July 18, 2014 in City

Young creative types take greater interest in Spokane

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Shawn Vestal
(Full-size photo)

Anthony Gill wasn’t even in Spokane when the idea hit him: What if we did something with the war-zone pit of destruction that is now the gateway to Spokane for freeway travelers getting off at Division and Third?

Something that not only hid the rubble, but added something creative and artistic? Something even … attractive?

In February, Gill posted his idea on his blog, The #Spokane Rising Project: Erect construction fences around the lot and have artists cover the fences with their work. He based his idea on similar projects in other places, including the construction fencing that surrounded a building going up in San Jose, near where he attends college.

The idea was not Gill’s alone – or even first. Like many good ideas, it was cropping up independently in different places, mothered by the necessity of hiding that eyesore of a lot. Members of a creative nonprofit, the Downtown Spokane Partnership and city officials all had begun discussing similar ideas as early as last year. The city’s business and development director, Jan Quintrall, has been pressing for plywood fencing at the lot for a while now, and mentioned the possibility to DSP President Mark Richard about a year ago. Property owners generally were amenable to the idea then but couldn’t afford it, he said.

“That (lot) has just been a burr under my saddle,” Quintrall said.

But there is a sudden energy behind the ideas that now seem poised to make the project a reality. Gill’s blog post gained viral steam this week; someone dug it up and posted it on Facebook, and it’s been shared scores of times since then. That jolt of awareness and support comes just as officials are making concrete strides on the idea: an architect is drawing up plans, city officials are examining code and signage issues, and the nonprofit You Express Studio, made of up local architects and others with a focus on community projects and improving the city’s visual environment, has been moving forward on a plan to develop mobile murals that can be used in situations just like this one.

Perhaps most crucially, Councilman Mike Allen has offered to provide the money to make it happen: about $10,000 in plywood fencing and other work, Quintrall said. Allen is offering the money out of the funds left to his discretion by his decision not to hire a full-time assistant.

Quintrall said the plywood could be going up as early as next month.

“This really has gained a life of its own,” Quintrall said. “Everything just keeps coming together.”

The lot is the former site of St. John’s Lutheran Church, which stood on the northwest corner of Third and Division for more than a century before it was sold in 2007. The new owners knocked the church down and intended to put a hotel there but ran into a variety of problems – including the general tanking of the economy in 2008 – and are now trying to sell the lot.

In the meantime, it’s been little Beirut by the offramp.

“A lot of us at the same time are looking at that corner and saying, ‘There’s got to be something better to do,’ ” Richard said.

Richard said he and Quintrall discussed the idea as part of an overall conversation about improving the entryways to Spokane. The city will soon be moving forward with a plan to dramatically revamp and improve the Division Street entryway to Spokane – a proposal that would include landscaping, art, pedestrian features and other ideas to dress up that sad hello the city gives to drivers just entering town.

The construction fence idea – bubbling up in different quarters in different ways in response to an obvious problem – is the perfect example of the kind of immeasurable but crucial energy that seems to be growing more plentiful in Spokane.

Shannon Halberstadt, executive director of the Spokane Arts nonprofit, said the sense of “young, creative people who are really proud of Spokane and really claiming it” is palpable now. A key word is young. There is something going on among young creative types in Spokane that has been in short supply in years past, and it’s giving the city an enormous blast of positive juju.

“I think a lot of things have happened in the past year, 18 months, two years, in Spokane that have been really exciting and not really things you would expect to happen in Spokane,” Gill said. “People have a sense that Spokane is on the verge of something good.”

Gill’s blog is infused with this spirit. He’s a 2012 Gonzaga Prep grad who has an interest in community affairs, development and design; he’s studying political science and economics at Santa Clara University but is now home for the summer. He writes a lot about culture and development, and tends to combine posts with concrete information about local happenings and top-of-the-head ideas, all with a forward-thinking, questioning spirit. They include “How to Fix Spokane’s Brain Drain” (Offer scholarships for science and techie grads to return to town); suggesting a spot for a downtown supermarket; and critiquing Walt Worthy’s pre-fab design aesthetic. It’s at spokanerising.wordpress.com.

“I love Spokane,” Gill said. “Obviously, that comes from a standpoint of … I love Spokane, but I know it can be better.”

What’s great about his blog – and this moment in Spokane generally, from the quick-moving City Hall to the artists building vibrant new enterprises – is that good ideas don’t necessarily just languish on wish lists.

If the Third and Division project becomes a reality, it will be another small but potent example of this. More and more, Richard said, people are taking action, “instead of just saying, ‘Geez, I wish somebody would do something about this.’ ”

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


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