The Spokesman-Review

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Guest opinion: WSU should negotiate with Wells on Jensen-Byrd offer

It’s impossible to overstate the impact of the Riverpoint higher education campus on Spokane. Today it boasts nine academic buildings, with a new medical school to follow. Five universities offer degrees ranging from business and education to medicine and dentistry. Nearby, technology companies are incubated and medical research takes place. It is an initiative that has taken decades of tireless advocacy, guided by a unified community vision.

Following the successful redevelopment of River Park Square in 1999, broad support emerged for an economic strategy focused on developing the Davenport Arts District, Kendall Yards and the struggling East Downtown area bordering Riverpoint. Today, development on the north bank of the Spokane River and the vibrancy of the Davenport District are encouraging. The Riverpoint campus, driven largely by Washington State University’s presence, has seen astounding facility and program growth. Yet the revitalization of East Downtown, despite the commendable efforts of philanthropist/activist Jim Sheehan, has languished. It’s time to assess the reasons why East Downtown is struggling and implement a solution.

The purpose of a branch campus is not just to disperse a school geographically. Branch campuses are also a way to capitalize on regional resources and economic “clusters” by integrating universities with host communities. In Spokane’s case, the vision for the Riverpoint campus emerged from its location near large regional health care facilities and a cross-section of businesses (including technology and software companies), providing learning opportunities for students and a pool of skilled graduates for employers. Local retail and urban amenities would serve as a magnet for students, teachers and knowledge workers. Student and faculty residential would inject vibrancy into the East Downtown streetscape. We envisioned a campus that was not an island, but embraced the urban revitalization that was occurring downtown, and wherever possible, incorporated architectural design elements unique to Spokane.

Riverpoint’s academic programs and facilities have grown astonishingly, but the campus has not accomplished the goals of encouraging residential development and revitalizing East Downtown. Despite attempts by WSU to attract development, no projects have come to fruition. A recent controversial proposal would have demolished the historic Jensen-Byrd building, a reminder of Riverpoint’s past and an island of architectural diversity in the midst of institutional buildings. Now that the developer has withdrawn its proposal, the future of the building remains in doubt. But there is no doubt about the need for long-envisioned residential and mixed-use development.

Fortunately, an opportunity still exists to fulfill the need for diverse development at Riverpoint while preserving a piece of the area’s architectural history and creating greater integration with adjoining East Downtown. The opportunity comes in the form of a proposal by local developer Ron Wells. No one can lay greater claim to contributing to Spokane’s downtown redevelopment and historic preservation over the past 20 years. His projects, including Steam Plant Square, the Morgan and Eldridge buildings, and the Lofts at Joel, to name a few, point to need to involve his expertise in solving the Jensen-Byrd conundrum – not just as one historic preservation redevelopment project, but as a critical piece to fulfilling a broader vision for the University District.

The Wells proposal is consistent with both the Downtown Master Plan and WSU Campus Master Plan, and is the only option to prevent loss of the Jensen-Byrd building while accelerating on-campus residential housing and much-needed retail. It provides WSU with a purchase price identical to the recently withdrawn offer and can be modified in response to university input. The financial details and legitimate concerns WSU may have about how the project may affect today’s academic programs and future Riverpoint growth are important. Like any business deal, these must be negotiated between the two parties.

Given these considerations, the best solution is for WSU to withdraw its application for the demolition of the Jensen-Byrd building, which is scheduled to be appealed on Oct. 17, and agree to enter into a period of serious negotiation with Wells. That could result in an agreement that supports the academic mission of the universities located at Riverpoint, and moves us toward the vision of an urban campus that integrates with downtown and serves as a catalyst for more private development and greater economic vitality.

Chris Marr is past chairman of Greater Spokane Incorporated and a former regent at Washington State University.He served as a state senator representing Spokane’s 6th District.


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