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Bemiss neighborhood losing a landmark

Until recently, the Olive It Cafe was a source of pride for many in the Bemiss neighborhood. 

The restaurant and coffee house – located in a remodeled historic grocery where the founder of Yoke’s got his start – was affordable but had an upscale feel that gave the neighborhood a needed boost, many nearby residents say. It also supported local artists and musicians.

But late last year, the cafe was booted from the building after it was sold to the owner of the next-door Grocery Boys, who plans to demolish the building to construct a Texaco carwash and parking lot.

“It’s a real loss,” said Joanne Scribner, who lives a couple of blocks from the doomed building at 3402 N. Crestline St. “I don’t call it progress.”

The building, constructed in 1905, is listed on the Spokane Register of Historic Places, causing further controversy in the neighborhood.

Grocery Boys owner Jasbir Thabel said last month that the previous owner told him the listing wouldn’t be an impediment to tearing down the building. He added that the building has been a financial drain.

“Three people have lost their livelihoods on this building trying to make it financially viable,” said Pat Cardinal, a real estate agent and friend of Thabel’s who represented him during a meeting of the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission.

But Kat Hill, who owned the Olive It, said her business was proof that the building can be profitable. The Olive It never struggled to pay its rent, and still would be open if it hadn’t been kicked out once the building sold, she said.

“We felt the growth and I honestly think that we were onto something,” Hill said.

Hill sponsored art shows, organized a mural painting on the side of the building by children from the Northeast Community Center and gave free popcorn to Bemiss Elementary students who came into her cafe.

“I was just trying to create a community thing,” she said.

Landmarks commissioners noted that none of the previous owners took advantage of incentives for properties on the historic registry that could have made the building more viable by cutting its property tax bill. County records show that the building has been sold three times since 2004. Attempts made to reach former owners were unsuccessful.

Bemiss Neighborhood Council Chairwoman Ann Wick said the former cafe – including the “Rex Flour” mural that dates to the building’s use as a corner grocery – is a neighborhood landmark.

“It’s one of the few historic buildings left in the Bemiss neighborhood,” Wick said. “Once you tear history down, you can’t build it back again. The carwash and the parking lot are not going to add anything positive to the neighborhood.”

If the building is torn down as expected, officials believe it will be only the second time the city has lost a building on the Spokane Register of Historic Places, said Spokane’s Historic Preservation Officer Kristen Griffin. About 350 properties are on the list.

Griffin said she believes the city first lost a structure on its historic registry in 2007 when a craftsman home built in 1904 in the West Central neighborhood was torn down. Two other Spokane structures on the National Register of Historic Places have been demolished – a Washington Street bridge over the north channel of the Spokane River and the Hyde Building, which sat on the current site of the downtown Bank of America Building.

The Bridgeport Grocery’s place on the register provides only limited protection from the wrecking ball. Thabel applied for a demolition permit late last year, forcing the issue to the Landmarks Commission, which denied his request. That gave the building only a 45-day reprieve, however; once that time expires, the demolition permit is expected to be granted.

From 1912 until 1946, the building was the Bridgeport Grocery & Hardware Store, which was run by the P.A. Lyberger family. The store is where Marshall Yoke got his start in the grocery business, said Chuck Yoke, Marshall’s son.

Yoke said his father came to Spokane to live at the Spokane Children’s Home after the death of his mother. He worked at Bridgeport before and after serving in World War I and delivered groceries in a horse-drawn cart. After leaving Bridgeport Grocery, he owned a grocery on Garland Avenue and later in Plaza, Wash. In 1946, Marshall Yoke started a store in Deer Park, which became the basis for today’s Yoke’s Fresh Markets.

Chuck Yoke said he’d prefer to see the former Bridgeport saved, but only if a financially viable option for the building exists.

“On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to stop progress,” he said, noting that when he was in the grocery business he once sold an old mansion in Deer Park so it could be moved to make way for a new store.

The landmarks commission will meet this month and discuss voluntary steps Thabel can take to mitigate the loss of the building. Griffin, the city’s historic preservation officer, said options could include saving parts of the building or constructing a marker noting that the building used to exist on the site.

Commissioners suggested that Thabel try to save the facade of the structure when constructing a carwash. 

But Thabel and an architect that he brought to last month’s meeting said it was unlikely that a carwash could be built using the brick structure. Even if it could be done, it wouldn’t be worth the extra cost, said Thabel, who bought the former Bridgeport Grocery for $190,000.

“I don’t think the bank would approve that loan,” he said.

Some neighbors suggest that Thabel put the carwash on land he owns on the next block. Others say a carwash would make the intersection of Bridgeport and Crestline treacherous for students walking to Bemiss Elementary.

“It will create too much traffic,” said Kevin Jefferson, who lives across the street from the former Olive It and grew spinach for the cafe in his yard. “I’m just really concerned about the kids.”

Griffin said it’s disappointing to lose a building on the registry, which was started in the early 1980s.

“The fact that it is so infrequent points to the success of the Spokane program,” Griffin said. “Occasionally there’s a loss, but there’s an awful lot of successes.”

Hill said she learned on Oct. 10 that the cafe, which opened in 2009, would have 30 days to move out. That didn’t give her enough time to find a new location. She currently works part time at the Northeast Community Center and is pondering whether she’ll open the cafe somewhere else.

Meanwhile, members of the Greater Hillyard Business Association have been courting her, hoping that she might bring the community atmosphere she fostered in Bemiss to a location in nearby Hillyard.

“I would consider it if I found the right spot,” Hill said.