Downtown Spokane is in the midst of a major transformation, with hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private investment pouring into the city’s core.
Long-vacant landmark properties are being rehabilitated, new housing is under construction and Riverfront Park is getting a face-lift. Much of the investment is driven by demand for urban experiences and downtown living.
A downtown office address always has been popular for Spokane professionals, but now many people want a downtown residence, too. People want to live where they work, and in some instances, that means the same building, said Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership.
“If you’d asked me about this five years ago, I’d have said you were crazy. But it’s a real thing,” said Richard, a former real estate agent and two-term Spokane County commissioner.
Richard took over the helm of the nonprofit, downtown advocacy group four years ago. He recently sat down with The Spokesman-Review for an interview about downtown.
The Spokesman-Review: How do you describe downtown Spokane to visitors?
Richard: It’s a beautiful mix of new and old, and an amazing cross section of urban and rural. We’ve got tall buildings, roaring waterfalls and one of the area’s largest parks.
Downtown is a ball of energy. You’ve got people coming and going to work, to conferences and to arts and cultural events. That’s one of the things I like most about it.
S-R: What’s your favorite thing to do downtown?
Richard: Probably eat. I like to eat at fun, off-the-beaten-path restaurants. And we like to go to shows. We’re going to “Phantom of the Opera” next week.
S-R: What are the top three reasons you’re excited about downtown right now?
Richard: No. 1 would be WSU’s new Elson S. Floyd School of Medicine, and UW School of Medicine’s partnership with Gonzaga. Not only for students and the growth of the medical industry here, but for the research that will come with that and the high-paying jobs.
Nos. 2 and 3 would be the public and private investment. We’ve literally got hundreds of millions of dollars being spent downtown in recent and ongoing projects.
You’ve got the public project that’s going to separate the stormwater from the sewer. Well, that’s not very sexy. But what’s going to come after it is a very impressive promenade overlooking the falls.
You’re having streets being renovated that have been in desperate need for a long time.
Of course, Riverfront Park is the pinnacle of public investment. It’s going to be a huge shot in the arm for downtown.
On the private side, we have between 500 and 750 new units of housing that will be coming online within the next 18 to 24 months. That will add 1,000 to 1,500 new residents downtown.
S-R: What trends are you seeing downtown?
Richard: We certainly see the residential component continuing. We’re seeing conversion of commercial space to residential units and people who are setting up their office within their living space.
You start to add people who are living, working and playing downtown. You attract more people to your events. You have more people taking advantage of the public’s investment in the park. All of that creates commerce.
S-R: I’ve heard people complain about the stores not being open late enough, particularly on weekends.
Richard: As demand grows, stores will extend their hours. I suspect we’re right on the tipping point.
S-R: How would you rate the cooperation among civic leaders, developers and politicians?
Richard: If I had to give it a score, I’d probably give it a B.
The city has done a particularly good job of streamlining regulations and creating clarity in terms of the development process. For a developer who is looking to spend tens of millions of dollars, time is money.
We do have some cautions about some of the local regulations and the impact it has on the psyche of businesses and the investor. You think about the sick and safe leave ordinance or minimum-wage issues.
It’s not so much the impact on businesses today. It’s the cumulative effect and it’s the unknown. From the small-business person up to the developer, people start to question what’s coming next.
S-R: How big of a concern is homelessness downtown?
Richard: Working on and managing the downtown homeless population is one of the things that keeps me awake at night. The first thing that comes to mind isn’t “How does this affect business?” It’s the human being. You’re staring into the eyes of that human condition. Many of those folks have made bad decisions. Others are suffering from chronic mental illness and drug and alcohol issues or adolescent trauma.
There are people who would like to categorize us and say, “You’re just trying to get rid of them and as long as they aren’t visible, you don’t care.” That is categorically false.
We’ve instituted some significant changes in terms of our philosophy.
We’ve taken “security” off our jackets so our team now is just “ambassadors.” They go through training on how to work with folks who suffer from mental illness. We partnered with SNAP on creating a guide to where all the resources are. My team carries the guide around in their pockets to give out.
It used to be, “Hey, get out of here.” Now, it’s changed to “Hey, you really can’t be sleeping in this guy’s doorway, he’s about to open his business. How are you doing? Can I call someone to come down and check in on you?”
S-R: How real is the perception that parking is hard to find downtown?
Richard: It’s not real at all. We’re more than willing to park at a suburban mall and walk a half-mile across the parking lot. But if a downtown parking spot is around the corner, it’s too far.
I think we have plenty of parking. And it really is affordable compared to other markets our size. A $1.20 per hour on the meter in the most expensive section of downtown? That’s pretty reasonable.
We’ll be working on signs to alert people to where that parking is. And there are some really nice (smartphone) apps that can tell people in real time where the available parking is.
SR: If you could change one thing about downtown, what would it be?
Richard: If I could wave a wand, it would be to have all the streets done in our downtown core. Having them lined with flowers and trees and lights and the streets in bad repair replaced. In my opinion, it would go a long way toward creating confidence in the private sector and speeding up investment. Plus, it would look absolutely stunning.
I’d also like to see a Sportsplex downtown. This would be the multipurpose venue to fill huge gaps in our local sports facility needs. It would be a major sports tourism attraction.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length.
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