November 14, 1997 in Nation/World

Courts Oks Square Deal State Supreme Court Shoots Down Lawsuit Seeking Vote On City’s River Park Square Funding

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The state Supreme Court shot down a lawsuit Thursday that challenged the city of Spokane’s participation in the $100 million River Park Square project.

The 8-to-1 decision upheld a City Council ordinance that pledged parking meter money as backup funding for the development’s $30 million parking garage.

The decision also said the city was within its rights to pass that ordinance as an emergency, which removed the public’s right to vote on the issue. Opponents of the ordinance had collected 8,000 signatures on a petition requesting a vote.

The Supreme Court relied on an earlier case, in which it approved public funding for a ballpark for the Seattle Mariners, to make the River Park Square decision.

The Mariners case, the court noted, compelled it to defer to the Spokane City Council’s judgment. The council, it said, had presented evidence of an emergency, namely loss of the economic vitality of downtown Spokane without the River Park Square project.

“Our case is a recognition by the court that when it comes to economic development, where a city or a state agency has considered issues carefully, the court is not going to intervene,” said Duane Swinton, an attorney for the developers of River Park Square.

“That’s the most significant part of the decision.”

Steve Eugster, attorney for the plaintiffs, called the decision “unfortunate.” The court took away the citizens’ right to vote, Eugster said.

“It allows a legislative body to say any legislation is an emergency if they say it’s an emergency, which, in effect, destroys the right of referendum,” Eugster said.

Eugster said he might appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. “It’s not done yet,” he said.

The state court’s action, however, was decisive.

It rejected all 13 issues raised by plaintiffs challenging the city’s support for the project.

It found that the city’s support for the parking garage wasn’t a gift or loan to a private party since the city would end up owning the garage after it was paid off.

The court also rejected the plaintiff’s arguments that the city had not developed a comprehensive parking plan, complied with the Clean Air Act or complied with the state Growth Management Act.

Chief Justice Barbara Durham was the sole dissenter, saying that the issue can’t be considered an emergency because it responds only to a continuing problem of economic decline in the downtown core.

“It therefore fails to state an emergency and should be the subject of a referendum,” she wrote.

However, in his concurring opinion, Justice Richard Guy disagreed.

“Elected officials have a duty to strive to keep alive the economic vitality of their city,” Guy wrote. “To allow a downtown to lose its business activity is to allow its people to lose their sense of belonging to the community.

“It is within the duty of city officials to attempt to keep their downtown safe, convenient and economically healthy.”

The River Park Square development project, and the lawsuit challenging it, became an issue in Spokane’s recent mayoral race.

Mayor-elect John Talbott, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said Thursday he was disappointed with the ruling. Though he supports the project, he said he doesn’t like how it is funded and thinks the public should be able to vote on it.

“We have the council and the courts telling the people they have a limited right to vote,” Talbott said. “That’s a little bit scary.”

Mayor Jack Geraghty, who has staunchly defended the city’s involvement in the project, was not available for comment Thursday.

The lawsuit has been a major obstacle to progress of the River Park Square development, which is relying on revenue bonds to finance the parking garage. Investors won’t touch revenue bonds tainted by a lawsuit, developers have said.

This victory allows the project to proceed, said Betsy Cowles, president of both companies that own River Park Square.

“It puts one more hurdle behind us,” she said. “We’re well on the way to making River Park Square a reality.”

Demolition of the development’s west wing continued Thursday. Last week, American Multi-Cinema Inc. signed a 20-year lease to build a 20-screen cinema as part of the project.

The project also will include a new Nordstrom store, a glass-enclosed atrium and numerous shops and restaurants.

River Park Square is owned by Citizens Realty Co. and Lincoln Investment Co., affiliates of Cowles Publishing Co., owner of The Spokesman-Review.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: KEY QUESTIONS Key questions in the River Park Square development issue:

Q. Now that the state Supreme Court has thrown out the lawsuit, is this the end of court appeals against the development? A. Plaintiffs’ attorney Steve Eugster is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Q. What does Mayor-elect John Talbott, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, think of the ruling? A. Talbott said he was disappointed in the ruling. He supports the project but does not like the way it is funded. Q. Where does the project stand? A. Demolition of the old River Park Square continues. The project is due for completion in 1999.

This sidebar appeared with the story: KEY QUESTIONS Key questions in the River Park Square development issue:

Q. Now that the state Supreme Court has thrown out the lawsuit, is this the end of court appeals against the development? A. Plaintiffs’ attorney Steve Eugster is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Q. What does Mayor-elect John Talbott, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, think of the ruling? A. Talbott said he was disappointed in the ruling. He supports the project but does not like the way it is funded. Q. Where does the project stand? A. Demolition of the old River Park Square continues. The project is due for completion in 1999.


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