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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

City Council names Riverfront Park a ‘brownfield’ to assist soil cleanup efforts

The site of the old Railway Mail Terminal, built in 1913 and owned by the Great Northern Railroad, is now part of Riverfront Park. The building was torn down to make way for Expo ’74. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Hoping to recoup some of the unexpected costs of soil cleanup during Riverfront Park’s $64 million renovation, the City Council voted Monday night to declare the 42-year-old attraction a contaminated site.

The council voted unanimously to classify the 100-acre park a brownfield redevelopment opportunity zone, a designation created by the Washington Legislature in 2013 to spur scrubbing of the state’s most contaminated industrial sites. Riverfront Park joins portions of the Hillyard neighborhood and 237 acres of waterfront property in Bellingham as the only properties in the state to earn the designation.

City Council President Ben Stuckart said workers are going to have to dispose of the contaminated dirt churned up during construction, and the designation doesn’t imply the park is unsafe.

“My question was, have people been getting poisoned for the last 40 years? And the answer was no,” Stuckart said.

While the land making up Riverfront Park has long been considered dirty due to years of industrial use, it has never formally been designated a “brownfield.” State law defines brownfields as properties that were previously developed “and are currently abandoned or underutilized,” where redevelopment is financially unfeasible because of extensive contamination.

The city will have to make its argument to the Legislature, which has not yet put any money in a trust fund earmarked for brownfield redevelopment projects, that Riverfront Park is underutilized because no major development has occurred there since Expo ’74.

Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, co-sponsored the legislation creating the designation and said he would need to see a detailed plan for construction in the park before approving state money to aid cleanup efforts. The Legislature is now responsible for doling out money in the trust fund.

“I’m not sure the city had all its ducks in the row, when they went to the bond on the Riverfront Park plan,” Baumgartner said.

City Councilman Mike Fagan agreed.

“I have some serious concerns about the park renovation,” he said. “I hope and pray that it goes well.”

The redevelopment has been plagued by concerns over higher-than-projected costs for bridge repairs, an overly ambitious design for the planned ice skating ribbon at Post Street and Spokane Falls Boulevard and a realization among Park Board members that private funding may be needed to supplement a voter-approved bond to finish some projects.

Recent excavation ahead of the ice ribbon project, and work occurring in nearby Kendall Yards and on a combined stormwater tank on the north bank of the Spokane River, indicate soil cleanup costs may also be higher than originally estimated. Park Board members say the project will be delivered on time and within budget.

Still, Baumgartner said he believed the project would likely be eligible for funding if the city comes to the Legislature with specific plans.

“I’m pleased that something that I helped put together and did with some challenge could be used to benefit the community,” Baumgartner said.

Sandra Treccani, a hydrogeologist in the Ecology Department’s toxics cleanup program, said the City Council’s action not only opens up the possibility of receiving money directly from the Legislature, but also puts the park in better position to receive state and federal grants that use the brownfield designation to prioritize funding.

“It does give you some prioritization, in tight fiscal times, when there’s not a lot of state funding for brownfields,” Treccani, who oversees the Ecology Departments efforts on brownfields in Eastern Washington, said.

Treccani said she didn’t know of any park in the region being designated a brownfield. Most properties that are given the designation are used less than Riverfront Park, she said, but there’s nothing in the law that prohibits the city from making the designation and seeking funding. Also, the brownfield designation has been around for several decades and it’s likely the program will evolve, she said.

“We’re sort of in the teenage years of brownfields, and now maybe we’re looking beyond the edges,” Treccani said.