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

A new City Hall? Spokane City Council mulls future of aging, costly building

Feb. 8, 2023 Updated Thu., Feb. 9, 2023 at 1:41 p.m.

The Spokane City Council is mulling the future of City Hall, currently housed in the aging former Montgomery Ward building.  (Christopher Anderson)
The Spokane City Council is mulling the future of City Hall, currently housed in the aging former Montgomery Ward building. (Christopher Anderson)

For a while now, the Spokane City Council has proposed buying a 103,000-square-foot campus on East Sprague Avenue, owned by Premera Blue Cross, and making it the new home of the city’s municipal court.

But could the campus also become a cheaper home for City Hall?

It’s unlikely, said Council President Breean Beggs. But City Hall probably needs to move, he added, and the city needs to start thinking where.

“There is a good chance that City Hall in the next five years will move from its current location or will fundamentally change,” he said. “But the odds of City Hall moving into the Premera campus, at the moment, are very low.”

On Monday, a resolution sponsored by Beggs and Councilman Michael Cathcart was put forward that would have studied the feasibility of moving City Hall and its hundreds of employees. While the study would have specifically looked at moving into the former insurance buildings, it would have produced some broadly useful information about what it would take to move into any other building, Beggs said in an interview.

Mayor Nadine Woodward is not necessarily opposed to selling the current City Hall building, spokesman Brian Coddington said in a Wednesday interview. But this would require a deep look at the costs and benefits of different strategies, such as compressing staff in City Hall and leasing some of the floors to outside organizations.

Studies have shown that the city is not fully using the space at City Hall. However, even if further study confirms that City Hall has to move, Woodward is staunchly opposed to moving it out of downtown Spokane, Coddington added.

“What kind of message would that send if the city is moving out of downtown?” he asked.

One study already underway will review the feasibility of moving municipal court services into the former health insurance campus. The current court facility is too small, to the point that it has caused concern over safety, according to city officials.

However, preliminary data suggested that the Premera campus could accommodate significantly more than the municipal court, prompting city leaders to ask what else could fit, said City Council Budget Manager Matt Boston.

There were early conversations that the campus could also house a new city police headquarters, but the police department opposed that proposal, Boston said. Meanwhile, a separate study of the current use of City Hall, located downtown in the former Montgomery Ward store, suggested that only around 60% of the building is being fully used.

That 60% figure has been disputed.

It could actually overstate the amount of space being utilized, Boston said, as it counts remote- and hybrid-workers as being in the office full-time. But other city staff have suggested that the true occupancy rate is closer to 70% if utility closets and similar spaces aren’t included, said Councilman Zack Zappone.

Either way, the idea of an expensive building that isn’t fully used has spurred concerns, particularly as the city struggles to get its finances under control, Beggs said.

Conversations to move City Hall have been underway for decades, Boston noted. In 2004, with developers eyeing the current building as prime real estate for condominiums with views of the falls and Riverfront Park, then-Mayor Jim West pushed for City Hall to be moved a short distance into the recently vacated Metropolitan Financial Center.

At the time, a budget crunch and skeptical voters scuttled that plan. But today, budgetary concerns are driving a renewed look at vacating the Montgomery Ward building that currently houses City Hall.

The 110-year-old building is aging and requires costly maintenance. The half-acre roof will be replaced this spring for $1.5 million, and a needed HVAC replacement could cost upwards of $3 million next year, Boston said. A newer building could cost significantly less to maintain.

The resolution on the new study Monday did not receive enough votes to pass. Council members Cathcart, Zappone and Jonathan Bingle voted in opposition; and Council member Karen Stratton, who was on her way to lobby in Olympia, was unable to cast a tiebreaking vote either way.

Cathcart, who cosponsored the resolution and voiced support for it earlier that afternoon, was swayed by city officials to vote against the legislation that evening, he said . He told his council colleagues that he, Bingle and Zappone would meet with administration officials Thursday to discuss a broader study of how the city currently uses its facilities.

However, Cathcart said he wanted to act with urgency, and would consider bringing up the same resolution for a vote next Monday if a concrete plan couldn’t be formed with the administration.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Feb. 9, 2023 to correct the size of the Premera Blue Cross campus that the city is considering purchasing.

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