April 3, 2013 in City

Vestal: Hip block of West Main crying out for edgy moniker

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Customers leave Finders Keepers II, a boutique at 18 W. Main Ave. The first block of West Main in downtown Spokane has blossomed with a mix of retail businesses, restaurants and coffee shops.
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You know something’s really alive when you get the urge to name it.

That’s where things stand in the little block on the east end of West Main Avenue – a thriving amalgam of the best expressions of the local and the organic, from the Community Building’s galaxy of progressive organizations to the Zola-centered strip of enterprise across the street, from Revival Lighting to the Main Market, from Merlyn’s to the Magic Lantern.

It needs a name, this booming enclave of soy and social justice, of yoga and Kobe beef sliders, and it seems urgent that we pinch “little Portland,” as some have dubbed it, in the bud.

Because the transformation of that block, the first block of West Main, is not an example of what’s good about other places.

It’s an example of what’s good about here.

“It’s absolutely a total facelift – physically and spiritually and psychologically and emotionally,” said Jim Sheehan, whose efforts have been a large part of lifting that face. “What’s happened is we’ve tried to develop a sense of community amongst everybody in the area.”

Sheehan and another property owner on the block, Merlyn’s Science Fiction-Fantasy Store owner John Waite, are swapping buildings in a move that’s likely to add even further momentum to the neighborhood. The swap will consolidate each property owner’s buildings into contiguous stretches – Sheehan will take over the current Merlyn’s space in exchange for the space that now houses ROW Adventures.

Waite envisions an expansion that will include a few small retail spaces on the street front, with his store in the rear space. Sheehan’s plans are still coming together. But both are looking to build on the spirit of what’s already taking place – a spirit of neighborliness and local connection.

“The core of it is we care about our neighborhood, we care about our buildings,” Waite said. “I live down here. Dan Spalding lives down here. … I go out and sweep my sidewalk because it’s dirty. That’s how a real neighborhood is.”

Spalding, a jack of many trades including art, music and real estate development, likely kicked off the renaissance when he purchased the Longbotham Building and a neighboring structure about 20 years ago and slowly began developing them.

At the time, the block was kind of desolate. Spalding jokes it was “scary”; Waite said it was “a pretty rough area.”

“There was really nothing going on when I (bought the buildings) down there,” Spalding said. “No one thought it was a good idea. They would come down and look at it and just shake their heads.”

He started with several apartments, and then a coffee shop came in. Spalding says the living spaces really changed things – you can’t have a neighborhood without residents. Not long afterward, Sheehan purchased the space across the street that has grown into the Community Building, which houses a range of progressive nonprofits, a store and a preschool. (My son attended the preschool.)

The Sheehan and Spalding projects established a gravitational force that has continued to attract activity. Sheehan bought the neighboring Saranac building in 2007 and put it through a radically forward-looking, green design – the solar panels are now a familiar part of the skyline. Spalding’s buildings now include several businesses, including the nightclub Zola and, most recently, Boots Bakery and Lounge, a vegan, everything-free cafe that also serves liquor. Spalding designed both spaces, using a lot of salvaged materials – including materials recovered from the remodeling of the Saranac building across the street.

Alison Collins opened Boots not quite a year ago, and she said business started strong right away. “It’s awesome,” she said. “Busier than we can keep up with.”

Boots and some of the other more recent additions to the block have made all of the long-simmering work in the neighborhood seem suddenly apparent. And the building swap between Waite and Sheehan, along with their plans for the future, make it seem like all this, nice as it is, may be just the start.

Business owners have long bandied about the idea of trying to get the city to scrap the four-lane one-way that now splits the block like a river. Waite said he’d love to see the neighborhood – or even all of downtown – return to two-way streets with diagonal parking and more pedestrian amenities. Something not unlike downtown Coeur d’Alene, where the infrastructure promotes stopping, walking and slowing down, rather than speeding past.

“Spokane’s downtown has been developed to be like the Indy 500,” Waite said. “That’s not healthy.”

Any proposal for a radical street redesign is in the dreaming stages right now, but, Waite said, “We’re like, ‘Let’s try this.’ ”

Sounds like a great idea. In the meantime, maybe someone can come up with a fitting name for this thriving place.

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


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