Following a barrage of concern from historic preservation advocates, Washington State University appears to be taking a large step back as it considers development plans for a 97-year-old warehouse at the east end of downtown Spokane.
Local developers who specialize in historic preservation and others rebutted a report commissioned by WSU that said it wouldn’t be profitable to rehabilitate the Jensen-Byrd building, the centerpiece of a 5-acre property the university owns and would like to see developed.
On Friday, WSU Spokane Chancellor Brian Pitcher appeared open to all possibilities.
“There is no urgency. We want to be careful and prudent about the next steps,” Pitcher said at a community meeting held to discuss the report. “We’re interested in thinking about this again. We look forward to finding the right opportunity.”
Some initial plans for the building called for its demolition, which created an outcry among preservation advocates. The university then commissioned the study to examine the building’s potential for rehabilitation.
Of the four potential uses evaluated by SERA Architects of Portland – office, retail, condominiums and apartments – development costs outdistanced the potential profit, the report found. The smallest loss identified was about $3.5 million, if the structure were redeveloped for apartments, using various tax credits.
But city historic preservation and economic development officials along with Spokane developers, architects and university professors piled up reason after reason why the building should, and could, be saved.
A state program that can provide property tax breaks for 10 years was not considered in the report and would likely make it profitable, said Teresa Brum, the city’s historic preservation officer.
A city program that provides partial tax breaks for construction of multi-family housing was not considered, said Susanne Croft, of the city’s economic development division. In addition, she said, many creative, innovative businesses desire interesting, funky spaces, not shiny new buildings.
The project could be completed for substantially less per square foot than estimated in the report, said Gary Lauerman, an architect with RenCorp, which recently renovated a historic building into luxurious condominiums.
The team that issued the report conceded that they studied only four potential scenarios and not every possible development option. They cautioned that the building still would need quite a bit of work to bring it up to code, including replacing windows and adding fire suppression, heating and ventilation equipment. In addition, they said, WSU is required to use prevailing wage labor, which can increase costs when compared to private development. However, they also seemed to agree with the crowd about the building’s potential.
“I definitely saw it as a more funky space that would appeal to a creative market,” said Paul Jeffreys, a senior designer with SERA.
Matt Cohen, a WSU architecture professor and member of the Spokane Preservation Advocates, referenced the community effort to save the historic Rookery Block in the center of downtown. One building has been demolished, and two others are scheduled for the wrecking ball despite years of preservation efforts, including intervention by the city.
“Historic preservation is a very strong concern in this community,” Cohen said. “That’s just important to keep in mind.”