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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Before Expo was Ebasco, the plan to save downtown Spokane

Model of downtown Spokane, built in 1961 by Spokane Unlimited. (Spokane Unlimited / Ebasco)
Model of downtown Spokane, built in 1961 by Spokane Unlimited. (Spokane Unlimited / Ebasco)

Probably the grandest plan undone in Spokane is the proposal that led to the complete reformation of city government, to the recognition of the central place the Spokane Falls and river hold in the city, and to one of most complete rebukes by voters to the business and political leaders who steered and controlled Spokane.

It also led to Expo ’74.

In the late 1950s, the car was doing its unintended work of destroying the city core. People were moving to the suburbs, and stores were following them. Downtown’s longtime monopoly on shopping and banking was over. Vacant buildings were torn down and replaced with parking lots. The sidewalks, once five-deep with dapper shoppers from Spokane’s hinterlands, were empty.

Downtown was dying.

Sensing impending doom, powerful bankers and business leaders formed a group called Spokane Unlimited with the goal of revitalizing the once thrumming downtown.

The first order of business for the group was to hire a professional planning firm to draw up a proposal to redevelop. They looked to the New York City-based Electric Bond and Share Company, called Ebasco, and the firm agreed for a sum of $150,000. After early troubles and some cajoling, the group raised most of the money from banks, Washington Water Power Co., and the Cowles family, which continues to own The Spokesman-Review.

Eighteen months later, the report was delivered and the assessment was grim.

“Obsolescence, traffic congestion, inadequate parking facilities, blight, a drab and sometimes unappealing general appearance have reduced the downtown’s attractiveness,” it read.

Nearly half of the buildings downtown were “deteriorating or substandard,” just one factor in the “district’s general aura of drabness.”

Change was needed, the report urged, and the “mere application of salves” was not enough. “Corrective surgery” was necessary right away, otherwise the city would answer to a “later, more urgent, call for major surgery.”

With such a diagnosis, Ebasco presented its cure: a redesigned downtown with eight blocks reserved for pedestrians, a removal of the “Chinese wall” of train trestles along the riverbank, the erection of buildings on the river islands, in Peaceful Valley and where Kendall Yards now sits, a new “government center” and other urban “anchor” districts, and a recognition of the inherent beauty in the falls.

All that was needed was $26 million.

However, its backers sought more than urban renewal. They also considered themselves reformers, and before the Ebasco plan was put on the ballot, voters changed Spokane’s form of government from a commission system to one that had council members and the mayor appoint a professional city manager.

The reformers swept into City Hall with Ebasco topping their priority list. Realizing the price tag for the entire proposal was a lot for voters to accept, they broke it up and put to a vote a $10 million bond issue for the new government center, which would include a city hall, police building, fire department and parking areas. It needed 60 percent of voters to give it a green light. Only 40 percent voted in favor.

The following year, the bond was put on the ballot again. Again, it went down in sound defeat.

As J. William T. Youngs’ described in his epic book, “The Fair and the Falls,” voter sentiment had turned against what many considered planning by the rich and powerful downtown elite that would only favor the rich and the powerful, and the plan was put on the shelf to gather dust.

Though the Ebasco plan remains the most massive unfinished project in Spokane, its legacy became clear soon enough. After the second defeat at the polls, Spokane Unlimited’s leaders were unsure how to proceed in their goal of improving downtown. They sought outside help and, fatefully, hired King Cole. A little more than 10 years later, Cole brought Expo ’74 to Spokane, delivering a child to Ebasco and a World’s Fair.

For more on the series

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