June 24, 2011 in City

We dreamed of things that were, and said ‘Y not!’

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Larry Reisnouer photo

The removal of the old YMCA building in Riverfront Park has opened a new view of the Spokane River and surrounding area. It has also opened a view of the stream - visible just above the work trucks - that ran under the old building.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Map of this story's location

If you were on the fence about the proposal to knock down the old YMCA building in Riverfront Park, go take a look now that it’s gone.

My guess is you won’t yearn for a stack of condos.

The absence of that old building on the banks of the Spokane River is as happy a sight as I’ve had in a while. I mean, right now it’s just a bare, scraped-up patch of land. But simply opening up the view there is impressive – it’s like someone turned on a light in a forgotten room. It’s exciting to think about what it will become in the next few months after the city’s great-looking plans for restoring the site are in place, complete with new pathways and overlooks.

“It’s pretty dramatic, isn’t it?” said city parks director Leroy Eadie. “It really changes that whole area.”

It sure does. And it makes me very glad that proposals to develop the site as condos fell by the wayside, as did resistance to the project on various other grounds. Because that spot – for the views of the river, for the views from the other side of the river, for the added green space and parkland, and for creating invaluable access to the Spokane Falls – is going to be amazing.

It already is, really. I used to think I hated that building. But my animosity was nothing compared to my feelings now that it’s gone. Because if this is what it was standing in the way of, that building was uglier than I thought.

People I respect took a different view. Ron Wells, who knows a thing or two about historic buildings, wanted to keep it there, and he once told me he thought the building had been the victim of “character assassination.”

“Spokane has a long trend of tearing down old buildings,” he said last year. “We’ve done it for many years.”

I generally agree with him. Our impulse to destroy or remake things that have fallen temporarily out of fashion is often stupendously short-sighted. And I have a fond memory or two at the old Y. My son took his first swimming lessons there.

But in this case, consider me one of the assassins. Because that thing looked like Mike Brady’s aqua-blue nightmare. And its absence is going to help create a community treasure.

Bon voyage, institutional hulk. We’re going to love having you gone.

About a year ago, this looked depressingly unlikely. Some City Council members thought it needed to be developed privately, as condos, apartments, a museum, a jazz club, an aquarium, a magic bunny farm. … The improbable possibilities sometimes seemed endless. People fantasized about the kind of vibrant, live/work/shop space that sounded like a super-groovy precursor to a big, empty building.

But even had something like that worked, for me the debate always came down to this: What do we want our parks to be? Shopping malls? Strollways for the hip and well-to-do? “Views” for top-floor buyers?

Others objected because the $5.3 million purchase of the old Y was made possible by $3.3 million in Conservation Futures funds, money that some council members wanted to see directed toward larger chunks of wilder land. And there were other objections as well – to the cost, and, yes, to the idea that we’d be tearing down a prime example of mid-century architecture.

In the end, a heated debate concluded with a 4-3 City Council vote (thank you, Joe Shogan, Amber Waldref, Steve Corker and Bob Apple) and a 2-1 County Commission vote (thank you Todd Mielke and Mark Richard) and the wrecking ball arrived this spring.

Now demolition is virtually complete, Eadie said. Bids for the restoration work – including new pathways, four overlooks, natural plantings, basalt outcroppings, a restored stream and other features – are to go out in July, with work to begin around the end of that month.

“We’d like to have the project done by late September-early October,” he said. “That’s the goal.”

I can’t wait. This town is full of empty condos – nice, new, hip, empty condos. It’s full of old buildings – some cool, some not. It is surrounded by an abundance of places to play in the great outdoors. What we don’t have are very many places like this, directly on the banks of the city’s iconic, central feature.

We have exactly one of those.

“Everything that we’ve heard is positive,” Eadie said. “People are really amazed.”

Count me among the chorus. Goodbye, old Y, and good riddance.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman. com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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