November 30, 2008 in City

Park’s natural value not lost on residents

Poll finds broad support for keeping YMCA land public
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Christopher Anderson photo

Cole
(Full-size photo)

The man who led the effort to create Riverfront Park says it would be “unthinkable” to allow private development on the downtown YMCA property.

King Cole, who was president of Expo ’74, said last week he remains hopeful that county commissioners will approve the purchase of the downtown YMCA through Conservation Futures taxes, which are collected inside and outside city limits.

The goal of Riverfront Park was “not a park with a commercial property in the center of it,” he said. “It should maintain its purity.”

It appears that many share Cole’s opinion.

An unscientific online poll conducted by the county between Nov. 19 and Tuesday had 1,200 responses; 85 percent supported the use of Conservation Futures property taxes to buy the Y, which is adjacent to Spokane Falls and surrounded by Riverfront Park. More than 350 people posted comments with their questionnaires; 264 of those were from supporters.

“I’ve been a member of the YMCA for years now, and the only thing that gets me through my cardio is looking over the river and just embracing what a beautiful town I live in,” wrote one survey taker who supported purchasing the Y. “We should be opening the river to the public, not covering it with another condo.”

But some suggested that private development on the site wouldn’t be so bad.

Others said the land should become part of Riverfront Park but not through Conservation Futures.

“Use Conservation Futures funding to purchase larger, more ecologically significant properties. Protect the prairies, view sheds and wildlife corridors with (Conservation Futures) funding,” wrote one person. “Why do you think moose are running around the South Hill?”

Support for putting the Y land under public ownership echoes a scientific phone poll conducted by the city parks department soon after voters last year approved a $43 million tax proposal aimed mostly at new pools. That survey showed that 51 percent of city residents supported paying higher taxes to buy the YMCA. Thirty-five percent were opposed.

The proposal to use Conservation Futures would use an existing tax for the purchase.

On Monday, the Spokane City Council rejected on a 4-3 vote the idea of using Conservation Futures, citing concerns about the price, financing and a required promise to tear down the building. Members also questioned if there had been enough public comment and if the purchase would meet the spirit of the Conservation Futures program, which mostly has been used to purchase land already in a natural state.

County commissioners requested that the City Council make a recommendation on the proposal, which led to Monday’s vote. The final decision rests with the commissioners, but park leaders agreed that the City Council vote was a significant setback for the use of Conservation Futures.

Cole, 86, said the council was “blatantly and inexorably wrong about this one.” He said private ownership of the land would hurt Riverfront Park even if it were developed in a “public-private partnership,” a concept some council members have suggested. Government ownership is crucial because it ensures public control, he said.

Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said tearing down the building and returning the land to its natural state within five years – a requirement of Conservation Futures – may not be the best solution.

“I just don’t think we’re being very visionary,” McLaughlin said. “There’s so much public land on the river already in a natural state. There’s plenty of that to see. I’m not concerned that in the core of this city that it’s the highest and best use.”

She added that it might be better to partner with private interests to create something that could benefit the park, such as a structure that includes a public market.

“There was never any communication about what other opportunities might be there for the land,” McLaughlin said. “It felt like a knee-jerk reaction to me to look at Conservation Futures as the savior.”

Former County Commissioner John Roskelley said the land is essential to the park because of its proximity to the river and the falls. Using Conservation Futures would illustrate the program’s role to taxpayers who never visit the more remote parcels bought by the program elsewhere in the county.

“You can count on two hands the number of people who visit some of these properties,” Roskelley said.

Even without Conservation Futures, the city is on the hook. The Spokane Park Board put $1 million down on the property in 2006 to prevent the land’s acquisition by a developer who proposed a condo tower on the site. The city has until April 28 to pay the remaining $4.3 million or risk losing the $1 million down payment while breaking its agreement with the YMCA. Without Conservation Futures, the city might have to buy the property and then sell it or ask voters for more taxes.

Some City Council members say the Park Board shouldn’t have agreed to the sale price without a clear plan to pay it.

“They’ve got to figure out how to get themselves out of this challenge,” said Councilman Al French. “We’re put in the position of fixing something after the fact.”

But Park Board members said the City Council has hurt hopes for what they believe is the best solution. The county’s park committee last summer unanimously supported a plan to pay off Spokane’s debt to buy the property over 20 years using Conservation Futures.

Although the council was asked to weigh in, Spokane’s City Charter makes the Park Board the final decision-maker on most park spending and policy issues. The rules often have created tension between the two governing bodies, with council members arguing that elected leaders should have more of a say and Park Board members noting that their board was created to take politics out of park decisions.

Cole, who lives in Spokane, said the goal of Riverfront Park had always been to make the Y part of the site and that it should be acquired “whatever the price.”

“There’s just no two ways about it,” he said.

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442.

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