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With street project, Spokane pays tribute to King’s legacy

Yolanda Everette and members of the Spokane Community Gospel Choir sing “Lord, I love you more than anything” during the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Celebration at the Holy Temple Church of God in Christ on Sunday evening.  (J. BART RAYNIAK)
Yolanda Everette and members of the Spokane Community Gospel Choir sing “Lord, I love you more than anything” during the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Celebration at the Holy Temple Church of God in Christ on Sunday evening. (J. BART RAYNIAK)

By the end of this year, a Spokane street will be named after Martin Luther King Jr. – after nearly a quarter century of attempts.

Last week, the Spokane City Council approved a $3.7 million construction contract with Spokane Rock Products to tear down old warehouses in the way of the new downtown street near Washington State University-Spokane and to build the first phase of what will be called Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

“This street is going to go through the heart of Spokane’s education district,” said Ivan Bush, who submitted the application to name the extension of Riverside Avenue east of Division Street after King. “That will go well with the principles that Dr. King believed in: Faith, family and education.”

The project will include a small park that’s meant to serve as a gateway into WSU-Spokane on the southeast corner of the new street and Division. It also will have a median that someday could accommodate light rail.

“It’s going to be a very special roadway,” said City Engineer Mike Taylor. 

The project aims to divert traffic from Spokane Falls Boulevard, which is someday expected to be the central part of the campus. Next year the city plans to redesign the portion of Spokane Falls adjacent to the campus to make it more pedestrian-friendly and compatible with a college setting.

The first phase of Martin Luther King Jr. Way is only a few blocks long and will connect Riverside to Spokane Falls near the Schade Brewery building. Eventually, it will connect Riverside to Trent Avenue near the Union Gospel Mission.

There are about 900 streets named after King in the United States, said Derek Alderman, an East Carolina University geography professor who has studied the naming of streets after King. In Washington, cities that honor King with street names include Seattle, Tacoma and Yakima.

In an interview last week, Alderman said it’s encouraging to find a city naming a new street after King. He said leaders often make promises to name the next new road after King after proposals to rename an existing street run into opposition.

“Sometimes it takes forever and often people have forgotten about the promise,” Alderman said.

The road, which is an extension of Riverside Avenue, was first envisioned 20 or more years ago to help make room for the new campus and avoid having to rebuild the Trent Avenue bridge over the Spokane River, said City of Spokane Utilities Director Dave Mandyke. The bridge, just east of the campus, eventually was rebuilt, but the project remained a priority to reduce vehicle traffic through the university while preventing increased congestion at Trent and Hamilton.

Construction is expected to start in late February, if weather permits. Crews will have 140 days to complete the work, which is funded mostly with federal money.

Allen Battle, co-creator of LaunchPad INW, said King was his hero when he was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. Finally having a street in Spokane named after King is a sign to visitors that Spokane is becoming “more progressive,” he said.

“Some people may see it as small. Some may see it as huge. I just think it’s a sign of moving in the right direction,” Battle said.

Bush, who is the co-chairman of the Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration Planning Committee, has advocated several other proposals to rename streets in Spokane after King. Those plans proved controversial and were rejected. The Riverside idea, however, was approved unanimously by the Spokane Plan Commission and Spokane City Council in 2009.

“I was extremely elated then,” said Bush, who watched the votes. “I’ll be even more elated when I see it.”

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