August 27, 2014 in Opinion

Editorial: Downtown investment mechanisms deserve council approval

 

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

A new tavern, the Tamarack Public House, will soon join the list of eating and drinking establishments adding to downtown Spokane’s vitality and amenities.

But the Tamarack’s century-old building needed a sprinkler system, an added cost that could have tanked the project. So the Spokane City Council will vote Sept. 8 to create a fund carved from utility reserves that will help pay the costs – up to $40,000 – of improving utility service to the Tamarack, which is adjacent to The Spokesman-Review courtyard, and similar projects.

The council also will vote on a change in water rates that will encourage reuse of vacant commercial buildings.

Both proposals will stimulate new private investment at minimal or no expense to the city.

Utility use at projects that receive city money will be measured over the next five years to determine if the new revenues they produce will recoup the city’s costs.

With only $250,000, the Urban Utility Installation Fund will be focused on downtown projects. In some other areas of the city – Hillyard, for example – the improvements were made when water and sewer lines were upgraded in conjunction with street reconstruction.

Councilwoman Amber Waldref, who is sponsoring the change, says applicants will have to meet city criteria that will include convincing evidence their project could not go forward without the help.

The other initiative is a leftover from departed council member Steve Salvatori that would encourage investors to convert empty commercial buildings into mixed-use or residential developments by continuing to charge them the much lower commercial rate for water. The difference in rates might not make or break smaller rehabilitation projects, but for a project on the scale of the Ridpath Hotel overhaul, the numbers are significant.

Developer Ron Wells, who would convert the shuttered hotel’s 380 rooms into 206 apartments, says he would be charged $800 a month for water at the commercial rate, but $6,000 at the residential rate.

“We can’t afford that kind of jump,” he says.

The Ridpath, a blight since closing in 2008, yields nothing but grief for the city today, and the break on water rates would be available to redevelopment projects anywhere in the city.

The Ridpath also might be a beneficiary of a third initiative not yet fully formed that would redeploy money recovered as U.S. Housing and Urban Development revolving loans from the 1990s are paid back. As much as $900,000 could be available to close the gap between private loans and the amount needed to get a project to “go.”

Tenants in a converted Ridpath, a more upscale project in the Germond Building at Lincoln Street and Sprague Avenue, and other new housing in and near downtown will support more amenities, and the city should be supporting new investment however it can.

The proposals on the Sept. 8 council agenda do so, and deserve approval.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.


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