A stalled and once-controversial condominium building project is back on track, due to an improved economy and a perceived desire for “luxury high rise” living units in downtown Spokane.
Developer Mick McDowell and his wife, Shelley, are planning to build a 14-story, 50-unit tower on West Riverside Avenue overlooking the Peaceful Valley neighborhood.
The building will have two penthouse units on the top floors, each 6,000 square feet, that McDowell said could sell for “millions.” Other units will be as small as 800 square feet, and pricing for the building’s units will begin around $350,000, McDowell said.
“The top two floors will be custom configured. There’s lots of flexibility in that area,” McDowell said, noting that he plans to have roof access for tenants and perhaps a “rooftop garden.”
“It’s going to be a drop-dead gorgeous view,” McDowell said.
The project, called the 1400 Tower, is estimated to cost $20 million, according to documents from the city.
McDowell first bought the property 25 years ago, when it had a “17-unit apartment building in need of a renovation,” McDowell said. In 1991, the Riverview Apartments burned down and McDowell, a former city firefighter, tore down the structure.
About 10 years ago, McDowell proposed a condo project for the site, but faced stiff opposition from the Peaceful Valley neighborhood. Residents opposed the shadows that would be cast on Glover Field due to the building’s height, which exceeded the neighborhood’s 35-foot height limit established in 2003.
A hearing examiner agreed with those concerns in 2006, saying the building’s height would harm the neighborhood and open the area to similar projects, and denied the request by McDowell to exempt his project from the height restriction.
“The design appears to turn its back on Peaceful Valley and does not mitigate the negative effects of the increased height on adjacent properties,” wrote Greg Smith, the hearing examiner. “If this tower is approved then it sets precedent for future similar projects. In that case, the height restrictions found in the code essentially go away and the reasons for enacting them in the first place will not be realized.”
McDowell appealed the decision and sued the city, saying he’d had the proposal before the city since 1999, and accused the examiner of not holding public hearings. In 2007, a year after the examiner’s ruling, the City Council overturned the decision in a unanimous vote. The city also settled with McDowell, giving him the option to own two parcels of land near Fire Station No. 1 on Riverside and North Browne Street. Though McDowell said he put $140,000 toward the property, the city repossessed the land in 2013 after McDowell failed to complete the transaction.
With the green light on his former proposal, McDowell floated a plan to buy the Cedar Street staircase connecting the neighborhood to Riverside Avenue, with assurances he’d replace the staircase.
That’s when former City Councilman Jon Snyder, who owns a historic home in Peaceful Valley, got involved.
“In 2008, I was working on an ad hoc neighborhood group: the friends of the stairs,” Snyder said. “At the time, we were worried about using the public stairs, which are a critical connection point for folks there.”
The stairs were owned by the city; McDowell offered to buy them for $7,500 and someone on city staff recommended putting the small parcel on the city’s surplus land list, Snyder said. Ultimately the offer was refused, and the city still owns the stairs.
In 2008, with the economy in a historic plummet, condo projects around Spokane stalled, including McDowell’s.
Now, eight years later, McDowell said the housing market has rebounded enough to make his project viable once again.
“Our structure is going to be as fine as any. Its cost is going to be competitive with the rest of the market,” McDowell said. “Availability of development money became a possibility, and that became possible after Kendall Yards. This is a different product, a luxury high rise, which has a market.”
Neighborhood concerns also have shifted. Instead of stairs and shadows, Peaceful Valley residents are now opposed to the three-story parking garage in McDowell’s latest proposal.
Bill Forman, chairman of the neighborhood council, is one of them.
“What I really don’t want to see is a parking garage in this residential neighborhood where this building is turning its back on the neighborhood,” Forman said. “Wilson is a tiny little street. There’s just a few houses there. It is barely adequate for those few houses. Every one of the new residents in this new tower would come down on Wilson and ride straight into the parking garage. Wilson absolutely cannot sustain this type of traffic. There’s not even a sidewalk there.”
Snyder agreed, saying the tower’s garbage disposal will take place on Wilson as well.
“They also get to enjoy all the dumpster activity there too. What a great deal for the neighborhood,” Snyder said. “Dumping all that traffic onto a residential neighborhood so he doesn’t have to do an egress on Riverside is a really hard pill to swallow.”
Snyder said McDowell should do a traffic study and recommended putting the tower’s traffic on Riverside, much like the nearby Riverfalls Tower apartments, sometimes called the “flashcube” building, referring to its resemblance to outdated photography equipment.
McDowell said he has done a traffic study.
“It basically said there’d be zero impact on the intersection on Main and Monroe,” McDowell said, adding that moving the tower’s parking entrance to Riverside is “complicated” because his parcel is very close to where Riverside, Sprague and Cedar converge.
He also said that the point of living downtown is to “not drive your car.”
“The people who live in that condominium tower won’t be driving their cars, unless to go on vacation,” McDowell said.
Still, McDowell set a conciliatory tone.
“I look forward to a positive working relationship with both the Peaceful Valley and Riverside neighborhoods,” McDowell said. “I don’t anticipate it being a problem.”
Representatives of the neighborhoods, the city and McDowell will meet on May 16 to discuss the project. The Peaceful Valley council already has sent a bullet-pointed list of concerns to McDowell.
But Gary Pollard, chair of the Riverside neighborhood, welcomed the project.
“Our neighborhood supports it. The council supports it,” Pollard said, framing the issue in terms of preventing sprawl. “We’ve always been in favor of it, but then again look at the makeup of our neighborhood downtown. We’ve always endorsed growth … as opposed to building out and building out and building out.”
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