Spokane’s mayor asked the City Council to reconsider a land deal with the Union Gospel Mission, saying its vote backing out of the agreement could cost the city a grant that would have paid for a project to keep pollutants out of the Spokane River.
The Spokane City Council effectively nixed the agreement Monday when it indefinitely tabled the deal. The majority of the council members said they were concerned the city was giving away too much land. The deal, which first came before the council earlier this month, was previously deferred after community members spoke out against Union Gospel, saying the city shouldn’t be doing business with an organization that requires religious participation and doesn’t allow transgender people to stay in its shelter.
The city planned to build a stormwater treatment project on the land owned by Union Gospel in exchange for several nearby parcels. The mission would have maintained the area where the stormwater treatment tank was built and the area would remain a small park.
The project is part of the city’s work to stop the flow of untreated stormwater into the river.
Mayor David Condon said the project has been in the works for years and the city could lose a $1 million grant from the state Department of Ecology tied to the project’s timeline and location.
“Forgoing a $1 million plus grant is flabbergasting to me,” Condon said.
Condon penned a letter to City Council members Tuesday asking them to re-examine the benefits the project offered to the community, and how much a delay could end up costing the city.
In his letter, he said the exchange also includes a section that would complete the Ben Burr Trail, which is a part of the city’s bike and pedestrian plan.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said the council had previously thought the deal was a land swap. He said vacating streets and giving up control of property in exchange for getting to use the Union Gospel Mission’s land was not a fair trade.
In another part of the deal, the city would vacate one block each of Erie and Denver streets, which are adjacent to the mission. City officials say they no longer need to maintain those blocks as a result of the newly-built Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
“They were basically giving them two streets plus two different plots of land just for us to be able to build something on those plots of land,” he said. “I don’t think anybody agreed that was a fair financial deal to the city.”
Stuckart said community members’ concerns about UGM’s policies was not connected to his decision to table the deal, and he would have voted the same way if the city had been negotiating with a corporation.
He said the city still needs to find a way to build a stormwater treatment, but staff should look for a more creative solution.
The city’s director of engineering Kyle Twohig said there are few options for the city outside of working with Union Gospel to filter stormwater.
The other areas with land that could be used are too small for the project and are far more expensive.
He said the Union Basin stormwater area has more contaminants than other stormwater basins in the city because of the history of industrial activity in the area. Stormwater currently flows directly into the Spokane River and will continue to do so until the project is finished.
“Of our stormwater projects, this is the most important,” he said.
He said he hoped to continue to discuss the Union Gospel deal with the City Council and would have to shelve the project for a year if the council would not consider this location.
Spokane City Councilman Breean Beggs said he opposed the deal because it seemed like the city was giving away more financial benefits than it was receiving. He said he also was concerned by comments the mission’s director, Phil Altmeyer, made during a committee meeting Monday about making the land a part of UGM’s campus. Beggs said that could mean people could be excluded from the area.
Beggs said land that the city builds on should be open to the public.
The land the city would use for the stormwater project is known as Harry Altmeyer Park, named in honor of Phil Altmeyer’s father, the previous director of UGM.
Phil Altmeyer said the nonprofit wasn’t considering selling the park, and wanted to use it as a part of its drug-free campus.
He said there are other city parks that are open to the public and maintaining control of the land around them allows UGM to have a safe, drug-free environment for the men staying in the shelter. It also allows them to keep people who may be causing issues by camping, or selling drugs, away from the shelter.
Beggs said the city could potentially use eminent domain to acquire the property. City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said eminent domain is not a viable option because the city had a way to acquire the property voluntarily, so the courts probably would ask them to go back to an earlier negotiated solution.
Altmeyer said the land deal benefits both parties and it would be unfortunate if the city, which has spent millions on homeless services, forced the shelter to give up a park it is using to serve homeless people.
“I think it would be sad if we had to come to that place,” he said.
Councilwoman Candace Mumm, one of the five council members who tabled the proposal, said she wasn’t opposed to the deal overall, but hoped for more time to understand the maintenance agreement before locking the city into a deal that would last for decades. Mumm said she would like to explore buying the land, but if that is not an option, she would be willing to negotiate with the mission.
“I would reconsider a deal if we had more information and a sale is off the table,” she said.
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