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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: U-District bridge can be more than just infrastructure

Some people are already calling it a bridge to nowhere. But critics of the city’s proposed pedestrian bridge – connecting the university district to East Sprague – are suffering from more than just a lack of verbal originality.

They’re suffering a failure of vision.

If anything, the multimillion-dollar project offers a link to a very clear, very desirable somewhere: a Spokane with an expanded and connected university district and downtown, an East Sprague business district that is no longer cut off from all the activity and investment to the north, and an infrastructure that is both useful and beautiful.

“There are times when a city needs to think big,” said City Councilman Jon Snyder.

That hasn’t always been our thing, here in the Lilac City. The proposed University District Pedestrian Bridge is the kind of project that draws out our grumpy naysaying. For one thing, it’s expensive – estimates place the cost at $14 million to $16 million, though Snyder says he’s hopeful it can come in closer to $11 million. Still, it’s a lot of money, and it’s a lot of taxpayer money, and whenever that’s the case, people will argue that we ought to just nail together a few 2-by-4s over the old railroad tracks that divide that part of town as effectively as a wall.

Another thing that sets grumps a-grumping: The project has an aesthetic sharpness and dramatic look – a sense of style and design – that offends our Sears and Roebuck, plain-pockets nature. It will, if it comes to pass, look cool. Iconic is the word being used. It will add to the skyline in a way that big-thinking cities sometimes think about, and contribute to the sense of a community that does more than simply flop and sprawl around, one parcel and vacant lot at a time.

Which is, of course, another objection: This is planning. Which, to some, is akin to communism.

Jerry Numbers has been hearing bridge talk for decades. A 75-year-old former schoolteacher, Numbers is chairman of the East Central Neighborhood Council. He’s had a connection to the neighborhood since 1945, when his grandmother moved there. As far back as 1995, when the U-District was just a twinkle in some urban planner’s eye, Numbers and his fellow neighborhood activists were laying plans for a bridge that would make it possible for people to get back and forth across that 39-foot railroad barrier and connect East Sprague with that part of town.

“We have supported a bridge since before a bridge was even talked about,” he said.

Back then, their vision was modest – perhaps a $200,000 project to put a simple bridge across. Numbers still wonders whether a more modest project might not be the way to go, something costing a few million. Still, he’s persuaded by the arguments project backers are making about the design of the 120-foot cabled arch – that it will create an aesthetic focus that will add to the area’s skyline.

“At this point, we support the bridge,” he said. “As the U-District has developed into something much, much bigger than we envisioned 15 years ago, the idea of an iconic, archway bridge … is going to be a good idea.”

The cost is a sticking point for many – and it’s one that many don’t understand very well. It’s tempting to argue that if we have $14 million for a bridge – or $10 million or $20 million – why don’t we hire more cops? Or feed more hungry people? Or cut somebody’s taxes?

It’s not so simple. The city is not choosing how to spend money from a pot it has or will get from city taxes. The vast majority of the money would come from other sources – state, federal and private. The University District Development Agency would devote $3 million of the money it receives through a tax incentive system meant to encourage infrastructure and development. Federal or state funding would be competitive and targeted.

In other words, the city does not face a choice between putting $14 million here or there, between hiring cops or building an elaborate bridge. It faces a choice of whether or not to pursue money that is narrowly limited to these kinds of projects.

“It is a lot of money,” Snyder said. “And we deserve it.”

Other cities have been going after this kind of funding aggressively, he said. If we don’t do the same, all we do is lose access to the funding.

“If we don’t get this money, some other city will,” Snyder said.

There will certainly be further hurdles to be cleared before the project is a reality, and it may be that, as with many large projects, details will be changed, scaled back, economized.

In the end, though, the bridge has the potential to remake the University District, East Sprague and the whole town in positive and concrete ways.

A bridge to nowhere? Look again.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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