A 5-acre industrial site sold to the city of Spokane for $1 in 1899 just fetched $2.7 million from a private developer.
The Normandie site at 127 W. Mission covers two full city blocks and was purchased Monday by Liquidation Holdings Co., a subsidiary of RenCorp Realty, which is owned by Chris Batten.
Following a City Council vote approving the sale Monday afternoon, Batten said he and his partners in the project were still determining how best to use the land and its aging buildings, but said they wanted to create a “neighborhood-centered urban village.”
Batten would not name his partners in the project, but said they plan to preserve some of the historic buildings on the site, which for a century was used largely for vehicle maintenance.
“There are several structures on the property that have some good historic value. There are others that have no value,” he said. “We’ll restore those buildings that make sense and build around them.”
Batten owns or partly owns a number of buildings around town. The two-level former Huppin’s building on Main Avenue was purchased and redeveloped into restaurants by a trio of business owners that included Batten for $1.25 million in 2013. They also own the building next door that housed Dutch’s Musical Instruments. Batten is part owner of the Numerica building on Riverside Avenue and Stevens Street, the old New Madison Hotel on the west end of downtown and the SoDo Commons, an apartment building on Third Avenue that he renovated and painted an arresting red.
Current zoning on the Normandie site only allows for office and retail uses, but Batten said he envisioned a “mix of residential and commercial uses.” Batten also said he considered the two-block lot a “missing piece of connectivity” between downtown and the Emerson-Garfield neighborhood.
“It’s pretty well situated,” he said.
The Normandie site has been used for a variety reasons by the city over the decades, including vehicle maintenance, storage and printing. Following the 2015 construction of the $16.5 million Spokane Central Service Center in the Chief Garry neighborhood, the city moved its fleet and street operations there and surplussed the Normandie property.
The site’s zoning rules allow for buildings to be as tall as 150 feet. Recent footage from an unmanned aerial vehicle taken for the city shows the view downtown from that height, offering an uncommon view of downtown’s familiar skyline.
In September 2017, the city was marketing the site for sale at $4.25 million. The property is assessed at $2.86 million, according to Spokane County property records, just above the $2.7 million Batten paid.
Brian Coddington, the city spokesman, said that the lower selling price was acceptable to the city’s administration.
“The goal is always to get as much as possible off the sale of property,” he said. “But you never quite know what the market value is.”
Coddington said no other properties have been approved for surplus. “A few dozen” other properties may be surplussed, but first they must be reviewed by the city’s Real Estate Review Committee and approved by the City Council.
More important, Coddington said, is that the property is going into private hands, will be developed and generate property taxes.
The site has been used for more than a century as a maintenance facility for the city’s fleet, and an environmental report of the site done in 2016 reflects the pollution such use can leave behind. Petroleum contaminated soil and oil stains were found in many locations, and numerous underground storage tanks are still buried there, most of which are in unknown locations. Also, a used car lot once operated on the premises along with two lumber mills on adjacent properties.
Batten has a 90-day due diligence period, during which he can back out of the sale if he finds the property is “not suitable,” according to the sale agreement. Coddington said the city believed no other pollution would be uncovered on the site.
“That’s our anticipation,” he said.
Batten said the city’s evaluation had assured him that no new contamination would turn up.
“Initially we had reservations about it, but the city has gone out and given us a certain amount of confidence that we shouldn’t be worried,” he said.
Batten said his team had offered the city less than what they ended up paying, but were confident in the value of the property after taking into consideration the project’s “added value.”
He pointed to the city’s recent move to expand the boundaries of the Multiple Family Housing Tax Exemption, which cuts taxes for apartment and condo projects, and the Historic Preservation Tax Exemption as two incentives he plans to use on the project.
“This is a real opportunity,” he said. “We’re going to dig pretty deep and look for that value.”
The city acquired the land in 1899 from John J. Browne, a businessman from Portland who helped found the city of Spokane and his namesake neighborhood. He got one dollar out of the deal.
One of the earliest published mentions of the site came in a Spokane Daily Chronicle article from September 1910. At the time, the city owned just four automobiles: one each for the health department, fire chief, the engineering department and the board of public works. A one-story brick building was built at Mission and Normandie to maintain the vehicles.
“The city’s chauffeurs will themselves care for the machines when the new building is finished,” the article said.
Before then, the city’s fire chief, William Joice, was using a horse and buggy, but city commissioners appropriated $4,000 to buy him a car.
Two years after the new garage was built, and more than a decade after the city acquired the land, property records still showed that the “city yards” belonged to Browne and that he owed $87.80 in back taxes. The property, valued between $100,000 and $200,000 at the time, was put on the auction block by the city treasurer, A.A. Lewis, to recoup the delinquent taxes.
“Just before Lewis uttered ‘sold’ someone discovered it was the city yards at Sinto and Normandie that were being sold and Lewis withdrew the property,” the Chronicle reported in 1912.
In 1957, the city built a $300,000 central garage for its then-substantial vehicle fleet, which had been tallied at 503 earlier that year by the Chronicle. The garage had been discussed for nearly two decades by the time it was constructed. When complete, it contained 16 stalls for servicing vehicles, had storage space for 42 more cars and contained 300 snow tires, a blacksmith, welder and was “rated 85 percent daylight for workmen.”
But all was not well.
Within a year, a new public works commissioner, Harold McKenna, had been elected. He fired the garage superintendent and, a month later, said another $500,000 was needed to be invested in the “nightmare” garage to make it suitable for all city vehicles. His criticisms of the garage included the basement door that was three feet too short for city trucks and there was “no space for body and fender work.”
In 1966, the controversy had blown over and the Chronicle praised the workers of the “City Garage,” who maintained “73 passenger cars, 36 police cars, 31 pickups, 88 trucks, three scooters (for Meter Maids), nine street sweepers, 17 graders and 33 other miscellaneous pieces of street maintenance equipment.”
The article pointed out that the garage’s “blacksmith shop shod no horses in 1965.”
In 1983, the city manager, Terry Novak, proposed closing Normandie and relocating to another city property near Hamilton Street and North Foothills Drive.
It didn’t happen. In 2009, city leaders were still attempting to get the garage out of Normandie when Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick and Mayor Mary Verner targeted the block as the potential site of a new evidence storage facility. Voters didn’t approve a property tax increase to foot the bill for construction, and support fell short of the 60 percent needed to pass.
Today, the city’s fleet numbers 1,086. There are no more horses, and exactly one electric car.
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