Spokane City Council members are poised to reject Spokane County’s offer to buy the vacant Riverfront Park YMCA, a decision that could force the city to sell parkland or raise taxes to help offset the cost of the building.
Officials also say that they likely will decline proposals they received to redevelop the site for private use because they pose too much financial risk to the city.
“The proposals do not guarantee, in any way, financial return to the city,” Spokane’s Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley told council members.
In an interview Monday, Mayor Mary Verner, who supported using county Conservation Futures funding, said she sought other options because of a lack of support on the City Council and concerns that the building may be declared historic – thus complicating the city’s ability to tear it down, a requirement if the county money is used.
“Whatever option is pursued, it must have a strong financial component, and that was the real appeal of the Conservation Futures,” Verner said. City Council members “already decided that they were going to put the city in this situation. Now I’m having my staff provide another option because this situation that we’re in now is untenable.”
The city forecasts a deficit as high as $10 million next year. The city’s first $350,000 payment on its YMCA debt is due this summer.
No formal vote has been taken on the matter, but in a City Council briefing Monday, only Councilman Bob Apple and Council President Joe Shogan indicated they supported the Conservation Futures option.
The Spokane Park Board voted to buy the YMCA for $5.3 million in 2006 to prevent developer Mark Pinch from buying the land to build a condominium tower. It put $1 million down on the property and, in 2008, won support from county park leaders to cover the remaining debt using Conservation Futures, a tax fund used to buy and protect natural areas. The Spokane City Council, however, has blocked use of Conservation Futures, arguing that development on the property is better for the park.
Last year, the council borrowed from a city utility fund to buy the building. Verner urged the council in November to accept Conservation Futures. They declined and, instead, asked developers to propose concepts to use the building. County commissioners have said the Conservation Futures option is off the table after March 31.
Cooley said if the county money is refused, other possible funding sources for the Y and other improvements include raising the city’s hotel tax, asking citizens for an increase in property taxes, selling park property north of Riverfront Park that the Park Board bought after a public vote, and entering into a public-private partnership.
He said the new revenue could spark a planning process to create a better Riverfront Park and also pay for other improvements, such as repairing bridges that are deteriorating and constructing a promenade where Howard Street used to be to enhance pedestrian use of the park.
He noted that the city comprehensive plan suggests that potential uses of the Y include a public market or a Native American history center.
Former Park Board member Steve McNutt, who led the board’s effort to win Conservation Futures funding, said the Park Board explored all those ideas. The cost of remodeling the building into a new use would take several million dollars, he said, and even if the money could be found, the projects likely would be unviable at the site. The Spokane Tribe of Indians rejected the building for its use, as did Mobius Spokane, which hopes to open a science museum.
“It was a dying rec center, and that’s why the YMCA left it,” McNutt said. He said the City Council is irresponsible for rejecting Conservation Futures money without a clear understanding of the building’s future or how to pay for it.
But Councilman Jon Snyder said finding a new funding source is the correct path, in part because it preserves the county money for more pristine land.
“What I like about this discussion right now is it’s going back to where it should have started at the very beginning, which is, what is our conception of Riverfront Park, and how should that function within the greater downtown environment and for the needs of the citizens as opposed to everything being driven by a deadline put upon us by (Spokane County),” he said.
McNutt cautioned that the City Council under the city’s charter does not have authority over parkland.
“The Park Board has a strong vision for what Riverfront Park ought to be, and the council is tinkering with it in a way that the charter says they should not,” McNutt said.
Three development proposals were submitted to the city late last month:
•Developer Ron Wells proposed turning the structure mostly into apartments;
•Pinch proposed buying parkland closer to Post Street and allowing the park department to keep the Y;
•Mead resident Jennifer Childress proposed turning it into a Native American museum. She said she didn’t have funding for the concept but hoped her submission would spark interest.
Further delay on a YMCA decision makes it more likely that the building won’t be demolished – a goal of Park Board members who argue that the building’s location on the shore of the Spokane Falls hurts public access and degrades what they say is Spokane’s greatest natural landmark. The building opened in 1967, and once the building turns 50, it will have an easier path to win a designation on a historic registry.
While buildings newer than 50 years old can be considered for the local and national registries if they have “exceptional significance,” guidelines from the National Register of Historic Places set the bar high.
“As a general rule, properties that have achieved significance within the past 50 years are not eligible for National Register listing because the National Register is intrinsically a compilation of the Nation’s historic resources that are worthy of preservation,” the guidelines say.
Linda Yeomans, of Historic Preservation Planning & Design, wrote Wells that the building is “particularly architecturally and historically significant in the contexts of Spokane architecture and social history.”
McNutt, an architect, disagreed. “That’s a piece of baloney,” he said, adding that Shadle Park High School and Avista’s headquarters are much more important structures in the same style as the YMCA.
“It is a B-minus mid-20th century architectural example.”