Commuters on Interstate 90 likely noticed as homes along the East Central stretch of the freeway began to disappear. Washington state Department of Transportation has been buying up several city blocks on each side of the freeway between Havana and Hamilton streets to make room for planned freeway expansion and for the interchange connecting to the North Spokane Corridor. Houses located there have been torn down and what’s left is an arid strip of land home to dying trees, grass and weeds.
And it may be anywhere from 15 to 20 years before actual freeway construction begins.
Until then, the land will sit vacant unless a loosely structured group of East Central residents and local nonprofit organizations can persuade the DOT to let it plant temporary community gardens there.
“We are looking at about 300 city lots full of dying trees, weeds and grass,” said Deb Conklin, pastor at Liberty Park United Methodist Church. “It is a blight on the neighborhood and it is going to look like this for a very long time.”
The idea is simple: A consortium of neighborhood groups led by the faith-based community activist organization The Oak Tree would contract with the DOT to maintain the land, mowing and keeping the area free of trash, and part of that contract would allow for temporary community gardens.
Al Gilson, communications manager for DOT’s Eastern Region, said that any contractor working for the agency would have to be licensed, insured and bonded.
“I’ve heard of the community garden idea, but we have not been formally approached by anyone,” Gilson said. “We have 183 acres of land down there – it’s a huge commitment for someone to take that on.”
Gilson added the DOT had contractors do the maintenance for a couple of years but is now using its own maintenance crews and the contract is no longer up for bid.
Neighbors are concerned the land will become a magnet for homeless camps, bonfires and people living in cars, not to mention a fire hazard this summer because the area isn’t watered.
“We will see all kinds of trouble there, I’m certain of it,” said Jerry Numbers, who’s on the board of the East Central Community Organization and a longtime East Central resident and neighborhood activist.
Numbers said he first began talks with the DOT on behalf of East Central about the freeway expansion back in 1994. Numbers anticipated the construction would deal yet another blow to the neighborhood and he wanted to make sure the neighborhood’s voice was heard.
He suggested the DOT purchase the necessary land and the homes on it, but let people rent the homes until construction was immediate before tearing anything down.
“That would have been gainful and we would have avoided this huge vacant area, but it didn’t work out,” Numbers said.
Gilson said the DOT had no choice but to purchase the land as funding became available.
“We have been working with East Central throughout the process,” Gilson said. “We promised we would come down there and purchase those properties as soon as we could and we paid people fair market value.”
He added that the homes were torn down to make sure the vacant properties didn’t become eyesores or attract squatters.
The actual start of freeway construction is determined by the availability of state and federal funding, Gilson said.
“Construction of the full design as we have it would cost $1.3 billion,” Gilson said. “Constructing a usable connection to Interstate 90 would cost $750 million.” He added it’s up to the Legislature to secure the funding and that he doesn’t know when that will happen.
The Lands Council, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve and revitalize Inland Northwest forest, water and wildlife, supports the community garden project.
“We would support this even if it’s temporary,” said Joe Cannon, a restoration ecologist with the Lands Council. Cannon said vacant land in urban areas is vulnerable to invasions by noxious weeds, erosion and offers very limited habitat for wildlife and native plants.
“This area could serve as a wildlife corridor and that would match the Lands Council’s mission,” Cannon said. He added that the Lands Council has a crew of interns and an ongoing relationship with work crews from Geiger Corrections Center.
“The Geiger crews would be great for the more intense labor,” Cannon said.
City Councilman Jon Snyder is a longtime supporter of Spokane’s community gardens.
He said large open areas owned by DOT can be found all over the state.
“And that’s the biggest issue the way I see it: We have acres and acres of land that will be vacant for more than a decade,” said Snyder. “It has a big impact on the neighborhood.”
He’s convinced the 183 acres could be filled by gardens, a little at a time.
“We have 22 working community gardens and as far as I know they are well established and very good projects,” Snyder said. “If there’s desire for more space it just goes to show you how people have an interest in growing more food.”
For now, it appears the land will remain as it is, bare and unused, waiting for federal and state funding to allow for construction to begin.
The Oak Tree and Conklin will continue to work on building support for the community garden idea.
“The neighborhood shouldn’t have to look like this for the next 15 years or more,” Conklin said. “It’s just not fair to the people who live here.”