As the city of Spokane heads toward a Thursday public hearing for an 80-acre commercial and residential project just north of downtown, public concern has focused on traffic, building heights and the impact on the Spokane River.
About 60 people have submitted comments to the city on the proposed Kendall Yards development, which would bring 2,600 additional residences and 1 million square feet of commercial space to vacant land overlooking the north bank of the Spokane River. Within the next two years, the land between Maple and Monroe streets, south of Bridge Avenue, could hold 500 new residences and 500,000 square feet of commercial space, developer Marshall Chesrown told The Spokesman-Review last week.
Several of the public comments enthusiastically support the project. Others say the city should outright reject it. But most people just want the city to be mindful of their concerns as the permitting process rolls on. The primary issues fall into three basic categories: protecting the Spokane River, preventing buildings up to 12 stories high from being built in a residential zone, and addressing increased traffic in the West Central neighborhood.
In keeping with those comments, the city’s planning staff recommends that Chesrown put together a Habitat Management Plan in conjunction with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife; conduct a traffic analysis for the West Central neighborhood; and submit each proposed eight- to 12-story building for additional city review. Exceptions were made for two of the buildings.
Additionally, and also in keeping with many public comments, the staff report does not recommend allowing Chesrown to take over Ohio Avenue along the dramatic western-most part of the development, with its rounded point overlooking the Spokane River.
West Central resident George Craig II said the developer has gone above and beyond to meet residents and address concerns. He urged the city to approve the development as is.
“The prevailing opinion is that this is the best thing that has happened in West Central in 50 years,” Craig wrote, saying he’s talked to hundreds of his neighbors about the development.
However, West Central residents Ken Olsen and Sam Mace called for the proposal to be denied, saying the application is incomplete and has been pushed through City Hall with “speculation, sales pitches and supposition and lacks the substantive data that would enable the public and planners to make a well-reasoned judgment.”
Chesrown said certain members of the public focus too much on the negative aspects of development and not enough on what Kendall Yards could bring to the city. The land along the bluff overlooking the river, arguably the most valuable on the property, he said, will be turned into an extension of the Centennial Trail, open to the public. The first stage of this development will deliver 2,000 construction jobs. The “lion’s share” of the first 350,000 square feet of retail space is already spoken for, he said, much of it by retailers not currently present in Spokane. The first phase represents a $300 million investment in the city, he said.
“This is a master-planned community,” Chesrown said. “We’re building a small city over there. That thing at build-out is going to be bigger than the city of Liberty Lake is today.”
Typically, Chesrown said, when a city sees the potential for hundreds of new jobs, along with new businesses and high-quality residences, they embrace it. “Most cities are open arms to those types of things and they try to fast-track those types of projects.”
Yet concerns remain.
Environmental and neighborhood activist John Osborn urges people to just look up at the bluff from the Spokane River and imagine tall buildings sprouting up.
“I really worry this incredible Spokane River Gorge is in trouble,” Osborn said.
The Sierra Club supports Osborn’s position, saying the development also poses risks to the habitat and health of the river gorge. However, the nonprofit Friends of the Falls group supports Kendall Yards wholeheartedly, saying “the clean up of a once-blighted area that was once a rich source of toxic runoff” will be a substantial benefit.
“The height of the buildings, as proposed, and the scale of this development, is appropriate, given its proximity to the center of our city,” wrote Steve Faust, executive director of Friends of the Falls.
Several residents decried the unfairness of 10-year property tax breaks that some residents of Kendall Yards may receive when existing West Central residents, many of them low-income, pay more to compensate. A Spokane law designed to encourage multifamily housing near the downtown core provides for the exemptions.
West Central resident Patrick Malone worries that Chesrown intends to build up to 6,000 residences, not the 2,600 proposed. Chesrown admits that his vision for the site includes 8,000 residences. Though his proposal includes only 2,600, he said he believes the city will push for higher density in the next phase of building after officials see the first phase’s success.
West Central residents Barry Chapman and Jessie Norris urged the city to protect the urban wilderness and historic character of their neighborhood.
“It’s truly amazing to walk a few blocks from our house and be able to watch heron and osprey flying above the river against a backdrop of downtown buildings; not many cities can boast of the same opportunities,” they wrote. “We also treasure the sense of community we have found with other residents of West Central.”
Chesrown said Kendall Yards inevitably will force change in West Central. Since he bought the property last January in a bankruptcy auction for $12.8 million, real estate speculation drove the percentage of rental properties in the neighborhood from 50 percent to 80 percent, he said. The project is likely to drive property values up, he said, but it will also chase crime out.
“There is no question the West Central neighborhood five to 10 years from now will not resemble what it does today,” Chesrown said. “It happens all over America. It’s not something that’s unique to Spokane.”
But Chesrown said he questions the wisdom of preventing improvement to a blighted area.
“I don’t see how that makes sense,” he said.