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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘We’re in that shift’: 300-unit U District housing development will transform contaminated site and signals larger changes

Oct. 25, 2020 Updated Sun., Oct. 25, 2020 at 1:32 p.m.

If you went to the narrow strip of land at the bottom of the bend in the Spokane River just east of downtown in 1905, you would have found the new home of the Spokane Manufactured Gas Plant and the American Tar Company.

If you’d returned a century later, in 2005, you would have found the Department of Ecology overseeing the site’s cleanup after a century of industrial uses, when the site was home to not only the gas plant and the tar company but also to a natural gas storage and distribution facility, a rail line and Brown Building Materials.

If you return there today, you’ll find a mostly blank, 13-acre slate of flat ground that’s bisected by the Hamilton Street bridge and bordered by East Martin Luther King Jr. Way to the south and the Ben Burr Trail running along the riverbank to the north.

And if you come back sometime in the near future, you are likely find something else entirely: a sleek and dense mixed-use development that will be home to some 400 people living in four apartment buildings, including two that will rise taller than the bridge, which will provide the roof for a covered, private space with a dog park, play area, bocce ball court and volleyball court.

At least that’s the transformative vision described in city and state documents that detail what Phoenix-based developer Sagamore Spokane, which did not return requests for comment about its plans, has in mind for the space.

If the proposal makes it over its last few regulatory hurdles, as expected, work should begin soon, said Lars Gilberts, CEO of the University District, which will be home to the apartment project.

“As soon as they have all of the green lights that they need, they’re going to be moving forward,” Gilberts said.

‘A missing link’

Spokane City Councilwoman Candace Mumm said this week that the project’s start date can’t come fast enough.

She has been concerned about housing in the University District since the 770-acre area on the east end of downtown began its transition from a jumbled mix of railroad tracks and warehouses to a higher ed hub that is home to all or part of five universities, two community colleges and two medical schools.

While the district combines a wide variety of uses and amenities, there is one thing it has long lacked: a place for people to live.

“When the schools decided they were not going to be providing housing, my heart sank,” Mumm said. While “we hadn’t intended the University District campus to be a commuter campus,” Mumm continued, that’s what it became.

Now, however, that seems to be changing – and Mumm thinks the effects may be felt far beyond the bounds of the district.

She said the $45-million project, which is known as River Bend in city planning documents and as the District on the River in a packet prepared for an April meeting of the city’s Design Review Board, could help serve as a “connector” for a “missing link” in the city.

“I really think that it addresses our housing needs, not only in the University District but also citywide,” Mumm said. “A place to put 400 people in a very condensed space that would provide services is something I think the city is always looking for.”

Among those who might be attracted to the complex, she said, are students, faculty and staff from the other side of the river, where Gonzaga University’s demands for housing have put a lot of “stress and impact” on the Logan neighborhood.

“It’s close enough that it might be of interest to them as well,” she said.

Gilberts said he too sees the project as one piece in Spokane’s much larger and trickier housing puzzle.

“Spokane’s in a housing crunch,” he said. “So I think part of our solution as a community is having diverse housing options and integrated communities. … I think this is offering a key housing option that hasn’t been here. It isn’t the whole solution. I think we need thousands of more homes in Spokane proper, and I’m glad this will add a few hundred more.”

And while the project’s location is somewhat out of the way, in an area that is still associated more with industrial than residential uses, both Mumm and Gilberts point to improvements in the local transportation system that could increase its potential to serve large numbers of people.

In 2016, part of the parcel that is now slated to serve as River Bend’s future home was dedicated for the construction of Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Then, this summer, WSDOT began work on a three-year project to demolish and replace the East Trent Bridge. The city and Sagamore Spokane are also working on plans to extend the Ben Burr Trail to the Iron Bridge and create a loop around the river, connecting Gonzaga, the University District and the apartment complex.

“It really has all those transportation amenities that you look for,” Mumm said.

‘We want to be careful’

When Jim Hanley says he is “very actively involved in the (East Central) neighborhood,” he means it. In addition to serving as the chief financial officer of Tin Roof Furniture on East Sprague, he’s the vice chair of the East Central Neighborhood Council, president of the East Sprague Business Improvement District Board and secretary of the East Spokane Business Association.

He said he’s “excited about the project,” in large part for the same reason Mumm is: It will help house students, faculty and staff from area universities. He said he’s also optimistic it will drive more people to the revitalized strip of East Sprague Avenue that is home to his family’s growing business.

Hanley’s enthusiasm does come with some reservations, though.

“One way or another,” he said, the development “will certainly cause some traffic problems.”

That’s a concern shared by Phil Altmeyer, the executive director of the Union Gospel Mission, which operates a men’s shelter that will be the planned development’s nearest neighbor.

When the city’s hearing examiner considered (and ultimately approved last month) Sagamore’s proposal, Altmeyer raised the only concerns, pointing out that the two-lane Martin Luther King Jr. Way “may not be sufficient to handle the traffic from this project” and that the planned 168 on-site parking space may not be enough.

That’s 99 spaces fewer than the city would usually require. But in a letter to the developer’s representative, Tami Palmquist, the city’s principal planner, granted an exception, citing the developer’s plan to include 165 bicycle spaces and “facilitate a program for residents to check out branded, electric scooters” as well as the fact that the Spokane Transit Authority’s Route 29 bus will pass by the front of the complex, among other factors.

“I’m kind of walking a fine line,” Altmeyer said in an interview with The Spokesman-Review. “I don’t want to come across as a negative neighbor. Development’s going to happen. It’s a fascinating concept.”

But he also continued to express doubt about whether enough would be done to offset the parking and traffic issues.

“They believe that most people are going to walk and ride bikes,” he said. “If they do, great.”

And while Hanley said he foresees and welcomes more housing development in East Central, including on WSDOT land that may no longer be needed for the North Spokane Corridor’s connection to I-90, he also wants to ensure projects like River Bend don’t catalyze a wave of residential development that encroaches on the land zoned for light industrial uses that lies further to the east, south of Trent Avenue.

“We want to be careful that we don’t get involved in a big redo of the light industrial and either force out the businesses that are in the East Central light industrial area or make it such that it makes difficult for people to operate in this area,” he said. “If we want to keep the employment base within the city of Spokane, this is one place where we can do that and there’s not much light industrial around Spokane. Otherwise, the jobs go out to the industrial park or go to Idaho or move somewhere else and that means more traffic and more people moving.”

‘How to be a city’

While all signs point toward River Bend – or the District on the River, as renderings indicate it will be named – moving forward, it is not yet an officially done deal.

Construction permits for the project have been filed with the city but are still being reviewed, and the Department of Ecology is still considering – and accepting public comment on – an amendment to the site’s cleanup plan that is designed to “preserve the cleanup actions already in place, prevent contaminants from leaving the site during construction, and protect occupants of the new buildings,” according to the department’s website.

Once those boxes are checked, the buildings are raised and the covered bocce ball court is in use, the site’s radical transformation from tar-production site to 21st century housing development will be complete. And that may just be the beginning of a larger shift.

Mumm said she’s “surprised” more developers “haven’t jumped on the opportunity” to build housing in the area.

“I think it’s about time somebody pays attention to our housing needs around the University District,” Mumm said. “I’m glad these folks have stepped up, and I hope others do too.”

There are signs that they are.

A Portland developer recently filed a permit application to build a seven-story, 136-unit apartment building at 15 N. Grant St., southwest of the University District Gateway Bridge, which spans Martin Luther King Jr. Way and some railroad tracks to link the district to East Sprague Avenue.

And Gilberts indicated there’s more to come, with another development “hopefully becoming more public in the next few weeks and months.”

He also suggested that the coming change in the University District is part of a broader reshaping of both Spokane’s built environment and its identity.

“I think one of the things Spokane is figuring out is how to be a city,” he said. “We’ve been kind of a large town and a small city, and we’re in that shift.”

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