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Shawn Vestal: Lots of neighborhoods could use a little ‘love’

What neighborhood should the city of Spokane “target” next for the East Sprague treatment?

One modest proposal: West Broadway Avenue. The stretch of West Central west of the courthouse has a few newish businesses, a couple of established ones, an infrastructure that would welcome sprucing up, a possible jolt from neighboring Kendall Yards, and a neighborhood that could absorb some housing improvements.

West Broadway, in the words of City Council President Ben Stuckart, could use “some love.” But several other spots in town might also benefit from some love – a revitalizing infusion of money, effort and resources, intended to seed the district for further private investment.

One possible target is the kernel of a business district taking shape along Fifth Avenue in East Central. It’s certainly a neighborhood where improved streets and sidewalks, housing incentives, safety efforts and other amenities might make a big difference.

The City Council could also choose to target a more established district – such as Garland, North Hamilton or North Monroe – to help it improve further. It might look again at East Sprague, targeting the south University District immediately east of downtown.

At this point, it’s a largely theoretical question. It’s not on any council agenda just yet, and there’s a lot more to the trick than simply picking a neighborhood and hosing in the money. It takes a lot of what city planners call “capacity” – a core of established businesses, unity among neighbors and property owners, a willingness to volunteer time and effort in the bureaucratic slog.

East Sprague – which now is called the Sprague Union district – had a lot of capacity. That’s why it was selected in 2013 for the “targeted investment pilot,” in which a range of funding sources typically spread among neighborhoods – city, state and federal money, for many different purposes – was poured into one multimillion-dollar stream, aimed at one neighborhood. The renovated streets, with new sidewalks, lighting and trees, opened in September, and there are early signs of a payoff, with more commercial investment, among many other signs of improvement.

Given the number of different funding streams and definitions, it can be difficult to nail down a total figure of the investment, but spending in the so-called TIP area has been more than $25 million. If you consider the nearby pedestrian bridge connecting to the U-district and other adjacent work, nearly $60 million will be spent in Sprague Union.

The council is awaiting a detailed report on how the TIP project is paying off, which could serve as a resource when deciding what part of town to target next, presuming there is a next. Stuckart, who was largely responsible for devising and championing the approach, said the possibility of selecting another area for TIP treatment is probably at least a year away.

But there is great confidence through City Hall that such investments are paying off. Planning Director Lisa Keys said the city has tracked rising property values in neighborhoods where the city has made significant investments in recent years.

Keys said that between 2008 and 2012, property values in a half-mile radius around the South Perry district rose 45 percent, compared to 30 percent citywide. In the area surrounding the Hillyard Business District, the improvement was 40 percent.

“Done well, done right, it absolutely does leverage private investment,” Keys said. “We see this in the Perry District, we see it in Hillyard, and we’re starting to see it on East Sprague.”

Not just street work

There have been a lot of collaborative, boundary-crossing projects coming out of City Hall in recent years. And there are many instances in which certain parts of town are “targeted” with combinations of funding or incentives.

But the Sprague Union project was a different animal – bigger, broader, more “holistic,” to use the jargon. Though there have been other neighborhood revitalization efforts around town, none of them is as “big picture” as that one.

Stuckart was among the first to identify and champion the strategy, and says he takes a particular personal pride in the changes on East Sprague. “The idea originally was, I’m going to find as many funding sources as possible in the city,” and direct them to one neighborhood, he said.

Councilwoman Amber Waldref also was deeply involved from the start; she emphasizes the importance of the Sprague Union effort as a way of helping shape a “work-play-live” environment and spurring private investment. Over the course of time, the project relied on work from staffers and volunteers from all over city government and the neighborhood council and business association, and required collaboration among many different organizations and individuals.

“There’s just a lot that goes into this,” said Melissa Owen, project planner for the city. “It’s complicated, and there are lots of moving parts.”

Owen is working on the council report, which is due by year’s end. She will be tracking data on property sales, home values, crime, business investment, new construction, neighborhood demographics and many other factors.

Owen said the early signs of success are many, from a simply nicer streetscape to the rising number of businesses. An alleyway lighting project, funded by the city, the health district and Avista, has helped contribute to a 30 percent drop in crime.

“People just love the way it looks, and we’re seeing the commercial investment,” she said.

She’s also looking for things that haven’t gone as well as hoped. One disappointment in Sprague Union has been difficulty in spurring the rehabilitation of single-family homes, owned by people who live there. Some programs meant to help finance renovation are targeted to homeowners who can qualify for loans – a challenge in a neighborhood with a high poverty rate. And with the relatively low home values, incentives for renovation and redevelopment aren’t yet very incentivizing. Even modest investments in the property might put a homeowner under water.

A similar issue complicates attempts to encourage renovations in rentals. With a super-tight rental market, and with the affordable housing requirements built into the programs to try to prevent gentrification, there is little incentive for a property owner – and particularly for one who may not be personally invested in the neighborhood – to make any changes.

But neighborhoods change slowly, and there are early signs of rising home values. The average single-family home sold in the Sprague Union TIP in 2014 was about $57,000. So far this year, it’s $85,000.

Several candidates

The Sprague Union project was a pilot, meant to be the first in a series if it worked. The general idea was that the city might replicate it every few years, sweeping disparate funds into one pot for a short-term blast to a single neighborhood.

Stuckart said he and other council members are probably at least a year away from beginning to talk about replicating the TIP somewhere else in town. He had several ideas for parts of town that might be candidates, starting with West Broadway.

When city officials considered where to direct the first TIP, West Broadway came in second to East Sprague. One edge for East Sprague was the aforementioned capacity – energized, active, involved residents and business owners. Stuckart said the city encouraged West Broadway neighbors to work on building that capacity.

“One of the big reasons that East Sprague was successful and got chosen was they have that East Sprague Business Association,” he said. “It’s been active for 20 years, and they speak with one voice.”

There are lots of places in town that could be part of the conversation. The stretch of Hamilton north of the Gonzaga neighborhood is one place with significant capacity for rejuvenation, including active, involved stakeholders, Waldref said.

Stuckart noted that Garland might be due for another look.

“I love the Garland Business District, but I sure think you could make that main route safer,” he said.

The University District along East Sprague – between downtown and the new Sprague Union – is another place the city might target, as is the North Monroe corridor. But the current controversy over the proposal to shrink Monroe to three lanes suggests there may be less unity there than city officials would want to see.

City officials could also decide to target a spot that’s far from established. Stuckart cited a burgeoning, though small, swell of activity in East Central at East Fifth Avenue and Fiske Street, behind the Fred Meyer. A new nonprofit that combines a soul food restaurant with job training, Fresh Soul, is planning to open by the end of the year. It sits near the longtime institution Larry’s Barbershop and a new tutoring center. Both Fresh Soul and the tutoring center are painted bright blue, reflecting an attempt to unify the neighborhood.

It’s just a little bubble of activity. But who knows what it might be someday.

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