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Shawn Vestal: Thanks to sewer work, Spokane Falls is brought to new prominence

Spokane Mayor David Condon is silhouetted against the Spokane River on Tuesday, March 8, 2016, in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Mayor David Condon is silhouetted against the Spokane River on Tuesday, March 8, 2016, in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

When he was working for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, David Condon would sometimes field inquiries about Spokane’s signature natural attraction.

“People would ask: How do you get down to the falls?” he said.

Back then, the ways were few. One entailed traipsing down an Avista service road. By the time Condon leaves office as mayor at the end of 2019, however, that will have changed dramatically. Spokane is undergoing a rapid expansion of public access along the falls in recent years, running from the overlook at the former YMCA building site, to Avista’s redeveloped Huntington Park, to Centennial Trail improvements at Kendall Yards, to the city’s upcoming $32 million stormwater-tank project, which includes plans for an overlook and trail on the south side of the river that eventually will connect a 3-mile loop around the river.

All which is to say nothing of the upcoming renovations in Riverfront Park.

It’s a thrilling time in our sometimes rocky romance between city and river – a remarkable expansion of our ability to walk, run, bike, watch, picnic, play or simply stand and get misty by the Spokane Falls.

A lot of what’s happened was just what the group Friends of the Falls began calling for more than a decade ago, when it created its vision for a Great Gorge Park. What the Friends might not have foreseen was the method City Hall has adopted to achieve its portions of this progress: piggybacking parks projects onto a massive sewer fix.

“A number of the projects have been completed or are in the works as a result of the stormwater process the city has adopted,” said Steve Faust, a longtime leader with Friends of the Falls. “It really has changed the ballgame for these kinds of projects.”

Earlier this week, Condon and members of his Cabinet walked along the river with me to talk about the changes, past and future. It was a follow-up to a similar walk-and-talk I had with two Cabinet members – Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley and utilities chief Rick Romero – back in 2013. At that time, I wrote a column about the city’s intent to do something very similar to its current plans, but that plan came apart, and the administration had to find an alternative.

“We went back and said, ‘No, we are going to do this,’ ” Condon said.

The current plan involves burying a 2.2 million-gallon tank just east of the Monroe Street Bridge, topped by a public plaza along the north side of Spokane Falls Boulevard between the bridge and City Hall, overlooking Huntington Park and the river. The project is expected to take a couple of years.

A hallmark of Condon’s administration has been an effort to dismantle barriers between departments – and, when possible, departments’ funding – in order to coordinate goals. A streets project might also achieve a parks goal, which might also achieve a sewer requirement. Moving forward, the city is combining the planning processes of these departments into a shared one, and has created a new department of “integrated capital management” – a coordinated effort on capital projects approaching $1 billion in the next six years.

The Condon team is justifiably proud of this, and perhaps especially eager to talk about it these days, given the sting of recent controversies surrounding the departure of police Chief Frank Straub. Cooley and Romero both have City Hall experience that predates this mayor, and are emphatic that these changes – which can sound rather straightforward when summarized – represented a dramatic shift in the way City Hall works.

“It was a really, really heavy lift,” Cooley said.

The signature example of this grew from the administration’s approach to an expensive federal requirement to limit river pollution. Spokane has spent hundreds of millions on river cleanup projects since 2000 and was facing the need to limit stormwater runoff. One of Condon’s top initial priorities was to figure out a way to satisfy that requirement while meeting his pledge to undo planned double-digit utility rate increases.

What Condon found when he took office was an administrator who already had a plan for doing that: Romero. He was the city’s internal auditor, but has since become the head of utilities; he’s the architect of countless efficiencies and innovations in recent years. (He’s also retiring this spring.) What they came up with was a way to handle storm runoff that was complicated, creative, multifaceted and less expensive. The plan involved streamlined stormwater tanks in conjunction with other strategies to reduce runoff, including storm gardens and swales that absorb water before it reaches the river.

It’s a huge project, one that will exceed $320 million over five years. Other cities facing similar federal requirements are constantly peeking in at City Hall for advice.

But the most visible, tangible benefits for most citizens will come from the public spaces that piggyback onto the sewer work. The storm gardens along Monroe and Lincoln, for example, were installed as part of a project that combined repairing roads, doing underground utility work, adding sidewalks and lights, and slowing down traffic in a way that changed the nature of the neighborhood for the better.

The projects along the riverside are even more promising. A final piece of trailwork, which is not yet in the budget, would connect to the Sandifur Bridge and complete the final leg of a 3-mile loop of trail around the river. Other plans for putting tanks in the downtown area – such as a city-owned parking lot behind Anthony’s – will offer further opportunities.

The environmental improvements for the river will be huge, as will satisfying the federal order and preventing dramatic rate hikes.

But in the long term, nothing will be more important to our sense of the city as the parkways and plazas and trails along the river – all the new ways to get to the falls.

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


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