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Vestal: Can we get a park with that?

Shawn Vestal

City’s imaginative plan combines sewer project and riverside trail

We have talked about a “great gorge park” in Spokane for a hundred years, and sometimes it feels like a million.

But we may be on the cusp of a renaissance of river access – a dramatic new connection between the city and its namesake river, an expansion of opportunities to enjoy the beauty of the falls, and a vivid realization of the long-delayed notion that the gorge can be a crown jewel in our city’s park system.

If that happens, we will have a very unjewel-like source to thank for it: “combined sewer overflow.”

Still with me? Hang in there. The city’s new plan for meeting state and federal river cleanup requirements for CSOs has – thanks to creative thinking at City Hall – been turned into a kind of reverse Trojan Horse: a delightful surprise inside a creaky utilitarian contraption.

This graphic illustration shows design options for a proposed trail along the south bank of the Spokane River. The story continues below.

The city plans to meet expensive requirements to clean up the river, use that as an opportunity to expand park space between Riverfront Park and Peaceful Valley and build a crucial link in a 3-mile loop trail that would provide unprecedented access on both sides of the river gorge.

Not bad for government work.

The truth is, what’s happening now is a result of several different forces, and many of them are outside City Hall. A key piece will come from Centennial Trail improvements that are part of the Kendall Yards development on the north side of the river – to say nothing of the promise of that development itself. Another crucial step was the replacement of the old YMCA building with a park – a move that opened up the falls in ways that have to be seen to be believed. Avista is renovating the 3.8-acre Huntington Park space below City Hall and the old Washington Water Power building, a project that will greatly expand river views of the lower falls.

The city’s trail plan grows out of a new approach at City Hall. Part of the “integrated planning” model involves exploring projects for wider possibilities across departmental boundaries and bringing together seemingly disparate teams for collaboration. Can a parks project piggyback on a sewer project? Can a streets project help meet a goal for stormwater reduction? Can an underground necessity produce an above-ground luxury?

Administrators at City Hall credit the plan and the way it was developed to the atmosphere of change and creative thinking introduced by Mayor David Condon – the self-described “action guy.” In ways large and small, Condon’s administration has tried to break through bureaucratic obstacles and come to new ways of approaching long-held goals.

The approach has its downsides, for sure. For all the talk of inclusion and the putting aside of differences that comes from the administration, it has sometimes shown a disregard, even a contempt, for disagreement and debate.

And yet the sense that new ideas and new strategies are in the air is unmistakable and welcome. It does not just come from the mayor. Council President Ben Stuckart has proposed an ingenious plan for taking neighborhood development money – which is now spread among neighborhoods – and funneling it into one neighborhood at a time, in order to achieve more dramatic and noticeable improvements. Like the sewer-trail plan, it shows the best kind of thinking in the public interest, and a willingness to depart from habit and routine – and it risks being a political headache.

The riverside trail plan emerged from Spokane’s long-standing need to stop dumping stormwater overflow into the river during peak times – a need bolstered by an agreement with state and federal regulators.

Years ago, the city committed to a plan to bury large tanks along the river and divert the stormwater overflow into them. The water would then go to the sewage treatment plant for eventual release into the river. As part of the plan, the city was going to buy a parking lot on Main and bury one tank there, fed by a pipe that flowed from under the Monroe Street Bridge. That plan would have required digging up Main Street and burying the pipe, as well as spending $2 million to buy the parking lot.

Condon implemented a wholesale rethinking of the approach. Rick Romero was named the city’s utilities director in June 2012 and began looking at alternatives and meeting with other departments. A team of employees was formed to focus exclusively on the wastewater improvements that would be needed citywide – a series of projects that is likely to be the most expensive capital work in city history at around a half-billion dollars.

Soon, Romero, Parks Director Leroy Eadie and others were asking a whole series of new questions about the sewer project.

What if the city buried the tank at Glover Field instead of a parking lot and refurbished the park in the bargain? And what if the city ran pipes along the sloped banks of the river, covered by a trail that would link Huntington Park to Glover Field?

And what if, all along that stretch of the river, little pockets of park space were completed, like pearls along the thread of the trail so that, in very real, very green, very accessible ways, the riverside park experience were extended dramatically?

Wouldn’t that be a community treasure?

The roughly $30 million proposal isn’t final, by any means, and some key partners have yet to sign off, such as the Spokane Club and the Spokane Tribe. Glover Field has some sensitive cultural artifacts, and city officials say they’re trying to work with tribal officials to address concerns and to develop a plan that highlights the area’s tribal heritage.

The plan will also have to clear permitting and regulatory hurdles, including shoreline regulations, and neighbors and the public will need to weigh in. But it’s moving forward and has met with early approval from state and federal regulators, city officials say. It’s part of a much larger city strategy for combating stormwater overflows – a strategy that is looking at innovative ways to keep water out of the system, such as permeable surfaces, street trees and other projects that rise from the integrated planning model.

Which is all important. It is all crucial. It is, like so much in government, so incredibly important and crucial and invisible that most of us can barely bring ourselves to care about it.

Getting us closer to the river, on the other hand – closer to the beauty of the feature that first brought people to live here – would be impossible to ignore.

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