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

On heels of developers’ testimony, commission recommends ending building height restrictions

Some of the deepest pockets and most influential developers in downtown Spokane gave the city’s Plan Commission the hard sell this week: Lift restrictions on building heights and let the “free market” do its work.

Now, some very large buildings may be coming to the urban core, following the unanimous recommendation from the Plan Commission on Wednesday to lift rules limiting building height on properties fronting Riverfront Park.

The decision came just after the board of directors for the Downtown Spokane Partnership – which represents a range of businesses in the city’s core, and which held its own meeting in a nearby City Hall meeting room directly before the Plan Commission’s hearing – offered testimony on the issue.

One by one, the developers and other influential real estate representatives stood before the Plan Commission and appealed for fewer rules and more flexibility for building along Spokane Falls Boulevard.

“This isn’t a one- or two-property owner issue here,” said Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership. “This is a downtown issue.”

Dave Black, CEO of the real estate company NAI Black, began a refrain that would be echoed by following speakers, proclaiming, “Let the free market decide.”

The change in policy is aimed at two mostly vacant city blocks between Spokane Falls Boulevard and Main Avenue on either side of Stevens Street, which are largely used for surface parking.

The vote reverses nearly a decade of policy that required any buildings built along Spokane Falls Boulevard to shrink in size for each story above 100 feet, in an effort to prevent too much shade from being cast on the park. That rule was instituted in 2009 as part of the Downtown Plan.

The vote also went against a recommendation from a subcommittee that urged rules limiting floors above 100 feet to 12,000 square feet per story. Instead, the full commission recommended higher floors be allowed to go up to 18,750 square feet per floor.

Other restrictions include a 50-foot buffer between the building’s towers built above 100 feet. The ground floor will be required to be at least 50 percent retail – banks, corporate offices and financial institutions do not qualify. Tower floors above 100 feet must be either residential or hotel.

The commission’s recommendation now goes to the City Council, which has the final say on any change to policy. A hearing has yet to be scheduled.

If Wednesday’s meeting is any indication, the heavy hitters of downtown Spokane will be back in the City Council chambers for the meeting, urging decision-makers to do away with all restrictions, whether about height or uses in the building.

Gary Bernardo, who founded Bernardo-Wills Architects with Bob Wills in 1991, said he was “perplexed” by the requirements for residential buildings, and urged fewer restrictions to allow the city’s Design Review Board to guide the building’s development.

Larry Stone, president of LB Stone Properties Group and SCAFCO, said the smaller floor plates in the initial subcommittee recommendation would squelch development. He said the city should let any project be flexible in order to allow for any use since it’s impossible to know what will be needed in the future.

Stone is currently developing a $60 million project called The Falls on the old YWCA property overlooking the Spokane River. It will feature two 13-story towers with hotel rooms, apartments, condos, office and retail space and underground parking, and is not affected by any changes to the rules.

Richard, with the DSP, said that recent attendees at a meeting of national convention organizers in Spokane said the city needed another “marquee” downtown hotel for conventiongoers.

Black said he’d recently been to New York City and London and saw how both Central and Hyde parks are surrounded by tall buildings.

“It enhances the park to have those buildings there,” he said.

Betsy Cowles, chairman of the Cowles Co., said the city should not limit height or uses, noting that Spokane is becoming more “urban.”

“We need height. We need density,” she said.

The Cowles Co. owns and publishes The Spokesman-Review. It also owns Centennial Properties, which has many parcels of land that would be affected by the change in policy, though all of its property is already built up, such as River Park Square and the former Macy’s building.

Other speakers in favor of lifting restrictions were Andrew Rolwes, public policy and parking manager at DSP; Susan Horton, president of Wheatland Bank; Michael Currin, an attorney with the law firm Witherspoon Kelley; Corey Barbieri, vice president of real estate and development company Goodale & Barbieri; Arthur Whitten, director of government affairs with the Spokane Home Builders Association; Gordon Hester, vice president of real estate company Kiemle Hagood; and Grant Keller, a developer in the South Perry District.

David Peterson, chief operating officer of Goodale & Barbieri, spoke against the restrictions as a representative of the owners of the multiple vacant parcels on two city blocks that would be directly affected by the change.

The largest property owner is Dru Hieber, whose family has owned the Bennett Block and surrounding properties for generations. Hieber and her family own the vacant land on the westernmost block between Howard and Stevens streets, which constitute about 1.5 acres and is assessed at more than $4.2 million.

Hieber and her family also own three vacant parcels in the block occupied by the Liberty Building through various companies, which are assessed at $1.4 million.

The remaining vacant parcels not owned by Hieber on the eastern block are owned by a company called PAC Operating, an arm of a real estate investment firm called Palmtree Acquisition Corp. Its parcels are assessed at $2.2 million. Palmtree Acquisition is listed by the state as being headquartered in Delaware and San Francisco. Peterson has said the owner doesn’t live in the state, and declined to share his name.

City Council President Ben Stuckart, the only elected official to speak at the hearing, was supportive of larger floors and less rules stifling growth, but warned that the new policy may face trouble passing if it didn’t include requirements for affordable housing.

Still, Stuckart said he is supportive of easing the existing rules.

“We are in the middle of a building boom,” he said. “We don’t need 76 parking lots in downtown Spokane.”

Though most speakers came from the DSP board meeting, a few testified against changing the rules.

Greg Chapman urged commission members to realize that development isn’t the only factor in Spokane’s vitality and to keep height restrictions.

Carol Ellis showed up with a poster board decked with photos of the park and surrounding development. She said the park was too important to allow shadows.

“Your job is to preserve important sites,” she said. “Defend what you got, and go back to the drawing board.”