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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

What will become of Spokane’s East Side Library? Community advocates have ideas and want to hear yours

By Adam Shanks and Amber D. Dodd The Spokesman-Review

As its shelves sit empty of books and desks clear of computers, the East Side Library appears cavernous.

After decades as a branch of the Spokane Public Library, this space next to the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center in East Central is empty, replaced by the new Liberty Park Library building a few blocks west that opened on Friday.

From a police precinct to a cultural center, the ideas for its future are numerous.

This week, Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson sponsored a resolution calling for a community-driven process in determining what next inhabits the East Side Library.

Wilkerson said she heard a litany of potential uses for the former library.

“Since there were so many ideas, I thought it only fair to park it and let the community have a real conversation,” Wilkerson said. “It would give us pause to get a more holistic approach to it.”

Because the building is owned by the city, it will have the final say on what – or who – moves in.

The conversation comes at a period of change for the neighborhood, which still carries the historical weight of policies like redlining and the construction of Interstate 90, which cleaved the neighborhood. The census tract that surrounds the East Side Library is twice as racially diverse as the city as a whole, and its residents have lower annual incomes and a higher rate of unemployment.

The neighborhood’s future is perhaps best embodied by the 5th Avenue Initiative, which aims to harness the assets of East Central and translate them into economic development and opportunity for its residents.

Roads are being fixed up, CHAS has opened a new dental clinic, a brand new public library opened Friday and the Carl Maxey Center is setting down roots in East Central.

Wilkerson envisions the city conducting an online survey, hosting community forums and packing information alongside city utility bills to garner community feedback about the future of the East Side Library building.

She has her own thoughts on what would be a good fit inside that space, but said “whatever the community agrees on, that’s what I’ll support.”

Wilkerson said she hopes that, whatever the tenant, it maintains a presence through weekends, as the campus is currently dark from Friday evening until Monday morning. She also hopes it is an occupant that is focused on the neighborhood.

“It could be a magnet for other opportunities,” Wilkerson said.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center , which sits directly next to the East Side Library, hosts several social services, including a food bank and programs for children.

Its executive director, Freda Gandy, would like to see a police precinct in the former library. On Thursday, she noted, a man suspected of a carjacking showed up with a machete. Luckily, the center was closed to the public, but its staff still had to call 911.

The community center offers myriad services and programs, but the “community has to feel safe accessing them,” Gandy said. She noted the several shootings that occurred in the neighborhood in recent years, which are believed by police to be gang-related.

Gandy believes the presence of police will help deter incidents like Thursday’s.

“Police presence, cars, that deters crime, everyone knows that,” Gandy said. “I don’t think you’ll be standing out there with a machete if police cars are in the parking lot.”

The police department’s current south precinct is located on East First Avenue. It’s about five blocks from the community center, but those blocks are split by Interstate 90.

Wilkerson bristles at the notion of a police precinct in the former library, fearing that it perpetuates an image of East Central as low-income and crime-ridden.

“Others would like that to be an economic engine to activate that campus, because it is in the heart” of the neighborhood, Wilkerson said.

Violent crime in the police department’s south-central district , which includes East Central, is up 24% in 2021 compared to last year, according to police data. But 2020 was an aberration. The number of violent crimes reported in the district so far this year is less than those tallied through the first week of November in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Even if neighborhood leaders don’t agree on whether the East Side Library is a good fit for a police precinct, they agree that policing should be community-oriented.

If a police precinct is rejected, Gandy said her organization would like to work with CHAS or Frontier Behavioral Health to offer mental health services from that location.

The East Central Neighborhood Council is holding a special session on Nov. 16, during which it will attempt to come to a consensus on the best future use for the East Side Library and petition the city, in a resolution, to follow that plan.

So far, there have been mixed ideas tossed around, said Randy McGlenn II, chair of the neighborhood council.

As the neighborhood council chair, McGlenn said he wants to be sure that people have an opportunity to be heard, and for a decision to be made that the whole neighborhood can get behind.

But as an individual, McGlenn said he’d support melding the East Side Library into the adjacent community center campus.

“It makes sense to incorporate the library into the campus there – it just helps to make that more of a streamlined facility there,” McGlenn said.

Mayor Nadine Woodward plans to attend the neighborhood council meeting and is open to community ideas.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who like Wilkerson represents that section of the city, said she’s keeping an open mind, as well.

“Given its proximity to the community center, something that’s complementary would be probably a good idea, but ultimately it has to have buy-in from the community,” Kinnear said.