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Council considers rezoning, sale of vacant N. Monroe property

Traffic winds its way north up the Monroe Street hill on Friday past vacant property the city of Spokane is considering selling for an apartment complex. (Christopher Anderson)
Traffic winds its way north up the Monroe Street hill on Friday past vacant property the city of Spokane is considering selling for an apartment complex. (Christopher Anderson)

Neighbors of vacant ground viewed daily by thousands of motorists in north Spokane are worried about what the city may do with the two acres that include a significant bluff looking over the city.

The Spokane City Council today will decide if it will allow up to 30 residential units per acre on the plot of city-owned land on the west side of North Monroe Street bordering the steep hill that leads up to Garland Avenue.

Much of the property, which borders Glass Avenue on the north and is currently zoned to allow 10 residential units per acre, can’t be built on no matter what because of regulations prohibiting construction on steep grades. But portions of the land’s south end, along Courtland Avenue, could be home to townhouses or apartments, city officials say. The city owns the land, some of which used to be part of a curvier alignment of Monroe Street before the thoroughfare was partially straightened in 1951, according to news archives.

Neighbors, in their opposition to the change, cite traffic and safety issues, the loss of wildlife habitat and, most of all, the lack of a clear plan for the property.

Allen Schmelzer, a city planner in the Community Development Department, said the proposal is part of a long-term effort to sell city parcels that aren’t of use to the city. The land has generated little interest in previous efforts to sell it because of development restrictions on the site, he said. Changing the designation would allow more flexibility in designing a project, he said. “It has a great potential to be a townhouse-type development,” he said.

If the City Council agrees to amend the city’s comprehensive plan – the city’s long-term growth guide – the property eventually would be developed and sold in partnership with the Community Development Department as affordable housing. Schmelzer said the site would likely be targeted for families earning 80 percent of median income. For a three-person household, that would be $45,300 a year, he said.

But the department hasn’t crafted specific plans for the site, and officials say it wouldn’t make sense to spend taxpayer money doing so until they know if the change will be made.

The lack of a plan makes nearby residents uneasy. Some say that the land should be landscaped as a way to provide a welcoming gateway to the North Hill neighborhood or Garland Business District.

“We are not opposed to development. We are not opposed to growth and infill,” Stuart Berlessa, who lives down the block, said at a City Council hearing last week. “But the neighborhoods do feel that this is a problematic piece of property that requires more substantive planning before a zoning change is given to it.”

Sid Johnson, whose home borders the property, testified at the hearing that the city should be cautious about developing the land because the hill on Monroe Street remains dangerous, especially in the winter. The sidewalk is currently aligned with the Monroe’s old route and offset from traffic. City planners say if the property is developed, a sidewalk would be built closer to Monroe.

“If it had to be relocated to Monroe Street itself, unless there’s some type of barriers put up I think there would be extreme danger of vehicle-pedestrian accidents, and I can assure that I would be afraid to use that sidewalk given the speed of the traffic,” Johnson said.

Eline Helm, who lives across the street, told the council that she’s concerned that building residences geared to the poor could set back recent improvements to the neighborhood.

“The biggest problem I see if we have up to 60 units there and the possibility of low-income housing, adding hundreds of people right here to this property is going to create a big problem in the neighborhood for theft,” she said.

The proposal was rejected earlier this year by the City Plan Commission on a 4-3 vote.

Council President Joe Shogan questioned arguments at the hearing that the land should be kept as open space for wildlife.

“That train already left the station because it’s already zoned” for as many as 10 residences per acre, he said.

Council members noted that there already is a park, Emerson Park, nearby.

“The city just struggles with the open public land,” said Councilman Steve Corker. “The park department can’t maintain (the land along the Monroe hill), doesn’t have the resources to do it, and neither does the city.”

Officials said that if the change is made to the comprehensive plan, there would be several more opportunities for public input before any project starts.

“If it’s done very well, it could actually be a real benefit,” said Councilman Bob Apple. 

Shogan, who leaves office at the end of the year along with at least two other council members, said the council must consider more than the testimony of neighbors.

“For us to say no development because we side with these neighborhoods, we also have to tell everybody else in this city we had a chance to get money for this for the general fund and we passed it up,” he said.