Two empty lots in the heart of Spokane’s South Perry District have quite a story to tell.
An old house stood for decades before being demolished for a pay-to-park lot. When neighbors protested, developers changed tack and now envision housing of the future made from a wood product as strong as stone.
The lots have sat vacant since 2016, when a father-son development team envisioned a parking lot stretching between 10th and 11th avenues behind the popular Perry Street Brewing and South Perry Pizza restaurants.
Cody Coombs, the son in that team, is now leading a team of architects, engineers and builders that wants to use cross-laminated timber to build modular housing on the lots. Imagine human-sized LEGOs made from wood scraps glued together to be as solid as concrete. Now imagine building a house with them.
It’s an exciting story to tell – if only someone would tell it.
Coombs has been active in Spokane’s neighborhood centers for years. In 2013, he and his father built the building occupied by Perry Street Brewing. They also renovated the East Sprague Avenue building where Bennidito’s Pizza opened a second location in 2014. Dave Coombs, Cody’s father, owned the downtown Honda and Toyota dealerships before selling them in 2009 to focus on real estate.
But the younger Coombs, who is also redeveloping a historic downtown warehouse, just won’t talk.
“He really cares about the community, but he’s shy,” said Mike Bradley, project manager for Beacon Builders, which is involved in the Perry housing project called Block House. The team is also building a house in Spokane Valley called Matt’s Place, which is being built specifically for Matt Wild, who was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis in 2015.
While Bradley speaks enthusiastically about the Perry project, the details are left to Coombs, who isn’t telling.
How many units will be on the land? Six to ten, maybe. Will they be separate units or joined with shared walls? Unsure. Will they be apartments or condos?
“I don’t know,” said Bradley. “If he knows, he’s not telling me.”
How about an illustration of what the units may look like?
“Those guys are still not ready to release any more details,” Bradley wrote in an email.
Plans filed with the city are just as inscrutable. One plan shows ten units clustered and sharing walls on the north end of the lots, near 10th. Another shows them separated, like small homes. A parking lot for the units is on 11th. And that’s about it.
Still, Bradley is excited about what may happen, and is sure the rest of us will be when we see it come true.
“There’s a shortage of affordable quality housing in urban centers everywhere. We don’t want to build a bunch of crap. We want to build nice things, but it has to make sense financially,” he said, adding that their business plan is to use the low cost of labor in Spokane to build housing in Seattle and – hopefully – help to bring the cost of housing down there.
“In my more excited moments, I think about how Montgomery Wards and Sears Roebuck were selling homes like this and shipping them out on the rails,” Bradley said of kit homes. “Well, it’s been 150 years and we’re still stick-framing, so there are challenges to this that haven’t been worked out yet.”
But they’re trying. The Block House group is a collaboration of DCI engineers, Miller Hull architects, Berg Manufacturing, Beacon Builders and Coombs. They have factory space near the McKinley School in the East Central neighborhood where the first unit prototypes are being built.
If all goes as planned, Bradley said the housing will be “like a product that you can put anywhere. Mix and match and modular. You will be able to build an apartment that you can’t tell was built modular-ly.”
As for Perry being used as test site, neighbors last week were generally supportive. Still, they were mindful that Perry’s explosive growth in recent years has led to new, sometimes contradictory, needs.
Lyndee Elmer has lived across the street from the development site for three years, and is glad the plans for a parking lot were jettisoned. But she’s worried that any housing built there will be too expensive and out of character in the neighborhood.
“I don’t think we need more parking. It’s the seven days out of the year we have a problem, not on your average Saturday or Sunday,” she said. “But I would’ve liked to see more of a community building space, something more neighborhood-centric.”
Across the street, however, Julie Jorgensen lamented the abandoned plans for a parking lot.
“I don’t know why they didn’t let them build a parking lot,” said Jorgensen, who moved to the neighborhood a year and a half ago. “We have to make sure we’re home before the farmer’s market otherwise we have nowhere to park.”
As for the housing, Jorgensen had one response: “There’s just going to be even less parking.”
Around the corner, Kyle Bernier was walking his dog, Ana, with a growler full of Northwest Pale Ale from Perry Street Brewing dangling from his finger.
“I think it’s great,” he said of the new housing. “As much as we can get going in the neighborhood, and as many nice places we can get in the neighborhood, the better. It’s one of the best places in Spokane.”
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