January 25, 2012 in City

Frustration, hope inhabit the space at crumbling Ridpath

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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For three years or so, with the city’s blessing, Dave Largent did what the city is now telling him he cannot do: Run a bar in a space connected to the shuttered Ridpath Hotel.

And until the myriad problems plaguing the hotel are fixed – problems whose solutions seem to be tiny dots on a far horizon – Largent is stuck paying the mortgage with no hope of bringing in any income.

“It’s a nightmare,” said Largent, a homebuilder and Spokane businessman. “If I could just walk away right now, I’d be the happiest guy in the world.”

But the wheels of progress at the historic downtown hotel are grinding awfully slowly, if they’re grinding at all. City officials say that the building’s fractured ownership has responded insufficiently, or failed to respond at all, to problems with the Ridpath’s fire safety systems about seven months after being first notified of the problems. The owners complain the city, which has declared the building uninhabitable, is being too hard on them, making it even more difficult to address problems. Conflicts between owners continue; foreclosures and bankruptcies stack up; and differing versions of events are mounting. Sorting out the truth is well nigh impossible.

It’s not just Largent’s nightmare. Lisa Jones, the city’s fire marshal, said that her efforts to get the owners to comply with fire safety requirements have been “highly challenging, at best.”

“Months and months and months have gone by. We’ve tried every avenue,” Jones said. “We are requiring that the building’s fire alarm system, fire sprinkler system and fire standpipe system be restored to full working order.”

Pretty straightforward, no? No. The systems involve, to varying degrees, different owners of 19 separate pieces of the hotel. Some owners are suing each other. Some lost their property in foreclosure. Many are represented – in some capacity – by a local man, Stephen Antonietti, who says he’s got a plan to buy and reopen the hotel, but his ability to do that remains unclear.

Some efforts to fix the problems have found the owners at cross-purposes; the standpipe – the vertical pipe to supply firefighters with water – was refilled by one owner, only to be drained by another and then refilled. There is some dispute about who did the filling and draining. Jones said that 515 Spokane Partners, the owner of the main portion of the Ridpath, the basement through 11th floor, has simply ignored most of the city’s orders.

Largent, meanwhile, has grown frustrated with the city’s handling of his property. The nightclub space operated as Club Envy and The Game after the hotel’s August 2008 closing. At the time, Largent took steps to satisfy code concerns, such as building a wall to prevent access to the rest of the hotel, and Largent continued to pay for fire systems and utilities for the entire building, just in order to keep his floor space open.

Once the city began cracking down on the hotel last summer, though, it discovered much larger problems, Jones said. Fire safety systems through the hotel had fallen out of working order; transients were getting in regularly and with apparent ease; and some of the nightclub’s plans to prevent the problems, which seemed good on paper, weren’t working, Jones said.

“Once we saw all of those things, we said, ‘OK, time out,’ ” Jones said.

Largent feels unfairly caught in a vise. He says that until the entire building’s ownership manages to fix the problems, he can’t open. His attorney, Marshall Casey, sent a letter last week to the city’s Office of Neighborhood Services, complaining about findings against Largent for code violations. In part, the letter says that Largent is being held to blame for problems that he didn’t create and can’t fix.

He’s not appealing the city’s rulings, because it’s cheaper to address the complaints than to fight them, Casey said. But he is asking the city to correct what he sees as errors of fact and law in its findings against Largent.

And Largent said that the city is making his already significant problems worse.

“They’re trying to hold me responsible for someone else’s space,” he said. “I have a space that could be rented out.”

Largent’s frustration is palpable. And understandable. For a few years, when the hotel was being parceled into pieces and abandoned, he paid the bills on the whole high-rise just to stay in business. He is among those who have sued over the deals that got him involved in the place to begin with. He is trapped – but the city didn’t trap him. When you talk to Jones and others trying to enforce the code requirements at the hotel, you can’t help but feel they’re in a kind of hell as well.

Is there some hope? There’s always hope, I guess. For one thing, the ownership picture is changing constantly, and maybe the banks who take over the failed spaces will act to fix the problems or bring in fresh, committed owners. Antonietti says he wants to do that. Others have said so, too.

And there is new leadership at City Hall, which seems interested in driving the project forward. Council President Ben Stuckart said he’s interested in trying to help lead the parties toward some solution.

“I have the belief that it’s going to take a city leader to get everybody together at a table,” he said. “Until we address the Ridpath, I don’t think we’re stabilizing downtown.”

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


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