Downtown Spokane’s ugliest half-block fronts the north side of Sprague Avenue between Howard and Stevens. Since last November, when several run-down buildings were demolished, the area has been nothing but rubble, dirt, and empty basements wrapped in a wretched-looking temporary chain-link fence.
Too many urban renewal projects in the mid-1960s started like this. Some never went any further, and the downtowns they scarred were years recovering.
Concerned that parts of Spokane might suffer the same fate, the City Council in January imposed a moratorium on any further demolition of downtown buildings until a new ordinance could be put in place that would prevent the paving of property within historic districts, downtown as well as those in several neighborhoods.
In the meantime, a Demolition Task Force has proposed an ordinance that evolved from a Seattle model. Property owners would only be able to raze a historic building if they had already obtained a construction permit for a building to take its place, or can at least show the financing is in place to undertake new construction. Unless, that is, owners can show denial of a demolition permit would create a hardship based on a determination of “reasonable economic use.”
Now, practically speaking, no owner of real estate in downtown Seattle would tear anything down in favor of a parking lot. It would be economic madness. But in downtown Spokane real estate values are not so high that revenue-generating surface parking might not be reasonable economic use. It all depends on definition. And advocates of historic preservation and supporters of new development are not consulting the same dictionary.
Appraiser Scot Auble says proposed ordinance criteria that try to define rate of return are too subjective. What one owner might find acceptable, another might not. “We appraise real estate, not people,” he says.
Auble drafted alternative criteria that rely more on conventional appraisal methods. His version was included in a counterproposal from real estate interests that so far has gotten nowhere.
He says not all owners of downtown properties have the resources of major developers like Walt Worthy and Ron Wells. Many are elderly individuals who depend on rents for income and do not have the resources to improve a property. As management of the property becomes more bothersome, he says, “They just want to get rid of this headache.”
Auble says the real estate and development community, concerned for the rights of property owners, is fighting an instinct to try to get the task force ordinance rejected by the City Council. Instead, they are looking for a compromise that would limit application of the rule to properties already designated historical, not those that might be eligible for designation.
The task force’s deliberations have also been shadowed by the Spokane Preservation Advocates, who do not want to see historic buildings obliterated in favor of asphalt and parking meters.
In a letter sent to the task force last week, the preservationists objected to developer insistence that owners are entitled to the “highest and best use” of their properties, a standard the group says is unrecognized by the courts. The developer plan also stacks the committee that would determine hardship too heavily in their favor. And the property owner, not the city, should have the burden of establishing a hardship, the advocates group says.
Ultimately, the letter says, “strong demolition ordinances in other U.S. cities have consistently demonstrated that they create enhanced real estate value for everyone in the community.”
The preservationists have bemoaned the loss in November of the 1890 Merton Block, which was one of downtown’s oldest buildings. They fear for the adjacent Rookery and Mohawk buildings. The menace to those two remaining structures was the genesis of the task force.
Fortunately, they may be saved by a proposal from developer Ron Wells. The project, if it comes to pass, would be further evidence of downtown’s dynamism. Spokane, bypassed by the late 20th-century version of renewal, has so far done it right in the 21st.
The council’s challenge will be to pull elements from everybody’s proposals that preserve momentum and historic buildings both.
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