July 24, 2013 in City

Ben Stuckart floats plan for targeted renewal

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Compare East Sprague Avenue with South Perry Street and someone’s bound to call you crazy.

One is a dismal stretch of concrete and dilapidated storefronts located in a prime spot between the University District and the hospitals. The other is a walkable, tree-lined haven with trendy eateries – a shining example of what can happen when a neighborhood center does everything right.

The two streets couldn’t be more different. But a collaboration at Spokane City Hall could change that. It could, in fact, transform parts of town so quickly and thoroughly that they might be hard to recognize when it’s over.

The project is called Operation Targeted and Concentrated Investment, a dry name for a simple idea: Gather seven different funding streams that have long been used piecemeal around town, point the resulting $5 million fire hose at a 16-block chunk of town and rehabilitate and renovate the entire area. Take what the Perry District did in 15 years and do it in less than one.

“You’d have a whole new underground infrastructure. You’d have a brand new street. You would have sidewalks taken care of. You would have street trees taken care of. And then pile on top of that, you would have new, rehabilitated housing stock in the area surrounding the businesses,” said City Council President Ben Stuckart. “I’ve always thought South Perry is a great example. They saved up their (Community Development) dollars and got matching dollars and made a difference because they concentrated their investment. But how does a city do that?”

Moving around the opportunity

The idea, which is credited to Stuckart, is so straightforward it’s being called “intuitive.” And so far it’s gotten positive reviews, though, as Stuckart said, “The devil’s in the details.”

“It’s very cool,” Theresa Sanders, the city’s administrator, said of the project. “It’s a different approach, to start pooling funds, because funding is so competitive. The idea is, can we all agree on a location, and then move the opportunity around?”

“Competitive” is an understatement, and finding agreement in government is no small task. Stuckart is talking about pooling money and using it in just one neighborhood, on just one-tenth of 1 square mile. There are 27 neighborhood councils in a city that’s 60 square miles.

Two weeks ago, Stuckart presented the plan to the city’s Community Assembly, the coalition of neighborhood councils, each of which has a stake in how the city’s funds are spent.

“I thought they were going to want to kill me,” he said on his way out of the meeting. He was wrong. His idea was met with enthusiasm and curiosity.

The biggest questions they had, everyone has: Where will the money come from, and what part of town will be the focus of the $5 million laser beam?

After a year and a half as council president serving on 17 boards and committees, Stuckart said he’s realized there’s a bunch of “supplemental” money floating around that he could use on this project.

“It doesn’t take anything away from what’s currently happening,” he said. “It doesn’t pull back anything from the neighborhoods.”

According to Stuckart, there’s excess money from the red-light camera and the Transportation Benefit District funds to fix streets and invest in crosswalks and beautification. There is money to be had in the Community Development Economic Fund to support established neighborhood organizations in focusing on the renovation, and more from the city’s integrated plans to update underground infrastructure.

“Ben realized we had all these siloed pots of money,” said Councilwoman Amber Waldref. “He asked, ‘Why aren’t we putting all these pots of money together to achieve actual economic development in some of these areas?’ And I was saying, how are we going to prioritize them? Which one do we start with? My big thing has always been using data to make decisions at the city.”

In other words, they don’t know which part of town will be transformed, but they have a mechanism to choose it.

Starting with six potential locations

Stuckart and Waldref, along with Sanders from the Mayor’s Office and Debra Robole, the council’s budget and performance analyst, have created criteria to choose the neighborhood. They’re starting with six locations, two from each council district, to cycle through the criteria.

The areas might include East Sprague Avenue-University District, North Monroe Street, West Broadway Avenue, North Market Street, Southwest Downtown and the Hamilton Street corridor.

First, the locations have to meet some basic requirements. They have to be part of the city’s integrated projects, such as the Six Year Street Plan or the Integrated Clean Water Plan. There has to be neighborhood support, like a functioning business district, and participation in the city’s Community Empowerment Zone program. A neighborhood plan must have been completed in the last five years, including a transit plan.

But, as Waldref said, the most consequential of the criteria are data-driven. She collected statistics from Greater Spokane Incorporated, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Community Indicators Initiative of Spokane, among other sources.

She’s looking at changes in population and property value, trends in sales of commercial and residential property, average household income, the ratio of owner-versus-renter-occupied homes, the number of building permits issued in the area and crime statistics.

But on top of all the statistics, one thing drove her to help implement Stuckart’s project: housing.

“Look at the indicators of where we’re going as a community. We see our median household income not increasing. We see house prices not increasing inside city limits,” Waldref said. “You can put a lot of money into the retail business … but the housing around it has to have enough people living there to support it. Retail follows rooftops.”

Stuckart came up with a plan to borrow money against the city’s accumulated reserves, or SIP funds, to purchase houses, rehabilitate them with Community Development Block Grant funding and then sell the houses, making a profit for the city to go toward doing it all over again.

“You’re taking another step by working on housing,” Stuckart said. “Because you can transform a neighborhood by working on housing.”

With the broad outline of the plan in place, Stuckart has gone around to all the boards that control the finances for his plan and, so far, convinced them to agree to something that’s never been tried before and, therefore, could fail.

If it all works out, Stuckart hopes to focus on a new part of town every two to three years. But that’s a ways off.

“If my idea’s a disaster, we’ll never replicate it,” he said. “But if I can point to one project and say, ‘Have you seen the transformation that has happened in the Garland District or North Monroe or East Sprague?’ Then you’ve got a story to tell. I think that this intuitively makes sense. And I think it’s hard to oppose because in the end it’s a smart use of our dollars.”


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