Almost a half-century after David Rodgers turned a shovel of dirt to commemorate construction of a new downtown YMCA, he considers the decision to build the Y along the shore of Spokane Falls a mistake.
Rodgers, who was the Y president during construction, and other leaders from the 1960s and ’70s argue that with the former downtown YMCA empty, the community now can maximize access to the falls while avoiding a doughnut hole of private development in the middle of the park.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to take that building down and make it part of the park,” said Rodgers, Spokane’s mayor when the city hosted the World’s Fair in 1974. “When the city has that kind of open space in that kind of area, it should be preserved with all our vigor.”
While his position has changed since the 1960s, when he favored developing the site, the Spokane City Council has shifted in the opposite direction.
A coalition of council members on the left and right, including Richard Rush, Nancy McLaughlin, Jon Snyder and former member Al French, has blocked the Park Board’s fight to add the land to Riverfront Park.
“It’s better for everybody if we have more development, more economic activity in the downtown core,” Snyder said at a council meeting last year. “Otherwise, we’re just going to be building more and more to the edges of this city and spending taxpayer dollars spreading services out.”
But city park leaders say it’s one thing to worry about demolishing buildings to make way for parking lots, and another to fight open space adjacent to the city’s most important natural landmark, Spokane Falls.
“That is a very special site with all kinds of historic and cultural significance,” said Rachael Paschal Osborn, an attorney who has fought for more natural flows of the falls. “Opening it up for a very special public area would be the best thing in terms of long-term vision.”
Officials at Avista Utilities, which will start work this summer to restore portions of the riverbed damaged by industrial uses over the years, say that whatever is decided, public access to the falls is essential for the site.
“With the amount of effort that we’re putting into restoring the middle and the north channels of the river, it would be really nice if the public were able to enjoy the middle and north channels from multiple perspectives along the river,” said Speed Fitzhugh, Avista’s Spokane River license manager.
Others, however, say there can be such a thing as parkland overkill.
“Too much open space in the heart of the city just creates dysfunction. You end up with a sense of not being safe,” said Rick Hastings, a senior planner with local community planning and design firm Studio Cascade. He also co-founded the nonprofit group Friends of the Falls, which advocates the creation of a park just downriver from the falls. “We’ve got lots of open space in Riverfront Park that is underutilized. Having more of that, I guess, I just don’t see it.”
City leaders in the ’60s and ’70s put an end to the 80 years of development that rerouted, polluted, damaged and covered Spokane Falls and its shores. They created an urban park that removed the parking lots, railroad tracks and decaying buildings that covered Havermale and Canada islands. By the end of the 1970s, the YMCA was surrounded by city parkland.
While park plans from that era indicate that the city foresaw public ownership of the Y, the plans haven’t always argued for open space. A 1974 city report said the Y should become part of a government complex, which was never built. A 1987 plan suggested tearing it down for open space or turning it into a park “activity center.”
Nor has the Park Board, even in recent years, always backed turning the site into open space. Former board President Frank Knott suggested maintaining the building as a city recreation center. Mobius Spokane, a nonprofit group pursuing construction of a science museum, and the Spokane Tribe of Indians, which hopes to build a cultural center near the falls, both examined and rejected the site for their projects.
Friday is the city’s deadline for developers to submit proposals for the YMCA. The city says it prefers a long-term lease of the land, though it’s open to selling the building.
The council also faces a deadline. County leaders say the council must tell them by March 31 if they want to use Conservation Futures money to pay off the debt. If it doesn’t, officials say, the council likely must pursue private development.
Luxury apartment, office space
In late November, as many park leaders expected the City Council to accept Conservation Futures money, developer Ron Wells told the council that he was interested in developing the YMCA. A study requested by the council had concluded that the city’s best, least-risky option was to accept Conservation Futures money.
Wells, however, said the study focused too heavily on possible office uses. He thinks residential development would make more sense financially.
After touring the building early this month, Wells said he planned to submit a development proposal devoting a quarter of the space to offices and the rest to residences.
“The commanding views of the river will generate a higher rental premium than office space will,” Wells said. “It’s just such a fantastic view of the water.”
He said he prefers leasing the building from the city in the long term instead of buying it. “I think it ultimately should be owned by the public,” Wells said.
A tortuous course
A few years ago, amid a strong real estate market and downtown condo-building boom, the YMCA and YWCA put their downtown buildings up for sale to raise money for a new complex. In 2006, developer Mark Pinch offered the YMCA $5.3 million for the building and the land it sits on, less than one acre. Under a 1988 deal between the city and YMCA, the Y was required to offer the building to the Park Board for the same price.
Pinch planned a 150-foot condo tower, a concept Park Board members said was unacceptable because it could limit public access to the river. The board agreed to put a $1 million down payment on the site and said voters might be asked for the rest.
Instead, in 2008, the Park Board won support from Spokane County’s park board to use Conservation Futures property taxes to finish buying the land. County Commissioners Mark Richard and Todd Mielke said that they supported the concept, but that they wouldn’t sign off unless the City Council agreed.
After the real estate market crashed, another development company backed out of a deal to buy the YWCA, across the river from the YMCA. City officials, however, were more hesitant to back out of the Park Board’s agreement for the YMCA because they would lose their $1 million and potentially face backlash for reneging on the deal with a nonprofit organization.
Council members voted to buy the land by borrowing money from city reserves earmarked for garbage service. They hired a consultant to study whether development of the Y would make sense and kept Conservation Futures on the table in case private development was later ruled out.
That study was released in November and recommended that the city approve Conservation Futures funding as the least-risky financial option. Even so, council members, some citing Wells’ interest in the property, voted to continue pursuit of private development.
The next day, county commissioners agreed to extend their deadline to March 31. But they said their patience was worn.
An acre here, 100 acres there
Much of the debate over the site, particularly among environmentalists, has been centered on the future of Conservation Futures. Since the 1990s, voters have backed the Conservation Futures property tax to buy and protect natural areas.
County Parks Director Doug Chase said the tax raises about $1.7 million a year. If the city accepts the money for the Y, the county would make annual payments of as much as $350,000 to pay off the debt and continue to pursue other land it deems important, he said.
Also, the city would be required to tear down the building and start restoring the land.
Opponents argue that the money it would take to buy less than an acre on the falls could be used to secure more than 100 acres outside the city, and former City Councilman Steve Eugster says it’s illegal to use Conservation Futures to buy already-developed property.
But other legal risks face the City Council if it opts not to use Conservation Futures money.
City Park Board member Randy Cameron said if the council turns down the money and opts for private development in Riverfront Park, the board may “step in and say: Where’s our $1 million? How are we made whole?”
The City Charter creates an autonomous Park Board with complete authority over park spending and park policy. Board members argue that if the Park Board’s $1 million down payment ends up financing a private development that doesn’t serve park purposes, they’d have a case to ask the city for a refund.
Inferior or phenomenal?
Some argue that there already is plenty of great river viewing available. They note, too, that a public sidewalk is accessible between the Y and the river.
“The views from this property are inferior to all four sides around the falls,” Councilman Snyder said, noting that he surveyed the site and took pictures from multiple angles. “The good views of the falls are on the second and third stories of the building that is currently there.”
Wells said apartments with good views of the falls would help finance his project. He added that his plan would improve views of the falls from outside the building.
Hal McGlathery, who managed Riverfront Park for about 15 years starting in 1982, called the location, which overlooks rapids and the top of the falls, “phenomenal.”
“That is one of the most choice locations to view the river at its peak,” said McGlathery, who favors purchase of the site using Conservation Futures money.
Bill Youngs, an Eastern Washington University history professor, said the middle channel of the falls likely is the least disturbed. Youngs wrote “The Fair and the Falls,” a 1996 book about the transformation of the site.
“That is the most dramatic part of the river,” said Youngs, who also said he prefers open space on the site. “The riverside setting is so unique in all America. It’s really a national treasure.”