The plans for a sprawling downtown Spokane auto campus were scaled back this month after the Spokane City Council rejected a request from the Larry H. Miller auto dealership to close a portion of South Madison Street.
The decision was just the latest setback for the dealership, which has dealt with a number of struggles and delays at City Hall since it began expansion efforts in 2013. What began as a plan for a six-block campus with tree-lined pedestrian boulevards in place of streets has shrunk to the dealership’s original footprint, albeit with new buildings and some alleys purchased by the Salt Lake City-based company.
The most recent request to close a one-block portion of South Madison Street failed by a 4-3 vote. Council President Ben Stuckart, with council members Mike Allen and Mike Fagan, voted for the long-term closure, which would have netted the city $10,700 a year, or about $890 a month. The company originally offered to pay $1,910 a year for the closure.
Critics of the process both within and outside of City Hall place blame for the troubles on the shifting personnel in the city’s Business and Developer Services Division, namely the former division head, Jan Quintrall, as well as Scott Chesney, the planning director who was forced out by Quintrall last year.
Though most involved said the outcome is acceptable, they said the process was far from ideal.
“We did invest a lot of time and effort into this process,” said Sara Waldman, a spokeswoman with the dealership. “This has definitely been a difficult process. We’re disappointed by the decision.”
Councilman Jon Snyder said getting clear answers proved difficult.
“The first person I talked about it with was Scott Chesney. The second person I talked to was Jan Quintrall. The third was Kris Becker. Every time I talked about it, it was with a different person,” he said, adding that he was sympathetic to the auto dealer’s gripes. “It was difficult for us and it was difficult for them.”
A portion of Madison has been closed since September 2013, and the company has paid the city $8,010 in obstruction permit fees for the closure. The city will allow the street to remain closed through the dealership’s construction, which could last another 12 to 18 months, said Julie Happy, a city spokeswoman. The block has had a Quonset hut-like structure on it since this spring, housing part of its Honda operations.
The company’s original plans for the downtown campus featured new buildings and multiblock show lots requiring the permanent closure of a portion of two blocks of Madison between Second Avenue and Freeway Avenue North.
Though the dealership wanted to purchase and build upon 17 feet of Madison, which is 75 feet wide, the street vacation would have closed the road to cars. A thoroughfare for bikes and pedestrians was planned along the closed street, complete with plans for $1 million in additional amenities of street lighting, landscaping and other improvements.
Snyder, the council’s most outspoken advocate of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, said he was interested in the dealership’s plans for the path.
“The original idea was to turn Madison into a parkway. The first time I saw that, I was open to it,” he said.
Then in May, the City Council heard stiff opposition to closing Madison between Second and Third avenues from neighboring business owners and neighborhood advocates. Council members agreed to temporarily halt the street vacation.
Quintrall, who left the city in the wake of the fallout from Chesney’s ouster, rejected responsibility for the difficulties, saying that Chesney made promises of an easy process to the auto dealership.
“That was one of the red flags. There’s a public process,” Quintrall said. “I really was not involved until they came in with the master plan. I sat in on one meeting. It was at the point that Scott told them that the street vacation would be no trouble at all.”
Quintrall said she told the dealership that Chesney’s description of the process was wrong, and that the City Council would make the final decision on street closures.
“People have been trying to blame this on me for quite a while,” Quintrall said. “That’s not the case.”
Chesney, however, remembers it differently. Though the Miller company came to the city with plans for a street vacation in order to compete with “suburban sites,” he said it was made clear to them that closing any street is up to the council.
“There was no outright promise. It was always put in the context of a council decision,” Chesney said, noting that the dealership’s officials were told of the council’s role in the decision at a meeting attended by Mayor David Condon.
Scott Simmons, who took over the division after Quintrall left, said he wouldn’t comment on what happened before he was appointed in February because he wasn’t present. He did suggest communication has improved.
“I’m confident that the applicant would say that since February we’ve tried to provide really good clarity on all the steps they would have to go through and the vetting that would be done,” he said.
Simmons did say the shifting reception to the plan by the city left the dealership cold, considering the value of improvements it had planned for the area.
“Without the street vacation, they didn’t see value to their business plan” to include the $1 million in additional amenities, Simmons said. “They have greatly reduced the amount of pedestrian lighting, enhanced crosswalks, additional trees and shrubbery, the improvements to the public bike and pedestrian area. I think their last plan showed some enhanced crosswalks.”
Waldman said the dealership still planned to invest in upgrades on the campus, but the city’s unwillingness to close the streets have made things difficult.
“We’re on a very small piece of land. In order to meet manufacturer standards and provide the best experience for our customers, it’s been almost like a Jenga puzzle or a Tetris game,” she said, noting that the company’s Lexus, Honda and Toyota dealerships share 8 acres, usually the size of one dealership.
“Overall, we strive to be good corporate citizens,” she said. “There will be planters, streetlights and crosswalks, so there will be some cohesiveness” to the campus.
Such upgrades were not enough to persuade the majority of council members, and the council saw no benefit to allowing the company to block Madison beyond the company’s construction.
Snyder said the company didn’t show him how closing Madison contributed to the “public interest.”
“There’s no other deal like this in the city. There’s no other place where a private entity takes an entire block,” he said. “How do I go to other businesses and say, ‘You can’t close a street for $10,000 a year.’ ”
Snyder pointed to the city selling a portion of Wall Street downtown to allow for the construction of the new Urban Outfitters building as another example of a project with little public benefit. He voted against the Wall Street vacation.
The Cowles Co., which owns River Park Square and is constructing the new Urban Outfitters building, also owns The Spokesman-Review. It will pay the city about $157,000 for the land when construction is complete and approved by the city.
Snyder said the auto dealer’s plans, as well as the Cowles’, didn’t meet his “high standard” of closing downtown streets.
“If I’m going to close down any amount of connectivity, I have to weigh what’s going there,” he said. “A parking lot is a pretty low value use. A two-story building on some of the most expensive real estate in the state is incredibly unambitious. It’s frustrating.”
While reiterating the company’s commitment to stay downtown, Waldman suggested the dealership was frustrated as well.
“There have definitely been some surprises along the way. We’ve just done our best to try to meet everyone’s needs and do what was requested of us and try to be accommodating. But definitely the transition between different people has been a little challenging,” Waldman said.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.