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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

East Sprague Avenue has seen its fortunes rise and fall. Now it’s turning a corner. For real.

If one building describes East Sprague Avenue, it’s the Pansie garage.

On the main drag between Pittsburg and Magnolia streets, it’s uneven yet sturdy, almost as if two buildings were joined and centered around a garage door. It’s all brick, giving it century-old solidity and flourish, with decorative patterns of tan brick adding to the imbalance of the building’s facade.

Its construction in 1919 as an auto shop was noted by many auto trade journals, and it came at a time of significant transition on East Sprague, in Spokane and in the nation in general. The city was in the midst of tremendous growth. The region’s streetcars and electric interurban rail lines had booming ridership, including a popular line that had run, by that point, straight down Sprague for almost 30 years. And, most importantly for Sprague, the personal automobile was well on its way to becoming something most Americans not only wanted, but had to have.

When Edward and Mabel Pansie moved to town from Wisconsin, they likely knew they could make money working on cars. The year they built the garage, in 1919, a large automobile show, called “Spokane’s First Progressive Automotive Show,” took over downtown with 60 showrooms along Sprague and First avenues. What the Pansies surely didn’t know was how fully cars and roads would define the future of East Sprague.

This year, the city of Spokane redesigned and repaved East Sprague, the first complete rebuild in generations, laying the latest foundation of a neighborhood defined by its roads. From the Sunset Highway to Interstate 90 to the new roadway, the northern half of the East Central neighborhood has lived and died – and its businesses have flourished and stagnated – according to the roads the government deemed necessary.

City funding and street work drives change

With the completion this month of the $4.3 million rehabilitation of Sprague, new signs of life are showing in the struggling East Central neighborhood district. Developers have gobbled up properties, new restaurants have opened. A blocklong complex of affordable housing is nearly open, as is a new mental health clinic – bookends to Sprague’s new growth.

Credit for the budding transformation goes to the neighborhood’s business group, and to the city, which pointed millions of dollars in public money at East Sprague to kick-start development, an idea first floated in 2013.

On a seven-block section of Sprague, the heart of the business district, 16 properties have sold for a total of more than $4 million since 2014. Among the new owners are CCRC, a father-son development team that renovated an old grocery store and brought Bennidito’s Brew Pub to the neighborhood; 4 Degrees Real Estate, which bought the Ziv Shoe and Clothing Co. building and made it its headquarters; and Steve Schmautz, who bought two buildings near the intersection of Sprague and Napa Street, the clearest indicator for most that something’s happening on Sprague.

For longtime residents of the street, it’s all exciting, but also something they’ve seen before.

Jim Hanley, who’s been in the neighborhood since 1942, hopes the work will lead Sprague to what it once was, when it was part of the Sunset Highway, one of the primary state routes across Washington and beyond.

“I remember riding a bus, buses that looked like a loaf of bread,” he said of his earliest memory of the street, when he was about 8. “And tremendous traffic. Incessant traffic, like it was rush hour all day. It was a community, much more of a lived-in community. All these little shops and stores. Apartments that stretched a block.”

Hanley grew up in what was to be the tail end of Sprague’s best days. His dad, Arch, had opened ACME Electric on Sprague in 1945, in the spot currently occupied by Vien Dong Restaurant. The radio repair shop soon began fixing TVs, and the prosperity of postwar America was evident all around.

“East Sprague saw the arrival of motor courts, motels, gas stations, drive-thrus, garages, service stations, travel lodges, cafes and other businesses eager for the motorists’ dollar,” according to a 2015 report on the neighborhood done by the Historic Preservation Office for the City and County of Spokane.

“I remember this being the most vital business street in Spokane,” said Dave Clack, former chair of Old National Bank who arrived in East Central in 1938. “Even busier than North Division is today.”

Many buildings remain from this era, and help tell its story. The Art Deco grocery that now houses the Bay Market was originally a Pay’n Takit, a chain of groceries owned by Safeway. The store’s parking lot is as old as the building, a symbol of the car’s influence on Sprague’s midcentury development. Same goes for the old Stone’s Food Store, which now houses Bennidito’s.

Buildings from every era line street

The buildings on East Sprague are like chapters in a book, telling the story of the oldest street in Spokane.

Through its changing fortunes, Sprague has always been Sprague, the name it was given by Spokane’s “father,” James Glover. It was the first street he named, and Glover unwittingly highlighted Sprague’s future as a place defined by its thoroughfares. Gen. J. W. Sprague, the street’s namesake, was general superintendent of the western end of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Construction of that rail’s route in 1881 was instrumental to Spokane’s growth, and is just blocks north of Sprague.

Ever since Glover’s naming, buildings have gone up on the street.

The two oldest buildings on Sprague are somewhat inconspicuous structures from 1902. One holds the East Sprague Art Gallery, and the other is called the Pilastro Building, originally the Scarpelli Brothers Macaroni Factory that an adult bookstore occupied for many years.

Of the 52 buildings that line the seven-block section between Helena and Stone streets recently redone by the city, 21 were built before 1930, nearly all of them on the south side of the street. The average age of those buildings on the stretch is 74 years old. According to county parcel records, the buildings’ assessed worth is more than $10 million, in total.

By far, the biggest property owner in the neighborhood is the Tormino family. John Tormino, who founded Tormino’s Sash and Glass in 1950, died earlier this year. But the family still controls at least nine properties around the East Sprague district, including the Vien Dong building and some houses that are used simply to store glass.

The most historic block is between Napa and Magnolia streets on the south side. The newest structure there dates to 1921. On the corner is Boyd-Walker Sewing Machine Co., originally the East End Pharmacy.

Darrell Smith has owned Boyd-Walker since 1997, but it’s been in his family since his grandfather, William Boyd, started it in 1945.

Smith started working at the service and sales store in 1980, and he now owns the three buildings on the corner, “all part of Boyd-Walker and all contribute one way or another to the company.”

He’s supportive of the new street work and said he’s already seen an uptick in people walking around.

Like many long-term business owners, he sees the new Sprague as a way to harken back to its former glory. Before the interstate was built.

Interstate divides neighborhood

Besides being a main route and destination for motorists, it was the heart of the neighborhood.

At the end of World War II, the East Central neighborhood was a diverse and thriving neighborhood. It also was one of Spokane’s poorest, a dynamic that contributed to Sprague’s success.

“People lived, shopped and worshiped in this fairly tight-knit community,” the historic survey said. A lot of them walked from their homes to shop at the many shops, groceries, pharmacy, clothing stores and more.

Hanley remembers being dragged to work at the family electronics store on Saturdays. He’d walk down to Stone’s on his break and buy “the best apples and cherries.”

“What is now the key shop was a hamburger shop,” he said of ABC Locksmith. “They had 19-cent hamburgers. I made a quarter an hour and I could get a hamburger and a Coke.”

Though East Sprague’s glory days were the days of the Sunset Highway, it was also a walkable neighborhood. People who lived as far away as Underhill Park would trek to the thriving center of East Central for staples.

That ended when I-90 was built.

Some say the highway building of the last century was a natural progression sprung from the American penchant for driving. But it was anything but the free market responding to consumer demand. Instead, the Interstate Highway System was a $425 billion government project, the “greatest public works project in the history of a nation,” according to Tom Lewis in his book, “Divided Highways.”

As in many other cities, the highway was built through the poorest neighborhood in Spokane, and it wasn’t just the flat topography of the neighborhood that made it suitable. The low property rates and lack of political influence also played a major role.

Highway construction ended up being an extension of that era’s slum clearance, when state and national road planners used the interstates to eliminate what they saw as blighted neighborhoods and redevelop valuable urban land. In East Sprague’s case, the theory fell flat. By the time the highway was completed in 1965, East Sprague had been feeling its effects for a decade.

“The freeway came through in 1954. They took out Liberty Park and put in concrete,” Hanley said. “It was immediate. As soon as that freeway opened up – woosh – traffic was just gone. I-90 split East Central, north and south. They weren’t really connected anymore. The south side, it seemed like it was so far away, even though it wasn’t any farther.”

Shops like the Hanleys’ did OK, since it didn’t rely on people from the neighborhood.

“All those businesses that depended on people walking, that all stopped,” Hanley said.

Smith agreed.

“The freeway cut off access to the neighborhood, so the businesses that relied more on the residents who lived close didn’t do well,” he said. “The shoppers had to go somewhere. Where was the next closest place? It was farther away.”

Bad rap persists

With the commercial downturn came another type of commerce, one that left Sprague with a reputation it’s still trying to shake.

The legacy of East Sprague’s debauchery stems from the 1980s, when the city as a whole was in a “pressure cooker,” according to the police chief. An article from September 1987 said the city was “reaping a harvest of neglect.” Between July and September 1987, according to the article, 12 homicides were counted and two “serial rapists” were at large in the East Sprague area.

The incident that “finally forced the rest of Spokane to confront the realities of East Sprague” was the killing of Sarah Gardner in her own East Sprague business, two nights after she lost her primary bid for City Council. The 59-year-old neighborhood activist was stabbed to death in the back room of her beauty salon, a murder that remains unsolved.

Prostitution along the street prospered at the time, with reports of up to 30 women a day on the corners and numerous johns prowling the streets. The violent rape of one woman on Sprague during summer 1987 didn’t shake Spokane residents the way Gardner’s death did, but its news resonated: East Sprague is dangerous. Avoid it.

Ten years later, the reputation was further solidified when serial killer Robert Lee Yates murdered at least 13 women who worked in prostitution on East Sprague.

Twenty years have passed since Yates, and 30 since Gardner’s death, but the street’s vice-ridden reputation sticks.

Lynn Everson, the needle exchange coordinator with the Spokane Regional Health District, began working with “prostituted women” on Sprague in 1990.

Before Expo ’74, downtown Main Street was “a pretty active area” for prostitutes, Everson said. When organizers of the world’s fair pushed them out of downtown, they went to the west end of downtown near the old Greyhound station at “First and Jefferson.” Again, the women were pushed out and, for decades, prostitutes could be found on Sprague.

With redevelopment on the horizon, in 2015, the city installed signs on Sprague that read: “Designated Area of High Prostitution Activity. Vehicles used to further prostitution will be impounded.” A $500 fee, impound costs and a year later, police were reporting that prostitution was down.

“Once the signs went up, things changed. There is absolutely no question about that,” Everson said, noting she hasn’t worked with people in the area recently because the situation has changed so dramatically.

According to statistics from the Spokane Police Department, there were nine arrests in East Central relating to prostitution in the final three months of 2016. So far in 2017, there have been 11 arrests.

“Prostitution pretty much never goes away. It just gets moved,” Everson said. “The last thing a woman wants to do is stand on the street. It’s dangerous. It’s life-threatening. It’s moved to the internet, probably. People find a way to survive, which is what prostitution is. Certainly it’s nobody’s career choice.”

But as Everson said, East Sprague has changed, a refrain heard from many business owners there.

“This rap that East Sprague has is just not true,” said Rick Gimeno, of Rick’s Kar Korner. “Twenty, 30 years ago, it was worse. It was a lot worse. But the people who live in this area are good, hard-working people. It’s a normal neighborhood. It’s not a bad neighborhood.”

Gimeno said the only way to finally put the Sprague reputation to rest is through new business.

“I’ve dealt with this East Sprague persona, the bad rap, and this is the first step I’ve seen to bring families down to the area,” he said. “We need family friendly businesses. We don’t need any more pawn shops, or pot shops.”

New developers, new vision

Steve Schmautz’s most recognizable project is the redevelopment of the American Legion building downtown, closely followed by his recent renovation of the building that houses the Spokane Comedy Club, Pinot’s Palette and Gamers Arcade Bar.

Last year, companies owned by Schmautz purchased two key properties on East Sprague: the Pilastro Building next to the Bay Market, and the old Quality Garage and Service Station on the northwest corner of Sprague and Napa that, until recently, was home to the Teen Challenge Thrift Store.

For many on the street, Schmautz’s presence and investment on the street are signs that a resurgence is real. That includes Carlos Herrera, general manager at Schmautz’s real estate company, SDS Realty.

“Steve’s been here a long time. He’s been in the business a long time. He looks for buildings that he thinks are cool and he looks at areas that can be revitalized,” Herrera said.

Herrera said Schmautz decided to invest on East Sprague because he knew the city was funding street improvements.

“It’s out on the edge of downtown, but we think the edge of town is going to get better,” he said. “We’re going to get the right tenant in there. Their business will thrive, then the neighborhood thrives, then our investment thrives.”

Schmautz isn’t the only newcomer. Rob Brewster, who made his name downtown with his work on the Hutton Building and Montvale Hotel before the recession hit, bought the McKinley School just north of Sprague last year. It was used for storage for decades, but now it’s completely empty. No more false walls. No more pigeons. Just old classrooms, dust and a lot of potential.

Brewster said he’s trying to get a brewery, distillery and music venue in the building, with plenty more room for office space, but nothing is finalized.

“We’re still working through our plans for the building. We bought it in part because we want to see the neighborhood change and help facilitate that,” said Brewster, who owns a number of buildings in Portland and Seattle. “It’s one of the coolest neighborhoods in town, one of the most fascinating districts in the state. It’s interesting to see the state it’s in.”

Like Herrera, Brewster credits the city’s investment on Sprague for his desire to invest in the neighborhood.

But the idea to point public money like a laser at East Sprague, which is credited to City Council President Ben Stuckart, wouldn’t have happened at all if it weren’t for the longtime business owners on the street, Brewster said.

“At the end of the day, the credit needs to go to them,” Brewster said of the East Spokane Business Association, which Hanley once led. “And Ben Stuckart. They really are a creative and active group.”

Both Brewster and Herrera said the next year is important to the street’s future.

“We have to hit it hard, and next year’s a key year,” Herrera said. “You got to go while the iron’s hot. The city’s done revamping the area. We have to make big steps in refurbishing and rebuilding. We don’t want it stalling out.”

Brewster said other, older property owners sitting on vacant buildings need to either renovate their buildings or sell.

“If the rest of the neighborhood doesn’t change, it will be difficult,” he said. “We really need the participation of the rest of the neighborhood.”

Brewster didn’t mention the Tormino family, but Stuckart did, in the context of his vision for the street.

“I see more people on the street. I hope some restaurant comes down there. That will really help with bringing more people out,” he said. “And I hope that some of those buildings the Tormino family owns will start moving and become housing instead of storage. I’ve got a wish list of 40 items I’d like to see. But we have a good foundation.”

Calls to the Tormino family for comment were not returned.

And though both admitted it was an imperfect comparison, Stuckart and Brewster looked to the southern edge of the divided neighborhood, on the other side of I-90, as a reason to believe in Sprague’s resurgence.

“I always use Perry as an example,” Stuckart said. “Once you get business going, the street transforms.”

Brewster agreed.

“Perry Street is such a good example of how you can turn a neighborhood around,” he said.

“In many cities like Portland, Seattle, Boise, Denver, you’re seeing a lot of expansion in these little, historic neighborhoods. I think it’s finally happening in Spokane.”