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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Historic demolition rule stalls downtown auto dealer’s expansion

A plan to expand the Larry H. Miller Lexus dealership downtown requires demolition of two old single-story garage buildings on West Third Avenue. (Dan Pelle)

A city ordinance intended to protect Spokane’s historic buildings stands in the way of a car dealership’s plans to expand downtown.

Larry H. Miller Lexus Spokane is threatening to leave downtown if the company can’t demolish two old one-story brick garage buildings to create new car lots.

The Lexus dealership wants to redevelop property across the street from its existing showroom at 1030 W. Third Ave.

The plan is part of a proposed $35 million makeover of three downtown dealerships – Lexus, Toyota and Honda – operated by the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies.

The property in question is owned by Frank Thompson and his son, Scott, who recently closed their longtime gas station and convenience store at the southwest corner of Monroe Street and Third Avenue. They also own the two adjoining parcels with the old garages at 1023 and 1027 W. Third Ave., and another to the north of the gas station at 1002 W. Third.

They have offered to lease all of that property to the Miller Group for expansion of the Lexus dealership.

Buildings on those lots, including the three on the south side of Third Avenue, would be torn down as part of the dealership’s expansion plan.

But the plan hit a snag at City Hall last week because the two parcels with the two adjoining old garages were deemed eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The eligibility was decided by the City-County Landmarks Commission in a unanimous vote last Wednesday.

That triggers provisions of the city’s historic demolition ordinance intended to protect older buildings downtown and in outlying historic districts. Under the ordinance, buildings that are eligible for historic listing cannot be demolished without a new building going up in their place, even if they’re not actually listed on a historic register. The ordinance provides for exemptions, one for economic hardship if retaining a building would be unprofitable, and another if the building is a safety hazard.

Landmarks Commission members said the two old garages were part of a pattern of automobile-related businesses in the downtown area and should be considered for preservation.

“These are irreplaceable buildings and should be retained,” Landmarks Commissioner Jim Kolva said in a statement that was read into the record. Kolva was unable to attend the meeting.

Brad Knowles, construction manager for the Miller Family Real Estate LLC, told the commission, “We have a business to run. We really desire to run it downtown.”

He said Lexus has standards for its new car dealerships that include adequate showroom and show lot space.

The real estate arm of the Miller group is seeking a building permit to expand the Lexus dealership’s sales and repair facilities on the north side of Third, as well as a second-story addition to the dealership building. The estimated value of the project is $1.45 million.

Scott Thompson, owner of the land in question, told the Landmarks Commission that he is losing money on the two old garages. They’re currently used for vehicle and other storage by the Lexus dealership.

“It’s an atrocity of justice,” he said after the vote. “It’s an abuse of power.”

He said that area of downtown next to Interstate 90 along Third Avenue is in need economic reinvestment.

The old buildings aren’t part of the West Downtown Historic Transportation Corridor that lies between First and Second avenues from Post to Walnut streets, he added.

Stephen Emerson, a historic resources consultant representing the dealership, told the commission that the two garages have been so radically altered over the years that they are unrecognizable in a historic context.

“If this building is eligible, we have no standards,” he told the commissioners.

Holmes declined to comment after the meeting, but he indicated that moving the dealership out of downtown is an option.

Jan Quintrall, who leads the city’s Business and Developer Services Division, said city administrators respect the independence of the Landmarks Commission and support historic preservation, but do not want to lose the planned investment. She said City Hall is working on a solution to the problem with the parties involved.

“It’s really a balancing act,” she said.

Quintrall described the proposed redevelopment as a complete revamping of all three dealerships.

To assist the broader project, the city has temporarily closed Madison Street between Freeway Avenue and Third avenues for storage of vehicles, Quintrall said.

If the Miller Group left downtown, it would take years to find new uses for the company’s properties and to recover the lost tax base, she said.

The Miller Group was started as a single dealership in Murray, Utah, in 1979. It has grown to 54 dealerships in seven Western states. In addition, the company has moved into other economic sectors now involving 80 businesses in 46 states. The group owns the Utah Jazz basketball team.

Spokane’s demolition ordinance was adopted in 2005 after several major downtown buildings, including the 1890 Merton Block, the 1934 Rookery Building and the 1915 Mohawk Building, were demolished and turned into a parking lot at Riverside Avenue and Howard Street.

The building at 1023 W. Third Ave. was built in 1913 and was occupied by Graham Battery Co. That business moved into the building next door when it was constructed in 1937.

William Sutherland ran his Mercedes-Benz dealership there before the business was sold in 2003 and later moved to Liberty Lake.

Megan Duvall, historic preservation officer, said the determination of historic eligibility could be appealed to the city hearing examiner.