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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘You will see a very dramatic change in West Central’: Tax district extension raises expectations of neighborhood improvement

Liz Marlin acknowledges it’s hard to calculate just how much an extension granted Monday to the city’s West Quadrant tax increment financing district will raise for affordable housing, sidewalk improvements and perhaps a makeover for West Broadway Avenue in West Central.

But the number “that sounds most accurate” to Marlin is about $20 million.

And the effect that infusion of cash for public projects in the long-neglected neighborhood would be “enormous, absolutely enormous,” said Marlin, the chairwoman of the West Central Neighborhood Council.

That optimism about the future potential for the TIF to transform West Central is notable, in part, because of the disappointment Marlin and many of her neighbors have felt about its first 13 years

Established in 2007, the West Quadrant TIF was designed to cover the cost of “some of the infrastructure of improvements for Kendall Yards,” according to Jim Frank, whose Greenstone Corp. was the driving force behind the transformation of a former industrial site into the thriving mixed-use neighborhood in West Central.

TIFs are designed to capture increases in property tax revenue and reinvest them in predetermined areas in order to make public infrastructure improvements that will drive private development.

When a TIF was being set up to aid Frank’s development, he said his group “asked if it could include West Central, because we wanted West Central to benefit from what was happening in Kendall Yards.” At the time, he said, the neighborhood was “caught in a cycle of disinvestment” that he hoped to help turn around.

In response, the city created a district with two subareas, Frank said. One included Kendall Yards. The other included not only West Central but also a long, skinny extension up Monroe Street through Emerson-Garfield, as well as an arm reaching out to include part of the Riverside neighborhood in downtown and Riverfront Park.

Over the next decade, the Great Recession put a damper on expectations about how much the district would raise, while the funds that were raised were largely spent outside West Central itself.

Some money was funneled to Emerson-Garfield, funding a major overhaul of North Monroe. Then, last year, the Spokane City Council voted to spend $500,000 from the fund to help repair a worn pedestrian suspension bridge crossing the north channel of the Spokane River in Riverfront Park.

It was that 2019 vote that catalyzed outrage and action in the neighborhood, according to Jessie Norris, secretary of the nonprofit REACH West Central.

Many of her neighbors, Norris said, felt spending money on the bridge was “a misuse of the funds.”

“Suddenly, there were a lot of people who were up in arms,” she said. “I think the neighborhood was beginning to understand that if they wanted something to happen, they had to start taking action.”

Norris said members of the nonprofit reached out to its City Council members, Karen Stratton and Candace Mumm, to “see if there were other sources of funding.” They also invited Frank to a meeting, which proved a turning point in their efforts.

Frank suggested the neighborhood seek an extension of the TIF, to give it more time to accrue money, and “mentored” REACH and the neighborhood council through the process of getting City Council to give one, Norris said.

At Monday’s council meeting, they unanimously agreed to do so, pushing the expiration date back from 2032 to 2047.

And there was another important change in the terms of the district: After 2032, all funds collected in the Kendall Yards subarea will be directed to the neighborhoods.

“So that means not only will the neighborhoods get the regular revenue that was structured for them, but will also get that increment for Kendall Yards,” Stratton said.

Stratton also pointed out another important recent change that will boost the possibilities of the TIF: a change in state law this year that allows the money to go toward affordable housing.

“That was a big deal,” Frank said.

The law defines affordable housing as housing that goes to people making less than 80% of median income. It also stipulates that the housing remain open only to people in that category for the next 25 years, if the property is to be sold, or for the next 40 years, if it is for renters, Frank said.

Marlin, of the neighborhood council, said that mechanism will allow for “diverse, accessible, entry-level” affordable housing to be integrated into the neighborhood. That, she said, will help balance a desire to boost investment in the neighborhood with a hope that long-time, low-income residents aren’t displaced.

Gentrification is “bad for everyone,” but so is a lack of jobs, broken sidewalks and difficulty accessing basic services, like health care, Marlin said.

“We can use this in a smart way that benefits everybody in the community,” she said.

Frank echoed that hope.

“Over 20 years you will see a very dramatic change in West Central,” Frank said. “And what’s nice about this, it will reduce the displacement in West Central. Because even now, with nothing, housing prices are going up in West Central at a rate that is causing displacement of the existing residents. … So this program will have an effect of reducing that displacement, and that’s a very positive thing for the neighborhood, and it will help maintain a strong economic and social diversity within the neighborhood. And the neighborhood very much wants that.”

While there’s optimism about the extension, Norris sounded a note of caution: The Spokane County Board of Commissioners still has to approve it, as the tax district also captures money that otherwise would be sent to the county’s general fund.

But Frank said the county has already agreed to spend its portion of the money on its campus, which includes the county courthouse, the Spokane Regional Health Building and numerous surface parking lots.

He and Norris said the county has floated the idea of consolidating those lots into a new parking structure, and creating a new public plaza as well as space for new developments.

With so many possibilities and opportunities, Marlin said the neighborhood plans to work with the TIF’s project advisory committee and enlist a professional planner to help “guide the planning process” to “create a strategic plan for how to use these TIF dollars for the betterment of the community.” Norris also pointed to a 2012 neighborhood action plan that could help guide what projects are pursued.

For Norris, a resident of West Central for 41 years, the district’s extension is a rare opportunity she doesn’t want to let slip away.

“We’ve lost out so many times in the past,” she said. “But now this is something we can’t lose out on.”

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