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Jensen-Byrd plans on hold for at least a year

FRIDAY, AUG. 10, 2012

Washington State University officials say they’ll wait a year or more before reconsidering the fate of the empty Jensen-Byrd building on the edge of downtown Spokane’s University District.

What they won’t do, said WSU Spokane chancellor Brian Pitcher, is tear down the historic warehouse in the next 12 months.

The decision to do nothing for now followed word this week that Texas-based Campus Advantage had backed out of the planned purchase of the six-story brick building. The development company planned to tear it down and replace it with modern apartments.

That plan to demolish the 103-year-old building raised criticism from area residents and preservationists, who said the building is important historically and worth renovating.

The reason for WSU’s now-unhurried approach on the Jensen-Byrd is a change in the school’s financial picture, Pitcher said.

When WSU accepted the $2.8 million offer last year from Campus Advantage, school administrators were concerned that they would struggle to find enough non-state money to move forward with WSU’s major Spokane project – constructing a new medical sciences building in the University District.

Pitcher said the last legislative session eased WSU’s money concerns.

“Earlier we were facing further serious cuts. But gratefully, the Legislature came forward with funding” that will let WSU complete the medical school structure, officially called the Biomedical and Health Sciences Building, he said.

During the past legislative session, the state set aside $7 million and gave WSU the option of selling $30 million in bonds in order to complete the medical sciences building.

That allows WSU to hold back and see what role the Jensen-Byrd Building will have in the developing Spokane campus, if any.

WSU acquired the building in 2004 and left it vacant. During the next six years the school tried and failed to find developers able to tackle its renovation and conversion to commercial or residential units.

WSU is not guaranteeing it won’t sell the building eventually. “You never say never,” Pitcher said. But “for now our focus is growing the campus and discovering the best use as programs and services expand over the next few years.”

WSU defended the sale last year to Campus Advantage as a way to provide needed student housing.

The Texas company obtained a demolition permit earlier this year to tear down the Jensen-Byrd. That permit was challenged by Spokane Preservation Advocates.

Matt Cohen, a WSU architecture professor and past president of the preservation group, said he is concerned that WSU will do little with the building.

He said one Spokane developer, Ron Wells, has an interest in taking on a renovation of the Jensen-Byrd, but Cohen fears WSU will not be willing to make a deal with him.

“Our interest, speaking for the SPA, is that the building be renovated and placed back online. We want that building renovated as quickly as possible,” Cohen said.

Pitcher said WSU officials agree that the building – on the west edge of the University District and a block east of Division Street – sits on property that will likely grow in value. Its location makes it a “connecting point” between the University District and the rest of downtown, he added.

“WSU President Elson Floyd has recommended we just wait and see what our needs will be over the next few years,” Pitcher said.

Based on property surveys, private developers should be able to find numerous properties south and west of the University District that can be converted to housing, he said.

Pitcher didn’t know what it costs to maintain the unused Jensen-Byrd building. It has electricity inside but no heat. An adjoining two-level, cinder-block building to the east of the Jensen-Byrd is used to store maintenance equipment.

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