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Developer Ron Wells uses passion, savvy to preserve Spokane’s heritage

In 1978, Ron Wells stood in Twin Falls, Idaho, admiring the historic buildings and largely preserved town center.

It’d been five years since he moved from his native North Carolina for graduate school and a job at the University of Idaho in Moscow. In those years, as a young architect, part of the multidisciplinary team that set up the university’s community development center, he traveled to the state’s small towns with other scholars – geographers, landscape architects, sociologists – and tried to help people renew rundown buildings and revive forgotten downtowns.

In Twin Falls, the 29-year-old was impressed. The core of the southern Idaho city was remarkably well preserved. Around him stood dozens of buildings from the town’s past: the Twin Falls Canal Company Building, the 1917 Post Office, the Orpheum Theater.

“I said, ‘Why don’t more people do this?’” Wells said. “This guy turned to me and said, ‘Why don’t you do it yourself?’”

And just like that the world turned for the future developer. The timing of the question was good. That same year, the U.S. Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1978, which created the first income tax credit for rehabilitating historic buildings. In a flash of inspiration, Wells, who was on tenure track at the university and faced a life of comparative academic ease, knew what he wanted to do. Save historic buildings, and put them to use.

He’s been doing it ever since.

In the past four decades, Wells has saved dozens of buildings from the wrecking ball, and rehabilitated them for every purpose: living, dining, playing and working. Forty-five of his projects have qualified for historic tax credits. He calls himself a “militant, enthusiastic preservationist.” His work is evident around Spokane, from the renovated steam plant to numerous historic apartments.

This year, Wells began one of his biggest historical lifts with the $22 million renovation of the Ridpath Hotel into apartments. By March, residents will begin moving into the storied hotel where Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson once stayed.

The Ridpath Hotel, once an upscale Spokane landmark, now sits empty. A $22 million renovation is currently underway to turn the former hotel into apartments. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The Ridpath Hotel, once an upscale Spokane landmark, now sits empty. A $22 million renovation is currently underway to turn the former hotel into apartments. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Penthouse condos with walls made of windows will take the place of the old rooftop restaurant. And a majority of the units are reserved for “workforce” residents who don’t qualify for affordable housing but struggle to pay fair market rent.

The project, which has galloped along since Wells wrangled competing ownerships interests into his own hands, is far from the last thing he has planned, but it’s the logical outcome of his long career – so far.

Carolinian child

Wells grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, an only child of schoolteachers. His childhood brick colonial home was built by Wells’ grandfather in 1925 on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountain range.

It was also just outside of the Biltmore Estate, in a town with “a plethora of historic architecture,” Wells said.

“I’ve been through it many, many times. It’s quite the place,” Wells said of “America’s largest house,” the Biltmore, noting that it’s just one of many historic buildings in Asheville spanning an eclectic mix of styles, from Neoclassical to Gothic to Art Deco, and which avoided the bulldozers of urban renewal in the last century.

For someone hoping to find the source of Wells’ obsession and passion for historic architecture, the journey isn’t long.

“You found it,” Wells said. But there’s more to it. Buildings can last for a very long time. People don’t.

When he was 17, Wells’ mother died after a long, painful battle with breast cancer.

“Being as close as I was to my mother, and losing her as a senior in high school gave me a real sense of the temporal nature of humanity. She was only 51 years old,” Wells said. “It made me grow up faster than I would have grown up otherwise.”

Following her death, Wells’ father returned to practicing law, something she had forbidden, and Wells earned a degree in architecture from North Carolina State University.

In 1973, Wells got a call from the University of Idaho with an opportunity “running my own show out there” with the community center. His dad’s uncle had moved to Moscow in “nineteen-two” to get as far away from Carolina as he could, and Wells followed suit.

These were the years following President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs aimed at eliminating poverty and racial injustice. Wells was all in.

“The university wanted a multidisciplinary team to take students around Idaho, providing them with real world experience while doing a community service in the small towns around the state,” Wells said.

While too few people would take action on the students’ advice, Wells learned how to navigate federal bureaucracy, winning more than $4.5 million in grants during his five years there.

On trips to the nation’s capitol to discuss grant opportunities, Wells said he’d get treated like some sort of curiosity.

“Oftentimes you’d go to meeting in Washington D.C. about a grant application and lot of people say they’d never met anybody from Idaho,” he said. Especially one with a southern accent.

Militant preservation

When Wells told his department chair he was leaving after his inspiration in Twin Falls, his boss wouldn’t accept the resignation. He told Wells he’d consider it a leave of absence until the young man came to his senses.

Instead of coming to his senses, Wells came into a great deal of money and opportunity.

Within three months, he was offered a $250,000 contract with the Idaho State Historical Society as a consulting historic preservation architect reviewing historic tax credit applications for the state.

“I just kind of stumbled into that. It was a fortunate stumble,” Wells said. “They gave me carte blanche. I was so lucky.”

Using the contract money, he hired three architects he knew from the university, and paid himself the princely, market-rate hourly wage of $50.

At the same time, he began his career as a developer of historic properties and waged war against their destruction.

“I was a militant, enthusiastic preservationist,” he said.

The first building he bought and restored on his own, in 1978, was the McConnell Building in downtown Moscow, which he still owns and rents as apartments. The building was built in 1891 to house the mercantile for William McConnell, a merchant who was the third governor of Idaho and who was elected to the U.S. Senate when Idaho achieved statehood in 1890.

Wells got the building put on the historic register, and it became the first certified historic rehabilitation project using the tax credit in Idaho.

Wells, who met his future wife and business partner, Julie, around this time, gobbled up a number of buildings in Moscow and Lewiston, including the port town’s Breier Building.

He also tried his hand at activism. Or as he puts it, “I walked into a buzzsaw of building officials and the political system.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, developers and federal housing officials in Boise unveiled plans to raze eight blocks of historic buildings to make way for a 780,000-square-foot suburban-style mall in the heart of the city. The feds ponied up $31 million for the “urban renewal” project.

Opinion polls at the time showed little support for the project, but developers pressed ahead, bulldozing four of the blocks.

In 1978, with Wells on board, the state’s historical society won National Historic Register status for 58 buildings adjoining the eight-block area. The Wellses and other preservationists sued the city, charging that the National Environmental Protection Act and Historic Preservation Act had been violated.

“The judge said on the first day that the hadn’t read any of these documents – and they stretched across the table 25 feet long – and he wasn’t going to, but he had to hear the case,” Wells said. Their suit was thrown out, but opposition to the project had sucked the life out of it. Plans for the mall remained in limbo for years before finally being abandoned.

“We blocked the project,” Wells said. “All those buildings but one got saved and now Boise is all the better for it.”

Empire building

By 1983, Wells realized the opportunities in Idaho, specifically Moscow and Lewiston, were fewer and fewer. He and Julie had become expert practitioners at using the tax credits to rehabilitate historic structures, and their eyes turned to Spokane and Seattle for new projects. Ronald Reagan and the U.S. Congress had quadrupled the value of the tax credit two years before, and Wells knew pastures were greener in larger cities.

That year, the newly created City/County Landmarks Commission in Spokane invited him to do a presentation on his work. The talk he gave led to a meeting with a real estate broker who introduced him to the Marycliff Center on Seventh Avenue on Spokane’s South Hill. The center and its many adjoining buildings – the Corbin Mansion, Marycliff Catholic Girls School and the basalt gatehouse among them – were up for sale.

Wells jumped at it.

“I put a deal together with an equity investment firm in Denver. It looked like it was a done deal,” he said. He and Julie bought a house on the South Hill, but Jim Frank, who would later go on to develop Kendall Yards, had his own deal in the works and beat Wells to it. “That deal completely unraveled in the next month. But we had bought a house and sold our other house. We were moving to Spokane.”

Though he had enough rent money pouring in from his many Idaho projects, the 35-year-old Wells didn’t take long to jump into the same game in Spokane.

He bought the Albert Held-designed Amman Apartments, a burned out piece of history overlooking Peaceful Valley. He also acquired the Poplar apartment building and a three-story arts and crafts house designed by Kirtland Cutter , both in Browne’s Addition.

He was just getting started. He bought the 40-unit San Marco apartments, half of which was uninhabitable. Then came the renovation of a long-vacant, 18,000-square-foot former nurses’ dorm into the 19-unit Finch Hall apartments. The three-story, 16-unit Avenida Apartments came next, which was originally built as luxury residential living in 1909.

In 1990, Wells bought the condemned and vacant Buena Vista Apartments after assembling a rescue package for investors who foreclosed on the property, using financing from a variety of federal, state and local sources. The purchase was quickly followed by that of the nearby Eldridge Building, which was originally constructed as the state’s largest car dealership in 1925, and the Grand Coulee Hotel, a 1910 building that he converted to workforce housing.

At this time, Wells found himself, by design, the owner of seven buildings around First and Cedar, which included the San Marco, Buena Vista, Edlridge and Grand Coulee. A Spokesman-Review article from this time called the part of town “headquarters for vagrants and pigeons.”

Wells saw it differently, renaming it Carnegie Square, due their proximity to the historic Carnegie Library. He transformed this derided west end of downtown, the connective tissue between the city’s core and Browne’s Addition, into a small hub of living and activity. Now, the buildings house the Rocket Bakery, Andy’s Bar and Grill, Fringe and Fray, the Bike Hub and scores of apartments.

At the end of a snowy business day, Carnegie Square, nestled at the corners of Cedar and First streets, quiets down for the night. Once known as a troubled pocket of the city, the area was revitalized in the early 1990s. (Jed Conklin / The Spokesman-Review)
At the end of a snowy business day, Carnegie Square, nestled at the corners of Cedar and First streets, quiets down for the night. Once known as a troubled pocket of the city, the area was revitalized in the early 1990s. (Jed Conklin / The Spokesman-Review)

Well’s empire was growing, and his name and company became commonplace in the city. Again, his timing was right and Wells was on the front line of opportunity.

“You create momentum. It was just good timing and fortuitous,” he said. “My arrival in Spokane coincided with a huge economic shift in the urban core. The Valley Mall and NorthTown were being expanded and redeveloping, and downtown was under assault, economically, or was about to be.”

A coalition of developers was coalescing, Wells among them, with the intent of reviving a downtown that had been uttering death rattles for years.

Saving Spokane

In 1991, J.C. Penny closed its store at Lincoln and Main and moved to NorthTown Mall, a blow to downtown quickly followed by the closure of Frederick and Nelson. The loss of two major department stores only highlighted the sad state of a once-booming city center.

In 1990, just over 2,100 people lived in downtown Spokane, according to census numbers.

About half of them had incomes below the federal poverty level, compared with 17 percent of residents citywide.

Around this time, Wells had some buildings near the core, but was more a booster of the potential he saw rather than a developer of what actually existed.

“Almost every day someone tells me they’d love to live downtown if they could just find the right apartment,” Wells told the Spokesman-Review in 1996. They want something roomy, attractive and reasonably priced, with safe off-street parking, he said.

It’s difficult to remember, or imagine, what downtown looked like then. River Park Square had been part of downtown since 1974, but unlike the glassy shopping temple it is now, it began as a “quaint … tree-shaded village square,” according to a 1974 Spokane Chronicle article.

River Park Square is owned by Centennial Properties, a subsidiary of Cowles Co., which publishes The Spokesman-Review.

By the 1990s, the shopping district that once hosted dapper shoppers five-deep on its sidewalks was largely lifeless. Wells, who had spent his days as a graduate student helping small towns fight for their economic livelihood, felt particularly well prepared to wage a battle to save Spokane.

“My experience in all those small towns in Idaho was very much appreciated, and well-suited to that moment,” he said.

In 1997, Wells helped form Spokane Horizons, a “new urbanism” group charged with developing a new comprehensive plan for encouraging development in the core, rather than promote sprawl. The naysayers were loud, and chalked up downtown as lost. Wells disagreed.

“Not only is it realistic, the question is ‘How fast it will happen?’ ” Wells said of a revived downtown.

Then as now, Wells saw public participation in the creation of what would become the Plan for a New Downtown as necessary to its success. In the two years leading to the plan’s 1999 publication, 5,000 people participated in workshops discussing downtown’s future.

The plan’s vision saw downtown as “a mixed-use regional center for shopping, working, living, recreation and entertainment.” It identified Riverfront Park as the “center of the city and downtown,” and called it the “jewel” of the city.

The plan laid out steps guiding policy and actions over 20 years, listed both immediate and long-term goals, and proposed projects designed to spur public and private investment.

And it’s worked, Wells said, crediting “a brigade of enthusiasts and a lot of investment.” Since the plan was released 18 years ago, more than $4 billion has been invested downtown, according to the Downtown Spokane Partnership.

“It’s one of the few downtown plans anywhere that was nearly accomplished in 15 years,” Wells said. “Clearly, River Park Square was the lynchpin that saved it all. But saving the Fox was also important. The Fox is one of the major triumphs beside River Park Square.”

Though Wells was involved in the planning and enthusiasm for downtown, he said he “wasn’t much involved” in the development that spurred downtown’s comeback.

Instead, he was working on what he describes as his most consequential project of his career, just to the south of the central core in Washington Water Power’s old steam plant.

The Steamplant is seen sporting Gonzaga spirit on Wednesday, March 29, 2017, in Spokane, Wash. Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
The Steamplant is seen sporting Gonzaga spirit on Wednesday, March 29, 2017, in Spokane, Wash. Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A gift to the city

In 1996, Wells was approached by the venture capital team at the power company that would soon be called Avista.

On a tour of the plant, which had been sitting dormant for a decade after providing steam heat to downtown buildings for more than 70 years, Wells didn’t see it.

“It was a lot of rusted pipes,” Wells said of the plant, which was called the city’s “most controversial pigeon coop” by the Spokesman in 1996. “The first day I walked in there I never would’ve anticipated we would save as may pipes and catwalks as we did.”

But the energy company wanted him. “They courted me. I had enough of a reputation by then,” he said. It was their money on the line, so Wells went for it. But with its cavernous spaces and industrial layout, Wells struggled with how to rehabilitate it.

Then one day, he walked through the building with a friend, the painter and sculptor George Carlson, who trained at Chicago’s Academy of Art and Art Institute of Chicago. Carlson, camera in hand, took photos and described what he saw to Wells.

“After George and I spent a day in there in 1996, I saw it in a new light. I became more committed to saving as much of it as possible,” he said.

To this day, 20 years on, the space remains a wonderment. Its 225-foot twin smokestacks stand like beacons, lit in various colors and beckoning people to go inside and view its various levels of dining rooms and office space. Four huge boilers were converted into eating space. It’s at once a reminder of Spokane’s past and part of today’s commerce.

After its renovation, the plant became the first building in Spokane to receive the National Preservation Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and it’s listed on the national, state and city registers of historic places.

Though Wells went into the project with doubts, he now sees it as the most fulfilling work he’s done, and he credits Avista with the push to do something, anything, with it, and Carlson with helping him envision its future.

“That building has opened up to me and talked to me more than any other building I’ve done. It has such a rich heritage,” he said. “It’s a huge gift to Spokane. There’s just nothing like it. No other city has saved a steam plant to that degree.”

Downtown living

Wells’ work on the Ridpath may rival what he did with the steam plant.

While more recently developers have seen the potential of downtown living, Wells was an early evangelist. About 7,000 people now live downtown, which has about 3,200 apartment units and 525 condos. Another 500 units are in the works.

The Ridpath will bring 206 new units, 80 percent of which will be reserved as “workforce” housing for people who earn, approximately, $20,000 to $30,000 a year.

Yet while Wells has provided many apartments in Spokane, with a significant number of affordable units, his work downtown has largely focused on high-end luxury units out of reach for most people.

In 1996, he announced a project unlike anything else he had done: new construction to bring eight upscale apartments on Riverside just west of Monroe. Called Riverside Court, the condos overlook a fountain and courtyard, and the Spokane River. With units that have more than 5,000 square feet, and valued between $500,000 and $1 million, this Mediterranean-styled gated community is reserved strictly for the elite.

And that’s not even the highest end of Wells’ work.

In 2004, Betsy Cowles was in her fourth year of rebuffing Wells’ ideas for what to do with the old J.C. Penny building, located at 809 W. Main.

“I had looked at the J.C. Penny building for years. We talked about it for four years when I said to her, ‘You like my ideas for 809. Let’s get it done,’” Wells said of the building.

Again, Wells’ timing was right. Cowles, chairman of the Cowles Co., which owns the Spokesman-Review, finally gave Wells the job to renovate the building into 21 upscale condos.

When they went on sale a couple of years later, they were quickly gone, even with prices starting around $500,000. Recently, a unit above P.F. Chang’s once owned by the original Kendall Yards developer, Marsahll Chesrown, sold for $2 million.

As he’s always argued, downtown needs all types of people: high income, low income and everybody else. With the 809 Lofts, and the Ridpath, he’s just supplying the demand, he said.

The Lofts, one of Ron Wells’ many revitalization projects, are located at 809 W. Main Avenue in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
The Lofts, one of Ron Wells’ many revitalization projects, are located at 809 W. Main Avenue in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

It wasn’t easy with the Ridpath. Besides structural issues with the old building, which the city had declared unsafe, the byzantine ownership structure Wells had to contend with was daunting. Its previous owner, Greg Jeffreys, had chopped the ownership of the building into strange and convoluted condominiums. Wells, through a complex financing package and “$1.8 million in legal fees and 12 law firms,” consolidated control.

“I was not afraid of the amount of litigation and time it would take to get it done. There was such tremendous need and support to get it done,” Wells said. “I don’t think I’m litigious, but I had to be to get the Ridpath cleared up and squared away.”

Like with every other project he’s worked on, Wells credits many other people with the Ridpath’s resurrection, including Julie Wells. His architectural partner, Ron Wendle. The entire community and its desire to see the Ridpath saved. And Mayor David Condon.

Wells said for weeks he pressed City Hall to add its support to his grant application with the Washington State Housing Finance Commission, but heard nothing back. He was perplexed.

The morning of the bond hearing, in September 2016, he still hadn’t heard a thing. But when he walked into the meeting room, Condon was sitting there, and had been for half an hour.

“He spent a whole day testifying about the need for this type of housing. The staff of the commission said they’d never had a mayor, even in Puget Sound, testify so passionately and convincingly for the need for affordable housing,” Wells said. “The media didn’t report it. Nobody knew about it. He just quietly did it.”

Wells won the grant.

As the Ridpath races to completion, Wells is too busy to put much thought into his next project, but there is a next project. Without giving too much detail, Wells said he’s drawn up plans for a high-rise residential tower that will have apartments and condos with panoramic views of the city.

And that, he knows, will sell well, just like most everything else he’s done.

“I’ve bought and sold more apartments downtown than anybody,” he said. “I’m very enthusiastic about what people tell me they want.”

The future for Spokane is bright. Wells is sure of it.

“Look at the occupancy rate, my goodness. It’s hard to find anywhere to live downtown. It’s off the charts. And I think we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what we need,” he said. “As people flee the large West Coast cities for the quality of life we have, well, if we have 2,500 units downtown, we need 10,000.”


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