Millwood these days.
“I see a lot more people walking in general,” said Edwards, proprietor of Argonne Cycle, a staple of the downtown business district since 1986.
An extensive overhaul of Argonne in the summer of 2009 not only brought new pavement, it added pedestrian-friendly amenities that have meant an increase in walkers, joggers and cyclists along the busy north/south thoroughfare. Uneven dirt trails at various junctures were replaced with concrete sidewalks, connecting the footpath along the entire west side of the street.
Edwards said the new landscape – which includes designated parking spaces outside commercial sites and curb extensions that help slow down traffic – has revitalized the downtown corridor.
“Overall, it’s just a nicer road,” he said. “It’s brightened up the neighborhood. What I’ve noticed is that people will stop in and say, “I didn’t know this place was here.’”
Bringing the “main street” atmosphere back to Argonne emerged as a central goal of the city when Millwood Mayor Dan Mork first took office back in January of 2006. Mork sent out a survey early in his administration that asked residents to send in their concerns and hopes for the community. It turned out that Argonne ranked No. 1 on the list.
“Argonne has become the main divider in our town,” Mork said in 2007. “It needs to be safe for motorists and pedestrians.”
A study by W&H Pacific, a Bothell-based consulting firm, found that one in every five vehicles that travels Argonne is a truck, resulting in heavy wear on the roadway. In addition, 94 percent of motorists along the street are from outside Millwood.
Meanwhile, downtown business owners pitched in at City Council meetings and a series of workshops, noting how traffic speed and inadequate sidewalks were having an impact on the retail environment.
The project benefited from a $1.3 million grant through the Spokane Regional Transportation Council along with another $135,000 from the state Transportation Improvement Board for sidewalk work. The city contributed nearly $27,000 of its own money to help with pathway construction.
Bobbie Beese, who has lived in Millwood for 40 years and was one of the catalysts in the formation of the city’s Better for Business group, said the transformation of Argonne has meant “cars going through a little slower and more people on the sidewalks.”
“It’s way more pedestrian friendly,” Beese said. “Getting across Argonne at the light is so much nicer than it used to be. It feels safer.”
Beese recalled a time in the 1960s when the downtown district suffered a downturn after many business migrated north to a new retail development known as Argonne Village.
“We had a lot of empty spaces and spaces just used for storage,” Beese said.
The historic corridor experienced resurgence in the early 1990s when a number of commercial ventures moved into the vintage brick buildings that characterize the neighborhood. Beese, who serves on the city’s Planning Commission, said the group is working on changes to the zoning regulations along Argonne that would apply to issues like parking, setbacks and building design with an emphasis on “having a different look in Millwood.”
The recommendations include buildings that border sidewalks or landscaping, not sprawling parking lots. Parking would instead be located on the side or in back of structures. Pedestrian-friendly features would also be stressed as would the appearance of buildings.
As far as signage goes, Beese said the city would like to be recognized more for subtle, uniform policies more along the lines of Liberty Lake than the city of Spokane Valley.
“We’ve had businesses that have had blinking readers boards and the city contacts them and they tone it down,” Beese said. “There comes a point when the loud signs work against you.”
The discussion of a central business district in Liberty Lake calls for many of the same improvements seen along Argonne, including wider sidewalks, a narrower roadway, improved streetscapes and commercial buildings closer to the road. Many of the tenants were also included in the Sprague Appleway Revitalization Plan, jettisoned by the Spokane Valley City Council last year.
“It’s about more than just building streets for cars, it’s about trying to build a community,” Smith said.
As for the future of Millwood’s downtown, Beese said there has been talk of adding a welcome sign somewhere along the corridor as well as pedestrian-scale streetlights and banners for special occasions.
“We’re still working to make it more pedestrian friendly,” she said. “Argonne shouldn’t just be about cars charging through here. We want to improve it for everyone.”