‘The city that Jim Frank built’
Everyone has a shade tree. Everyone is five minutes from a public park. The power lines are underground. Property values are rising meteorically. This is Jim Frank’s town.
Few communities reflect the influence of a single developer the way Liberty Lake reflects Jim Frank’s. He didn’t invent the town, says Tom Agnew, a Frank admirer and commissioner of the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District, but Frank’s brush strokes are on everything from parks and trails to the town’s municipal government.
“The city that Jim Frank built was here already, but he enhanced it,” Agnew said.
Several major events that shaped Liberty Lake physically and socially can be traced directly to the developer from north-central Spokane.
Consider these key developments:
• The MeadowWood subdivision, the city’s largest development with 1,700 homes, was constructed mostly by Frank, who became involved in the neighborhood initially through a partnership with retired developer Bill Main.
The town’s penchant for offsetting smaller building lots with shade trees, sidewalks and grassy medians can be attributed to Frank, who initiated the trend before there was a city planning department or municipal development standards. Frank’s company, Greenstone Corp., will use a similar blueprint to add 1,500 homes to the city over the next decade.
• The farmers market, free summer park concerts and free outdoor summer movies were initiated by Frank, who also donated key segments of land for Liberty Lake’s public trail system. Pavillion Park, the community’s showplace for social gatherings, was landscaped and irrigated by the developer for free.
• When the city needed roads paved and Spokane County couldn’t come up with the money, Frank convinced local landowners to charge themselves impact fees for paving, including fees totaling $5 million for improving Country Vista and Harvard roads and constructing a trail system from Liberty Lake proper to the county’s Centennial Trail. Plans to extend the trail over Interstate 90 are still in the works.
• And it was Frank who paid for the preliminary study to determine whether forming a city government would be feasible for Liberty Lake. Later, when city government was looking for a home, the developer leased the municipality 3,500 square feet at $1 a square foot on the ground floor of his office building at 1421 N. Meadowwood Lane.
“He has a very genuine interest in the community,” said Rand Hatch, a real estate agent. “Developers are required to plant so many trees, but he goes way beyond that. He plants more. If they’re not the quality he wants, he ships them back.”
Hatch credits the developer with taking a hands-on interest in Liberty Lake. Frank could have just “thrown money” toward causes he fostered in the community, which probably wouldn’t have worked, Hatch said.
Instead, it’s Frank who runs the projector at outdoor movie nights in Pavillion Park. It’s Frank who makes sure any produce left over from the farmers market is passed on to the local Meals on Wheels group. It’s Frank’s company, Greenstone, that offers free phosphate-free lawn fertilizer to the community to cut down on harmful nutrients in the water supply.
Civic gestures aside, good neighborhoods have proven good business for Frank and Greenstone. The company built 304 homes valued at $38.7 million last year. Many of those were in Liberty Lake, though Greenstone has several projects from Ponderosa Ridge in Spokane to Coeur d’Alene Place in Idaho. The Construction Monitor, which tabulates regional building statistics, reported that Greenstone built a hundred more homes than any other contractor in the Inland Northwest. Greenstone also topped the Monitor’s list in 2002, with 210 homes worth $23.9 million.
All of Greenstone’s developments are park-based neighborhoods with volunteer resident groups, much like the volunteer groups in Liberty Lake. For example, River Crossing, a 487-home development in Greenacres, includes not only parks and walking trails but also a community fruit orchard.
The developments mirror Corbin Park, the northcentral Spokane neighborhood where Frank grew up. Life in the Corbin neighborhood centered on the long oval park encircled by large, well-crafted homes, with smaller family houses farther out on the neighborhood’s perimeter. Residents there had a real sense of identity and ownership with the park. Economically, the neighborhood was diverse and the public park was a place where social class barriers disappeared. Frank’s developments today feature homes from $130,000 to $600,000 in an attempt to achieve the same social diversity.
Frank didn’t set out in life to build neighborhoods. He was a chemical engineer working to control air and water pollution for herbicide giant Monsanto. He left Monsanto and enrolled in Gonzaga Law School, later starting his own practice focused on land-use issues and environmental law. His legal work with neighborhood groups and developers on land development issues became his gateway to building subdivisions.
“Both sides wanted the same thing,” said Frank, 57. “If you do a quality neighborhood, that’s where people want to live. And if you do a quality project, the neighbors are going to be happy.”
Liberty Lake is special to Frank because it’s where he lives, not actually inside the MeadowWood development, but at a home nearby on the shoreline of the lake for which the town is named. He is single. His children are grown. As a resident, Frank has a personal stake in the events he’s fostered in Liberty Lake, but their purpose goes beyond self-interest.
“They’re all threads in the social fabric of the community,” Frank said. “And the more threads you have, the stronger the fabric is. I think people like to love where they live and they live where they love.”
All those neighborhood perks aren’t free, said developer Cory Condron, of Condron Homes. Parks in Greenstone developments compensate for building lot sizes, which are about 60 feet by 110 feet. Smaller lots are hard to sell because they’re harder to build on and there isn’t as much yard space. Parks make up for those tight living conditions and also increase the price of the lot. The same size lot that sells for $34,000 in a Greenstone development would fetch about $23,000 in a neighborhood without parks and other amenities, Condron said.
“He creates those open spaces by developing small lots. It’s a different style,” Condron said. “Our theory is to give the owner a larger back yard to do what he wants.”
Currently, Condron and Greenstone are building neighborhoods side by side in the Indian Trail area of northwest Spokane. The differences between the projects are noticeable. Condron’s home are set back farther from the street than Greenstone’s. Greenstone’s neighborhood sports trails and community basketball courts. Both developments are heavily lined with trees, something Condron said he picked up from Greenstone a couple of years ago after buying building lots in MeadowWood.
Frank argues that lots are returning to a size common before the 1960s when bigger parcels became popular. The lots he develops aren’t much smaller than what other developers are using, Frank said. However, as lots shrink, parks and community interaction become crucial.
Growing a community by sponsoring events and fostering volunteerism as Greenstone does is too involved for most developers, Condron said. In MeadowWood, part of getting homebuyers to love their community has meant giving them chances to meet neighbors through community events, even giving them chances to become organizers.
Hatch is vice president of Friends of Pavillion Park, in part because Frank asked him to get involved in event planning. Agnew was recruited by Frank five years ago to the Liberty Lake Governance Study Group, an eight-member panel that laid the foundation for cityhood. He believes the developer is very selective about who gets tapped for committee work.
Agnew said he is still approached by opponents of Liberty Lake incorporation who assume he endorsed the move as a member of the study committee. He didn’t endorse incorporation, but his involvement gave the committee balance, he said.
The committee’s incorporation would have been nothing more than talk except for a $12,000 feasibility study, which Greenstone and Telect founder Bill Williams paid for. The study gave momentum to incorporating the town.”Who else would pay for it,” Agnew said. “For some of us, paying $12,000 worth of studies is a big deal.”
As the incorporation turned out, Frank wound up living outside the city limits because his neighbors around the lake opposed the municipality. He is one of the town’s biggest proponents, in part because he believes the community needed the local identity a city offers. Frank concluded from the pre-incorporation talks that the town probably would have become a far eastern corner of Spokane Valley were it not for incorporation. His non-city status hasn’t kept him from participating in municipal politics.
Frank followed up his bargain-price office lease to City Hall with room for a small-business incubator, and two businesses have moved in.
But not all of his interaction with the city has gone well. Frank said he delved into local politics a couple of times with regrettable results.
Last fall, after the city government and local sewer district sued and countersued each other over ownership of the water and waste pipes, Frank floated a settlement proposal to the City Council, which it adopted verbatim and claimed as its own. The offer failed. The developer endorsed Liberty Lake Planning Director Doug Smith as a candidate for sewer district commissioner. Smith was trounced.
“He’s had a good influence, some very good influence on the community,” Lorna Willard, a Liberty Lake neighbor, said of Frank. “He also has some real close contacts with the mayor and Doug Smith and I think it’s almost corrupting. It’s too much influence in that arena.”
The battle over plumbing continues to pit city government against proponents of the district, like Willard, most of whom live outside city limits and also opposed incorporation. Frank says people on both sides want the same thing. He’s hoping they can cool down.
“I’m still trying to figure out the answer to the city thing” with the sewer district, Frank said. “Everybody wants a strong Liberty Lake community. Everybody wants a watershed and lake that are preserved at the highest quality we can produce.
“Liberty Lake is here today and has what it has because 5,000 people pulled together on the same rope going in the same direction. We need to honor and respect ideas and positions and find answers. We all want the same thing.”