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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

City plans upgrades to downtown lots beneath I-90 – if the state is on board

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 27, 2021

The former Under the Freeway skate park at Bernard Street and Fourth Avenue, shown Tuesday in downtown Spokane, is fenced off and not being used for parking. The city hopes to improve this block under Interstate 90 for parking but must sign a new lease with the Washington State Department of Transportation first.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
The former Under the Freeway skate park at Bernard Street and Fourth Avenue, shown Tuesday in downtown Spokane, is fenced off and not being used for parking. The city hopes to improve this block under Interstate 90 for parking but must sign a new lease with the Washington State Department of Transportation first. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

The image of a fenced-off former skatepark in the shaded underbelly of Interstate 90 might not scream “development opportunity.”

But the city of Spokane is eyeing investments in that lot and nearly a dozen others that sit beneath the thunderous freeway downtown, an area that has long vexed city officials trying to keep it free of vandalism and other illicit activity.

The city outlined a plan Monday to invest in projects, such as commissioning public murals and improving landscaping, to the lots it primarily subleases for use by nearby schools and businesses.

But the entire vision is contingent on Spokane inking a new agreement with the Washington State Department of Transportation.

The city is obligated to maintain the 12 lots under a 50-year lease with the department, which owns Interstate 90, that is set to expire in May. The city and state are now negotiating a new lease.

In negotiations that have stretched on for more than a year, David Steele, interim asset management director for the city of Spokane, said the Department of Transportation initially proposed sweeping any profit the city earns by managing the parking lots into the state’s own coffers. That was a concern for the city, which Steele said uses what little profit it earns to fund projects like recent gateway beautifications near highway ramps on Division, Maple and Monroe streets.

As part of a compromise offer, the city built a five-year investment plan for the parking lots, Steele said.

“That’s something that we’ve never tackled,” Steele told the Finance and Administration Committee on Monday.

If the city does sign a new lease with the state, “it would be on the term that we have the ability to program these areas, collect dollars and make significant investments,” Steele said.

“There’s no incentive for the city to do a tremendous amount of work and bear the brunt of all the phone calls if (the state) will not agree that these dollars need to stay in the system,” Steele said.

That means investing nearly $300,000 – all profit that the city has collected over the years by leasing the lots – on an array of improvement projects and lot maintenance.

The work would include touching up the gateways that have already been renovated.

“These are things that the community felt were significant, so we want to maintain our investment in those,” Steele said.

The city would also look to commission murals on empty walls, partly as a move to deter graffiti, which is a common issue beneath the overpass.

“One of the things we love about murals is the respect that mural art seems to gain, at least in the tagging community. A lot of times when we put these pieces of work up, it does cut down on the amount of graffiti on these walls,” Steele explained.

The city would also look to repair lighting, fences and walls that surround the lots.

One project would be to remove a fence that surrounds a former skate park not far from Lewis and Clark High School, which was closed after repeated calls to police regarding drug use and vandalism.

The project would pay for itself in about three years, Steele estimated, thanks to new lease revenue from a nearby business that has expressed interest in using the lot for off-street parking.

The parking lots are not much of a profit producer for the city, but the program has ended every year in the black after a stretch of consecutive losses 2013 through 2015, largely due to the investments made in the gateway projects.

In 2020, the city made about a $40,000 profit on managing the lots.

Expenses can vary from year to year, as the city addresses graffiti and damage to the properties.

If it chooses not to renew the lease with the state, the city has nearly $300,000 sitting in the Interstate 90 parking lot fund that it could reinvest elsewhere.

If the city and state cannot come to a new agreement, Steele said the state would likely manage the subleases itself.

“They could manage it, but they are very hesitant to say that’s something that they want to do,” Steele said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation did not return a request for comment.

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