November 7, 2009 in City

Raze the Y, study says

Consultant advocates using Conservation Futures funds
By The Spokesman-Review
 

A $17,000 study about the future of the former downtown YMCA has come to the same conclusion reached by the Spokane Park Board: The structure will become a strain on city resources unless it’s torn down to become part of Riverfront Park.

The Park Board agreed in 2006 to buy the old Y, which is surrounded by the downtown park and sits along the south shore of Spokane Falls. The agreement to pay $5.3 million for the building was designed to block a developer from turning it into high-rise condos.

Three years after the Park Board put a $1 million deposit on the land, it successfully lobbied the Spokane County Commission to pay the remaining $4.3 million using taxes already levied countywide for the Conservation Futures program. The city park department wants to return the land to a natural condition.

But the Conservation Futures plan was blocked by the Spokane City Council, in part because the program would require tearing down the 45-year-old building and would prevent the construction of any new structures on the site. The council, which required the latest study, argued that removing the structure could take away an attraction that would keep people in the core of downtown.

Jeffrey D. Lembeck, the consultant hired to do the study, determined that despite the views of the falls from the building, its lack of parking, low ceilings, dated appearance, heating system’s poor condition, lack of windows on lower floors and other factors make it undesirable for redevelopment into office, retail, residential or other kinds of space.

If the city paid to turn the building into class B office space – which he said would be the best redevelopment choice – the city would lose about $850,000 in the first five years of operation, his study said.

“From the owner’s standpoint, the highest and best use of the site would be to demolish the building, and accept available Conservation Futures Funding,” Lembeck wrote.

Councilman Al French, who has criticized the Park Board for buying the building without a clear plan to pay for it, said he would like to see a 10-year projection before taking a stance.

City Councilman Richard Rush questioned the idea of tearing down a building that still has a useful life and could be used to keep people downtown. He added that the report’s presumption that the lack of parking is a detriment to the site is misguided because the demand for parking will decrease as energy prices increase.

But City Council President Joe Shogan said given the result of the study, “I would have a hard time justifying it to the taxpayer to continue to carry it as a debt on our books.”

Opponents of the Conservation Futures plan, like Rush and County Commissioner Bonnie Mager, question using taxes meant to preserve land and wildlife for property that’s long been developed. They say the expense would prevent the preservation of significantly larger tracts of land.

Supporters say accepting the money helps preserve an incredible view of the falls for the public without raising taxes. They also say it’s a chance for Conservation Futures to showcase a property likely to be used by most county residents – as opposed to the more remote acreage that the program usually buys.

Besides the two Republicans on the County Commission, Todd Mielke and Mark Richard, backers of the concept include former County Commissioner John Roskelley, a Democrat, and King Cole, the dominant force behind Expo ’74 and the creation of Riverfront Park.

Although the City Council has balked at using Conservation Futures, it did agree to finish purchasing the land. Facing the prospect of giving up the $1 million the Park Board put down on the property and the embarrassment of backing out of a deal with the YMCA, the council bought the building in June by borrowing $4.3 million from a reserve fund for garbage service.

Because that money was paid using funds raised through utility bills – not taxes – the money must be repaid with interest.

County Park Director Doug Chase said Thursday the county’s offer remains on the table. The City Council is expected to vote on the possible use of Conservation Futures later this month.

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