Facing the potential construction of a condo tower in Riverfront Park, the county’s park committee this week recommended the purchase of the downtown YMCA.
If county commissioners agree, the use of the county’s Conservation Futures tax will come as a relief to city parks leaders, who have struggled for two years to determine how to raise the remaining $4.3 million needed to buy the land and prevent construction of a tower adjacent to Spokane Falls.
Officials note that Conservation Futures property tax is paid by everyone within county borders, including city residents.
“This property is a critical component of Riverfront Park with outstanding Spokane River frontage on Canada Island’s south river channel, the most dramatic natural falls area within Riverfront Park and is under immediate threat of development,” said a staff report signed by County Parks Director Doug Chase.
But the developer who hoped to buy the land questions the move.
Mark Pinch, who owns Pinch Development and Investment, said the county would spend millions for a developed parcel of less than an acre when the same amount could be used for a large tract in a more natural state.
In 2006, for instance, the county agreed to buy 390 acres of Antoine Peak for $2.8 million using Conservation Futures and state money.
Pinch added that his project would have earmarked land adjacent to the river for public access.
“The public would get the view corridor for free,” Pinch said.
Barry Russell, Spokane’s parks director, said the price is all about location.
“Why would you want a nine- or 15-story condo next to one of the most highly recognized landmarks in the eastern parts of Washington?” Russell asked. He added that the park is a poor location for residences because it’s home to important community events that are loud and go late into the evening.
The YMCA plans to move to a new complex on Monroe Street in the spring.
The cost of the downtown YMCA land, which is four-fifths of an acre, was determined in June 2006, when Pinch offered $5.3 million for the site. The Spokane Park Board had the right to match Pinch’s offer through the YMCA’s lease of city land for parking, and the 12-member board unanimously voted to buy the property and put $1 million down.
Last year, when the Park Board agreed to finish making the down payment on the land, then board President Frank Knott said the city would ask voters for the rest. But the money was not included in last year’s parks bond that focused largely on aquatics. A scientific phone poll paid for by the parks department indicated Spokane residents might be willing to use tax money to buy the property.
The survey, which was conducted soon after voters agreed to the $43 million parks bond last year, showed that 51 percent of residents support higher taxes to buy the YMCA. Thirty-five percent were opposed.
The parks department could lose the $1 million if it does not come up with the rest of the money by the time YMCA operations move.
The property was donated to the YMCA by Washington Water Power, which is now Avista. The building opened in January 1967 and later served as the headquarters for Expo ’74. At first, the YMCA was surrounded by railroad and industrial land. But the property was transformed into Riverfront Park for the World’s Fair and the street it sits on – Howard – was closed to traffic.
If Conservation Futures money is used, the county would stipulate that the YMCA building be demolished when it reaches its “end of life,” estimated to be within 15 to 20 years.
Until then, Russell said, the building could be used as a recreation center and the building’s pool could be an interim solution for the city’s loss of the Shadle Park pool, which was the city’s only indoor pool until it closed in 2007.
County parks special projects manager John Bottelli said Conservation Futures collects about $1.6 million a year in property taxes. To allow continual consideration of other properties, the county likely would pay for the Riverfront Park property over 20 years.
Pinch said using Conservation Futures is a poor choice of the property tax, especially because voters last year agreed to make it permanent.
“Is the acquisition being proposed by the parks department in keeping with the vision and definition of what the Spokane County Conservation Futures was adopted for and paid for by the citizen of Spokane?” Pinch asked. “I would hardly think that a YMCA building would meet that definition.”
But Dean Giles, chairman of the county parks subcommittee that analyzed the purchase, said the land clearly meets criteria set in state law. Although much of the property bought through the Conservation Futures program has been rural and undeveloped, rules allow purchase of land that can be used as open space and returned to its natural state, he said.
“It fits the spirit of the law, as well,” Giles said.