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Historic merit up for debate

The old YMCA building stands on Havermale Island on the shore of the middle channel of  Spokane Falls. (Dan Pelle)
The old YMCA building stands on Havermale Island on the shore of the middle channel of Spokane Falls. (Dan Pelle)

Sides disagree on what’s valuable: YMCA building or land it occupies

A new battle over the former YMCA pits the building’s history against the natural and cultural history of the island on which it sits and the adjacent Spokane Falls.

In an interview late last month, developer Ron Wells said he plans to apply for historic tax credits to help finance the redevelopment of the former downtown YMCA. If he succeeds and completes a $5 million renovation, the site could be eligible for $1 million in tax credits, he said.

“It’s the easiest million dollars to find to help fix up the building,” he said.

Wells said the site deserves consideration because of its importance to the community as a YMCA, the role it has played in Spokane’s core, and because it was designed by a “prestigious” architectural firm. The building, which opened in 1967, also served as the headquarters for Expo ’74.

Others, however, say any possible historic interest of the Y is easily trumped by the land it sits on, Havermale Island, and the adjacent falls. They add that the U.S. Pavilion stands as a far more important icon of the fair.

The Y stands on the shore of the middle channel of Spokane Falls, which holds significant cultural importance to area tribes. It also is where Spokane was founded in 1881. Settlers were attracted to the falls because they were a source of power. Without them, it’s unlikely that Spokane would have grown to be the state’s second-largest city.

Robert Perron, who was the principal landscape architect for Riverfront Park, said the Y should be torn down.

“You have to take the long view, a minimum of a 100-year view,” he said. “That site is actually a national treasure.”

The YMCA, he said, just can’t compete with the importance of providing improved public access to the falls.

“There’s no redeeming quality to it that makes it a unique architectural structure,” Perron said. “I’m amused that there would be some attitude that it would be a historic building.”

Last year, the City Council borrowed $4.3 million from a reserve to finish buying the YMCA. The Spokane Park Board bought the land in 2006 and put $1 million down on the $5.3 million price in hopes of incorporating the Y into Riverfront Park. The board has lobbied to pay off the rest of the money with county Conservation Futures property taxes and reclaiming the site as open space. The Spokane City Council has blocked that effort and is exploring the possible sale or long-term lease of the building to a private developer.

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner and City Council President Joe Shogan said that any plan must take care of the city’s debt.

“We have an obligation to repay a $4.3 million debt,” Shogan said. “I don’t intend to see the city left hanging.”

The city’s deadline for developers to submit proposals is Friday. County commissioners say the city has until March 31 to accept the Conservation Futures money, which would require the building to be torn down to restore the land.

Spokane Historic Preservation Officer Kristen Griffin said most buildings that win historic designation are 50 years old. However, exceptions can be made. In the case of the Y, the building’s use as the World’s Fair headquarters and its status as the oldest surviving YMCA structure in Spokane could help it qualify, she said.

But, she said, the designation isn’t a slam-dunk for the site.

Scott Surdyke, development manager for Conover Bond, said the building is worth saving.

“There’s something very appealing about mid-century architecture,” said Surdyke, who attended a meeting the city held for developers interested in the YMCA. “Today, people really respect that modernism.”

Steve McNutt, a former Park Board member instrumental in winning support for Conservation Futures funding, said without tax incentives to help finance the project, it’s doubtful that there would be a push to label the Y historic. But McNutt, an architect who has worked on several local historic renovations added: “There are no absolutes in that area at all.”

Wells said last month that his proposal was to convert three-quarters of the YMCA into apartments and a quarter into office space. He said the impressive view of the falls from the higher levels help make the project viable.

With Wells on his tour of the YMCA were Spokane Public Radio officials. Wells suggested that the pool area and other locations in the building could make a great space for a radio station. He said the nonprofit nature of the public radio would also be a perfect fit for Riverfront Park.

Richard Kunkel, president and general manager of Spokane Public Radio, said Friday that his organization has not ruled out the YMCA, but he stressed that the Y is one of many options for new space.

“We really don’t want to walk into a hornets’ nest. Who does?” Kunkel said after he toured the site. “We are trying very hard not to be either stopped by the politics or blinded by the politics. We have to look at everything that may work.”

Wells acknowledged that after working on redevelopment projects that had little opposition, he’s had to deal with controversy on the Y.

“This is the first time I’ve ever had a person of significant civic import come up to me in a grocery story and assail me,” he said. “For the most part (opponents are) people who don’t understand what a great building it is and they don’t understand it has two, three, four, (or) five million dollars worth of inherent value.”

Ed Deeble, a Spokane architect who worked on the YMCA, said he won’t be disappointed if the building is torn down.

“Everything can’t be historic,” he said.

But he added that the Y should continue to stand if a financially responsible plan is found.

“We have a tendency to tear down perfectly decent buildings,” he said. “It costs a lot to tear them down and we don’t get anything.”