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Tuesday, October 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Old YMCA worth saving? Landmarks panel to decide

It could be the final chapter for the former downtown YMCA.

Or it could be the start of more painstaking, political maneuvering.

The Spokane Historic Landmarks Commission is scheduled to decide this week if the old Y, which sits on the edge of Spokane Falls, is eligible for local or national historic registries. If it is, the commission’s vote would create a potentially insurmountable obstacle to the city Park Board’s plan to tear down the building and make the land part of Riverfront Park.

It would also create a significant hole in the city’s budget.

The decision is the final potential roadblock in a nearly five-year battle to determine what to do with the building.

Last week, the Spokane City Council voted 4-3 on the final agreement with Spokane County to pay off the debt on the property using Conservation Futures property taxes.

Later this month the council is expected to approve the transfer of the land from City Council to Park Board control.

On Thursday the Park Board agreed to cover the interest costs on the debt that the City Council assumed when buying the building.

Even former City Councilman Steve Eugster, who had threatened to sue over the deal, said he believes the details in the final agreement with Spokane County make the deal legal.

The brick structure, built in the mid-1960s just before much of Havermale Island was cleared for Expo ’74, was purchased by the city Park Board in 2006 to prevent the last piece of privately owned land on the island from being used for high-priced condos.

Spokane Park Director Leroy Eadie said his department has filed for a demolition permit on the building. He hopes to start tearing down the structure in late January or February.

But that may not happen if the landmarks commission determines that the Y is historically significant.

City law has stringent rules on the demolition of historic downtown buildings.

Kristen Griffin, Spokane’s historic preservation officer, said demolition of the building normally wouldn’t be an issue because it’s less than 50 years old. But earlier this year, developer Ron Wells hired a consultant who argued that the building was worth protecting because of its history as a Y, the building’s design and the firm that designed it. The building also served as the headquarters for Expo ’74.

Those who support tearing down the Y argue that the historic significance of Spokane Falls is more important, and that tearing the building down will improve views and access to what likely is the region’s most important natural and cultural landmark.

Wells had hoped to develop the building into luxury apartments and offices and said historic tax credits would make the project viable. City officials rejected his plan, but Griffin said she must take the consultant’s report seriously.

“That’s what will kick it into the commission’s court,” Griffin said.

But, she added: “A building that is less than 50 years old has a higher threshold to meet.”

The Park Department has hired its own historic preservation expert who argues the building is not significant, Eadie said. Her findings will be presented to the commission this week.

Eadie said he’s relatively confident that commissioners won’t find the building historically significant. If it does, the Park Board would examine exemptions in city law that would allow the structure to be torn down – including the exception for financial hardship.

The Park Board has set aside $1.2 million to tear down and restore the land. Eadie said crews will retain a portion of the building’s basement structure to act as retaining walls, but that those will be covered by soil. Work also will reveal a creek that flows through the Y’s basement.

The board agreed to put $1 million down on the property in 2006, but it didn’t have a firm plan to pay the remaining $4.3 million until the Spokane County Commission offered to use Conservation Futures money to secure it. The City Council, however, nearly rejected the county’s offer – even though it didn’t have an alternative plan to pay off the debt.

Finally, in March, the council voted 4-3 to accept the county’s offer.

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