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Sat., Dec. 26, 2009, midnight

Finding a fix to YMCA bind

I am often asked about the YMCA property at Riverfront Park and the actions of the Spokane Park Board regarding its purchase.

As you may recall, in 2006 I had the property under contract in anticipation of a midrise condominium development. The project made sense. Spokane has a high ratio of downtown, low-income housing. To keep downtown vibrant, we need to integrate the middle- and higher-income demographic.

This is not about sour grapes or being a sore loser. I have been in a unique position to observe the actions of the Park Board. People repeatedly ask me, how can the Park Board purchase a property for $5.3 million with no funding source? What is wrong with our system when our mayor and City Council, in the midst of a budget crisis, have no voice in Park Board property acquisitions that saddle the city with a $4.3 million debt?

Back in 2006, I knew that the Park Board had a first right of refusal to step into my position as purchaser. However, I was assured by the YMCA that the Park Board was not interested. For several years, the YMCA leadership made it apparent to the Park Board that they intended to sell their old facility.

In a final attempt at negotiating with the Park Board, the YMCA formed a committee, headed by appraiser Scot Auble. Again, the Park Board was not interested.

And even after the Park Board stepped into my position as purchaser, I was promised by the past board president that there would be a public vote on whether to acquire the YMCA property. I welcomed this vote, as I wanted to know how the public felt. There was never a vote.

Good Park Board management mandates vision. Planning. Prioritized funding. When was the last time you saw an adopted long-term plan for Riverfront Park? When has the public been asked for input into a long-term plan? Acquiring the YMCA property was never a Park Board priority.

Still, the Park Board felt it had to buy it.

Unplanned financial decisions lead to other consequences. What happened to that wonderful Spokane tradition of “kids swim for free”?

If the YMCA property had been part of a long-term vision, had been part of a planning priority and therefore had a sinking fund for its eventual acquisition, the City Council and the mayor would not be in this financial morass.

So what is the solution? Many cities across the United States have had politically independent parks departments. But in my research, most of those cities have amended their city codes or charters to bring the park board under the budgetary constraints of a city council.

Recently, it appears that there is an evolution toward that goal in Spokane as well. There have been new municipal laws under discussion that would clarify the ambiguities of our aged City Charter. Additionally, new people are helping to repair a malfunctioning system. The current Park Board chairman, Gary Lawton, told me that since discovering six uncompleted long-term plans for Riverfront Park, his aspiration is to complete one. Leroy Eadie, the new acting Spokane Parks and Recreation director, is doing a fine job of building bridges with the mayor’s office, the City Council and the public.

Park Board member Randy Cameron makes a great point: Despite the faults in structure, it is having good and talented people, volunteering to give their time to serve, that really makes a difference.

Still, though, I believe that without changes in the infrastructure between the Parks Board and the City Council, we may see another situation like this arise in the future. Oversight needs to be in place to prevent these dilemmas.

Today, is there a way everyone can win with the YMCA? What if the city requested a land trade to move the condo development to the west end of the park on Post Street, which will be a dead-end street after the bridge closure? Although not as good a site as the YMCA property, it might work at $3 million. Then the city and the Park Board only have to come up with another $2.3 million to add the YMCA property to the park.

Overall, it is much more interesting and safe when public and private properties are integrated into livable spaces. To get a quick glimpse of how developers and parks departments can create amazing cities, Google the images of Riverwalk in San Antonio.

It is gorgeous. They really get it. There is no “public versus private.”

It’s all community.

Mark Pinch is the owner of Pinch Development & Investments.

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