A proposal to permanently close two blocks of South Madison Street in downtown Spokane has led the Larry H. Miller auto dealership company into another struggle at City Hall, where City Council members temporarily halted the street closures after hearing stiff opposition to the plan last week.
About $30 million in renovations are expected for the six-block campus, including new buildings, more lots and a refurbished Lexus dealership, which is nearly complete. The campus plan already has undergone changes in response to the company’s proposals to demolish multiple historic structures and construct a parking lot stretching from Monroe to Jefferson streets.
But the vacation of Madison between Second and Third avenues has brought the stiffest resistance to the plan so far, as City Council members questioned the loss of a public street after 20 minutes of testimony about the vacation on Monday night, when all nine speakers testified against the plan.
“We need, as small business owners, an easy, maneuverable road system,” said Jennifer Gray, who owns Josefine’s Salon Concepts on Madison. “This is going to create a maze of people trying to figure out how to get to us.”
Councilman Jon Snyder said the street closures were unacceptable, especially considering the amount of public testimony against the plan.
“This is a downtown street and we will lose a significant amount of connectivity if we let it go,” Snyder said. “I’ve been on the council five years and we’ve never had this many people testify with concerns about a street vacation or an alley vacation. And I think they’re all very reasonable concerns.”
The council approved the vacation of three alleyways on the campus, but Councilman Mike Allen successfully led an effort to postpone discussion of the Madison Street vacation for four weeks. Allen said he believed the vacation would block just 17 feet of a 75-foot wide road, but Eldon Brown, a city engineer, said it would entirely close the road to cars.
“I support this project,” Allen said. “I was not aware it was effectively a full street vacation.”
The city’s Design Review Board ruled in March that the vacation of Madison between Second and Third needs further review and suggested that the dealership “investigate ways to show a clear public benefit and encourage pedestrian use.”
The Salt Lake City-based auto company is proposing to close down Madison from Second to Freeway Avenue North to motorized traffic, creating instead a beautified thoroughfare for pedestrians and bicycles. The company will add new lighting and streetscape improvements, such as trees and cobblestone sidewalks, on the entire campus.
In a statement, Brad Holmes, director of construction for Miller Family Real Estate, said the company was keeping with its plans for now.
“We’re continuing to move forward with construction on our facilities and will follow the process with the city. In addition, we value the viewpoints of our neighbors and fellow business owners and look forward to an outcome that will be beneficial to all,” he said.
Scott Simmons, interim director of the city’s Business and Developer Services division, said the city is working closely with the company. Once plans are complete, Simmons said, the city would create a developer agreement with the Miller company, laying out any payments or compensation the company will provide to the city for use of the public right of way.
“The concept is that there would be an agreement that the street closure would tie to the longevity of the business there, as well as maintain public access,” Simmons said. “The spirit of what’s been discussed is that there is value to the street closure. We’re looking through what the business would provide back to the city in terms of amenities and streetscape.”
In September 2013, the city issued a street obstruction permit to the auto company. Within a month, the company had fenced off Madison between Third and Freeway avenues. For the bulk of that time, it had used the block for parking until this month, when it began construction on a temporary, tent-like structure. The auto company got permission to build the structure but has paid the city nothing for its 15-month obstruction and use of Madison.
A briefing paper on the street and alley vacations recommended that the auto company pay the city $212,000 for the vacated land, but this value did not include the block obstructed by the company since 2013.
“No developer agreement has been generated yet. That’s when values of lands will be discussed and rectified,” Simmons said. “We’ll roll in all of the considerations and specific obligations into the developer agreement. That will have to be approved by the City Council.”
Bill Sutherland, who owned a Mercedes-Benz dealership on Madison for 15 years, also testified against the street vacation, but said later he opposed what he characterized as “under the table” deals made at City Hall.
“This whole deal was cooked up because they were afraid the company would leave town,” Sutherland said, referring to tax revenues generated by the dealership. “That’s not going to happen. Somebody has pulled the wool over their eyes. For a manufacturer to dictate to a city that they have to take over an entire street is ludicrous. I am just appalled.”
Sutherland, who owns Serenity Insurance, said he estimates that the Miller auto company generates more than $100 million in revenue a year in Spokane, which in turn generates millions of dollars in sales tax for the city. Simmons at the city and representatives for the auto company did not say how much the city earns in tax revenue from the company.
Snyder said he wanted to work with the auto company but employee turnover at the city has made it difficult.
“We’re coming in the middle of the conversation. Every person that I’ve talked to about this project has either been fired or let go or left the city,” he said. “The lack of staff continuity at the city has compromised the ability to create compromise.”
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