December 2, 2009 in City

County gives city time on YMCA debt

Commissioners say they are frustrated by council response
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Spokane County leaders Tuesday expressed frustration with Spokane City Council’s vague response to their offer to pay off the city’s debt on its purchase of the downtown YMCA.

After two rounds of debate, commissioners voted 2-1 to wait four months before revoking their offer to give the city money to pay the $4.3 million the city owes on the YMCA building, which it bought over the summer.

The county’s assistance would come from Conservation Futures property taxes, which are used to protect natural areas.

The commission’s vote means the Spokane Park Board’s plan to create a natural area on the Y site gets another in a long line of reprieves.

The vote was the second in two days to preserve the possible use of Conservation Futures for the land, which borders Spokane Falls.

On Monday, after debating the issue for more than a year, the Spokane City Council voted 4-2 to accept county Conservation Futures money, but only if a bidding process for the building doesn’t result in a viable plan for residential or commercial development.

The county had asked the city to decide by today whether to accept the money. The Spokane Park Board first requested the money from the county last year.

The city’s conditional response led Commissioner Mark Richard to ask whether the county should keep the offer on the table. But by the afternoon, Richard said he wasn’t prepared to kill the project. He joined Commissioner Todd Mielke in voting for the extension.

“There will be no third chance,” Richard said. “It’s either yes or no.”

Mielke said the delay will give the city a final chance to either develop the site or embrace the land as open space. He called the four-month extension “a challenge to the private sector.”

“If you’ve got a proposal, it’s time to bring it forward,” Mielke said. “So far, the few that we have received have lacked detail and have not been committed to a formal proposal.”

Commissioner Bonnie Mager, the lone vote against the extension, said she would prefer that the city withdraw its application and “put the cart before the horse.” Commercial development of the site should be ruled out and the City Council should be on board before the city Park Board requests county money, she said.

County parks Director Doug Chase said if the application is withdrawn, the city would have the right to reapply for the money, but there’s no guarantee that the county park board would rate the project as highly as it did last year when they unanimously endorsed the project.

The concept faces a possible lawsuit from former City Councilman Steve Eugster who has argued that Conservation Futures money should not be used for an already developed site. City Council members have expressed a desire to develop the Y. Their hope was further sparked by Ron Wells, a Spokane developer, who testified Monday that he believes the city could lease the building for apartments and offices. He told the council that he may submit a development proposal for the site.

But City Council President Joe Shogan expressed doubt that a viable development opportunity exists for the Y. He noted that Wells has experienced a slowdown in development activities because of the economy.

Wells bought the site of a former city fire station in 2005 in hopes of building condominiums. That land remains vacant.

“If Mr. Wells was so interested, I can’t figure out why folks haven’t come forward in the last two years when this debate has been going on,” Richard said.

The long debate over the former YMCA has divided environmental advocates.

Some, like former county commissioner John Roskelley, argue that land adjacent to the falls should be maintained as park space and that the city has been too eager to allow condo development along the north channel of the falls. He has said that the purchase will allow the Conservation Futures program to showcase land adjacent to an important landmark – the falls – in an area that is easily accessible to the public.

But others, including council members Richard Rush and Jon Snyder, questioned the idea of removing a building in the city’s core that could add vitality to the downtown. Because the county plans to pay the city’s debt over 20 years, the total cost to Conservation Futures including interest will be about $7 million – an amount critics of the Y’s purchase say could be used to buy hundreds of acres already in a natural state.

“We have a certain responsibility to get as much value as possible for their tax dollar,” Mager said.

At Monday’s City Council meeting, much of the debate focused on crime. Some council members said fewer people would visit the park if the Y was torn down, which could cause safety problems, especially at night. Snyder said Monday that shrubs and trees that would be planted as part of the natural area would “most likely be used for nefarious activities in the evening times.”

Richard warned that some of the City Council’s crime concerns could be used to justify building over any open space. “It’s like saying we want to close down part of Riverfront Park today because it’s not as safe as it could be and we want to develop it,” he said. “I don’t agree with that.”


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