For 100 years, horses galloped at Playfair Race Course in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood, and workers packed the bars and restaurants of East Sprague Avenue.
Those days are long gone. Sunshine Scholar was the last horse to win there more than a decade ago, and Sprague has suffered through a deteriorating reputation and even worse pavement.
In an effort to help turn the area’s fortunes around, neighborhood advocates are looking to preserve a small tunnel underneath a railroad bridge where East Main Avenue and North Altamont Street meet.
The underpass is currently blocked and has only an 11 foot clearance. If kept open as a right of way, it would offer another entrance to the Playfair Commerce Park, a new industrial park sandwiched between Union Pacific and BNSF Railway Corp. lines.
“That neighborhood has the city’s first new industrial park in decades. That’s really promising,” said Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder. “We have the best opportunity to bring jobs back to that neighborhood. That requires infrastructure and connectivity.”
Eldon Brown, a city engineer, said the Altamont entrance used to be the main route to Playfair, but by today’s standards the tunnel is small.
“It’s not a standard we’d like to see. The preferred height is 16.5 feet,” Brown said. “Plus, it’s a pretty narrow distance there.”
In 2009, the city sold 48 acres to SCAFCO for $2.1 million, but it still owns about 15 acres on Playfair’s western edge, a triangle-shaped property that ends in a point where the rails meet.
The city has had many plans for the acreage, including building a large stormwater runoff tank there, but is now considering selling about a third of it as excess property, said Rick Romero, the city’s utilities director.
Don’t expect this to become the city’s next Kendall Yards.
This summer, the city built an evaporation pond for sediment caught in the city streets’ catch basins at the site, and has plans to use it as storage for dirt removed for stormwater tanks built over the next three years. Such activity, coupled with the land’s proximity to the rails, has been “part of the problem for us,” Romero said.
Any plans to sell the land as surplus are “very preliminary,” Romero added, noting that the size of the tunnel “has to be evaluated” before the land’s value could be determined. Widening the tunnel, or even digging down to make the tunnel taller, can’t be done without Union Pacific’s permission.
“If it’s going to have any real long-term value, (tunnel size) needs to be looked at,” Romero said.
Jerry Numbers, chairman of the East Central Neighborhood Council, said preserving the tunnel and a road connecting Altamont to the park’s eastern entrance at East Ferry Avenue is vital to connecting the neighborhood to the East Trent business corridor. He was optimistic a solution could be found.
“It’s adequate,” Numbers said about the tunnel. “It’s been adequate for 100 years. It will be adequate for another 100 years.”
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