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Campus evolution: WSU kicks Spokane development into high gear

The warehouse that serves as headquarters for General Amusement Co. just off East Sprague Avenue soon will be torn down.

A planned pedestrian and bicycle bridge linking Washington State University’s growing Spokane campus to the East Sprague area on the other side of a wide railroad corridor will wipe out the company’s headquarters at Sherman Street and Riverside Avenue.

Owner Don Oliveri is taking it in stride.

“It’s a shame this building has to come down, but that’s progress,” said Oliveri, who is selling it to the city but hasn’t closed the deal. “I’ve learned you can’t let it get you down.”

Oliveri, 74, knows what he’s talking about.

As a much younger man, Oliveri saw the only other urban revitalization project in Spokane bigger than the one underway now wipe out three taverns and a hotel he operated along Main Avenue, in what was generally considered the city’s Skid Row.

“Back then, I was pushed out by Expo redevelopment,” he explained with a laugh, adding that he supported the goals of the revitalization effort then and is supportive of the University District plans now. “You just have to move on.”

The remake of mostly former rail yards east of Division Street into a sprawling university and research campus is, indeed, the largest coordinated urban redevelopment effort undertaken in Spokane since preparations for Expo ’74 transformed a rough-and-tumble section of the city into a giant urban park.

About $200 million already has been spent on the campus over the past several years.

But the largest phase so far is just beginning.

WSU’s board of regents has approved a plan that calls for an estimated $300 million or more to be spent over the next decade expanding academic, clinical and research facilities at the nearly 50-acre Spokane campus.

Some of that work already is underway, including demolition of old warehouses to make way for a new $16 million health clinic staffed by recent medical school graduates getting their residency training. The clinic also is expected to provide training opportunities for nursing, pharmacy and other students enrolled in various health care disciplines.

“What’s a little unique about this campus is we’re not putting in traditional asks for things like dorms or a student union,” said Lisa Brown, the former state Senate majority leader now serving as chancellor of WSU’s Spokane campus. “We’ll utilize our state ask for land (purchases) and health and science facilities. But when it comes to student amenities, student services and housing, we feel that we should utilize partnerships and the private sector for those.”

Economic development

A major contributor to the ambitious development is WSU’s push for its own medical school and the regional economic development boon backers say will follow.

That push cleared a significant hurdle last week when both chambers of the Legislature agreed to repeal a 1917 prohibition against any public higher-education facility other than the University of Washington from training doctors. Gov. Jay Inslee said he won’t block the measure but cautioned that state funding for a new medical school has yet to be debated.

Longtime civic boosters say the higher-education focus for the former railroad property dates back more than a quarter-century to disagreement within the business community over how far east downtown Spokane should expand.

Developers initially envisioned a massive business and office park, calling it “Riverpoint” because of the way the Spokane River bows to the north on its way toward Riverfront Park.

But at the time, many business leaders worried that spreading the downtown core too far would weaken efforts to keep the central business district vibrant. City leaders initially drew the eastern boundary at Washington Street, then relented but held firm at Division, recalls former Spokane City Councilman Steve Corker, who handled marketing for the proposed business and office park.

“They were worried about the viability of downtown,” Corker said.

The idea to transform the site into a multi-university higher-education campus took hold, he said, because it was seen as complementing downtown viability without eroding the central core.

The state purchased an initial 7 1/2 acres in the 1980s, and the first academic building opened in 1996, enabling WSU and EWU to begin moving existing downtown Spokane operations to Riverpoint. The Legislature designated WSU as the fiscal agent for the campus in 1998.

It grew slowly at first, but the two universities have steadily increased the number of programs, particularly at the graduate level, available at the campus.

WSU’s colleges of pharmacy, nursing and medical sciences now are headquartered in Spokane. Overall student enrollment on the campus has grown to about 1,500 and is expected to climb past 3,500.

Eastern Washington University has moved its nursing and other health sciences there as well, along with its MBA, creative writing, and urban and regional planning programs, among others. It has the largest number of full-time students on the campus so far, about 2,300. By some estimates, that figure is closer to 2,600 per day because students who have courses at both the Cheney and Spokane campuses generally are included only in the main campus enrollment count.

The University of Washington, which is converting the former city visitor center at Main Avenue and Browne Street into a regional headquarters, operates the Spokane branch of its medical school in WSU labs and facilities on the campus and wants to expand. The two universities used to be partners in the Spokane medical school operation but broke it off last year over disagreements involving WSU’s push for its own medical school.

Including Gonzaga University, located just across the Spokane River, the number of students enrolled at the various universities within the city’s U-District has climbed to more than 11,000, plus hundreds of faculty and staff positions. Whitworth University now offers programs there, too.

Spokane Mayor David Condon said WSU’s expansion, along with new development during the past couple of years on the Gonzaga campus, already is luring other private-sector investment.

“It’s the same type of game plan that was taken with Riverfront Park and Expo,” Condon said. “You are looking at a significant amount of investment going in … and that’s going to be an economic driver.”

The city established the U-District in 2009 so that a portion of sales and property taxes collected within its boundaries over a period of 25 years is dedicated to paying for improvements designed to encourage further development. The state pledged $250,000 per year in matching funds over the same period.

“It gives us a way to coordinate, plan and build public infrastructure to support the area,” said Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, who along with Condon serves on a board overseeing the district’s development.

Urban campus

The new WSU plan calls for a campus that blends into downtown Spokane through an intermediate “College Town” area.

Key to that is restoration of the historic Jensen-Byrd building, which will anchor a student gathering area and serve as an urban gateway to the campus. Brown said the university will look for a private-sector partner to refurbish and operate the iconic six-story brick building on the western edge of the campus.

Additionally, the university will look to take advantage of ill-used waterfront parcels, which currently have parking lots atop them, and create a more inviting academic center that looks out onto the city rather than the traditional inward cluster of buildings.

“We want to really emphasize our gateway and access to downtown,” Brown said. “And, ultimately, continue across the tracks to the East Sprague area. It’s been a big emphasis for us because we believe if we do this right, with our medical school and pharmacy, we will outgrow our campus and we have to keep moving south.”

Eastern was among the first to embrace the urban focus.“Eastern’s sense of this campus is that in addition to being a health sciences campus, it needs to be an urban campus,” said EWU Provost Rex Fuller, who served as dean of the business college, which is located in the U-District. “We see it as an urban university and want to have programs there that have an urban core.”

Although long called the Riverpoint campus, WSU and others are jettisoning the name, suggesting it was better suited for its origins as a commercial office park. Universities are using their own names and emphasizing Spokane – including WSU Spokane and EWU Spokane.

For WSU, the new 10-year campus plan became a convenient time to rebrand its Spokane operation and take a coordinated approach to designing and building a campus that primarily serves an older, graduate student population. EWU and Whitworth University followed suit.

“When the last plan was done, the (board of) regents hadn’t designated it as the health sciences campus yet,” Brown said. “So, we were moving into this process of forming our proposal for our medical school and knowing that’s going to accelerate the development of the campus.

“We wanted to look at it in the context of health sciences, education … labs and clinical research spaces.”

The big question mark on the immediate horizon is the pedestrian and bicycle bridge spanning the railroad tracks.

It’s envisioned as helping revitalize a section of East Sprague with private research facilities and student amenities, and carrying the health sciences campus south into the city’s hospital district.

But, so far, the city is still short about $8 million needed to build the long bridge, which must span a double rail corridor and extension of Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Oliveri, whose company warehouse will be wiped out when the bridge is built, takes solace in knowing the rough-and-tumble neighborhood likely will get a facelift soon. He said he was raised in a row house just a few blocks away and always has been fond of the area.

“I heard someone is looking at putting in a coffee shop and stores over near there when the bridge goes in,” he said, pointing to a field near where a carburetor shop stood until it was torn down a few weeks ago. “This is the only direction they can go if that campus keeps growing.”

Oliveri doesn’t mind having to move but said he’ll have to be careful when he relocates his business.

“I’ve been pushed out twice by urban revitalization,” he said. “I probably better watch what I buy next.”

 

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