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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Rookery Block needs to be saved

The Spokesman-Review

Like the imperiled heroine in a melodrama, the Davenport Hotel endured years of up-and-down uncertainty before Walt and Karen Worthy came to its rescue, answering the community’s longing.

Now it’s the nearby Rookery Block that needs a savior to fend off the wrecking ball. And lo, there on the horizon … could it be?

It could. Spokane developer Ron Wells has made a new offer on the property and has outlined an encouraging vision that combines preservation of two historic buildings with the addition of two new 20-plus-story towers to the Spokane skyline.

Although the 114-year-old Merton Building, then the oldest intact structure in downtown Spokane, tumbled last fall, the 71-year-old Rookery and the 90-year-old Mohawk remain standing in the block bounded by Riverside, Howard, Sprague and Stevens. But the buzz saw is spinning in their direction. If current owner Wendell Reugh can’t sell the properties, he intends to tear them down and replace the past with a parking lot.

Earlier deals repeatedly have fallen through, most recently a promising one involving a California firm. But Wells has put another on the table and he’s “95 percent” certain it will succeed. Wells’ credentials are solid. In both his civic life and his business activity, he has demonstrated a dedication to historic preservation and urban vitality. If his negotiations with Reugh pan out, the city core will be the prime beneficiary.

Downtown Spokane is blessed with a rich inventory of historic structures. A century ago, the thriving community was still enjoying a building revival that began in the wake of the fire that leveled the town in 1889. In the early 1900s, Spokane’s construction activity ranked among the most frenzied in the nation. The legacy of that era caught the eye of syndicated columnist and urban design specialist Neal Peirce, who studied Spokane in 1993 and noted that the community should recognize what a brick-and-mortar asset it has.

Vintage buildings, properly maintained and renovated, add character and visual appeal to a city. They make it an exciting place to live and to visit. Parking lots add emptiness and desolation.

But even when they recognize all that, developers still need to be commercially successful. Downtown property is expensive, and making it pay depends on getting the most out of the square footage – hence the high-rises, which allow the developer to stretch the investment vertically.

Conditions are promising. A hot real estate market has stirred interest among potential partners. The appeal of downtown residential living is sizzling, adding to the need for the grocery store that’s part of Wells’ project.

Still, he’ll need cooperation from the city, ranging from approval of diagonal parking for grocery shoppers to public-private participation in a parking garage – a concept that will cause some knees to quaver in the post-River Park Square era.

No melodrama would be complete without a strong dose of suspense, of course – or the satisfaction of a happy ending. Wells, whose influence on downtown revitalization is already evident, makes a likely rescuer. City officials have a role to play, too.

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