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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Preservation is essential

Matt Cohen

The year 2011 ended with two alarming announcements.

First, Washington State University announced the imminent demolition of the Jensen-Byrd building – the six-story landmark at the junction of the Downtown Business District and the University District – in order to build student housing that could have been accommodated in the existing historic building and new additions.

Then the Spokane County Commission announced a 75 percent cut in funding, from $20,000 to $5,000, for the City-County Historic Preservation Office. This disregard for historic preservation by our public servants is out of step with local and national public sentiment. We need to remind the WSU Board of Regents and the county commissioners that historic preservation is essential for Spokane’s future, and requires our sustained commitment.

In October 2012, Spokane will host the annual conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, an honor that acknowledges Spokane’s long commitment to historic preservation as an integral part of economic revitalization. The Spokane Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates the weeklong conference will bring 2,000 preservation professionals to Spokane and inject $5.5 million into our economy. Spokane is the smallest city ever to host this prestigious conference, and for good reason. Who can imagine Spokane without the Davenport Hotel, the Fox Theater or our numerous historic neighborhoods? These places are essential to Spokane’s high quality of life, and are a boon to our regional economy.

Historic buildings contribute to Spokane’s unique sense of place, which continually attracts new businesses, residents and tourists. Renovations of historic buildings have contributed millions of dollars each year to the regional economy, creating jobs and stimulating new business activity and development. The Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation describes these activities in “The Economic Benefits of Historic Preservation” (www.dahp.wa.gov/ economic-benefits).

The Strategic Master Plan of Spokane’s University District, an initiative of which WSU is a financial partner and board member, highlights historic preservation as a “Core Planning Principle,” and notes that preservation projects “have been catalysts for additional public and private investments, creating a vibrant environment that is making news regionally and nationally.” The Jensen-Byrd building is the most significant historic building in the University District. In choosing a proposal by Texas-based developer Campus Advantage to demolish the Jensen-Byrd building, WSU bypassed one by local developer Ron Wells that would have renovated it. WSU cites the higher number of student housing units the Campus Advantage plan provides, and Wells and Co.’s request to wait until June to close the deal, as justifications for its decision. We remain unconvinced by this reasoning, which prioritizes short-term concerns over long-term vision and destroys a major Spokane landmark in the process.

The commissioners’ justification for cutting funding to the Historic Preservation Office – their claim that the Historic Preservation Office benefits the city but not the county – is equally unconvincing. Spokane is, after all, in Spokane County. When Spokane was twice chosen to host the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the county commissioners recognized the regional benefit of this event, which made extensive use of the historic Davenport Hotel and contributed $100,000 to the city’s preparations. Furthermore, the Historic Preservation Office has supported the courthouse grant program that has provided $2.16 million in restoration funds for the historic Spokane County Courthouse. Arbor Crest Winery has benefited from historic preservation incentives and the work of the Landmarks Commission, which is part of the Historic Preservation Office. The Historic Preservation Office has also replied to inquiries for assistance from Fairchild Air Force Base, Felts Field and other county entities.

The public does not recognize city/county historic preservation boundaries. Last month, Spokane Preservation Advocates released its first annual “Spokane Matters” list, recognizing historic places that our community considers to be important, as determined by a public nomination process. County properties include the Parker Cabin in Colbert, Opportunity Township Hall and Cheney Depot. City properties include the Ninth Avenue Historic District, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church and the Jensen-Byrd building (see: www.spokanepreservation. org).

In Spokane and Spokane County, we value our historic heritage for all sorts of reasons, and have turned it into a crucial contributor to our region’s economic vitality. That contribution can quickly diminish, however, if officials entrusted with its care fail to take the long view and continue to weaken historic preservation efforts. Spokane citizens value historic preservation as an economic driver and a statement about who we are. We must tell WSU and the county commissioners to modify their recent decisions to reflect the community’s values.

Matt Cohen, Ph.D., has written this piece as president of Spokane Preservation Advocates. He is also an associate professor of architecture at Washington State University Spokane.
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