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

Getting There: Federal money could bring affordable housing to empty WSDOT land along I-90

In 2001, the Washington State Department of Transportation began buying houses along Interstate 90 in the East Central neighborhood and bulldozing them to make way for a future North Spokane Corridor interchange.

More than 20 years later, the north-south freeway remains unfinished. The Department of Transportation has spent hundreds of millions of dollars acquiring hundreds of homes, but construction on the interchange hasn’t begun.

Plans for the interchange have evolved. The new design has a smaller footprint, and the Department of Transportation won’t be using a significant amount of the property it worked so hard to get. Acres of weedy lots are sitting forlorn and unneeded in East Central.

Local, state and even federal leaders are working to change that. The Washington Legislature has told the Department of Transportation to develop affordable housing where the old houses once stood.

First the state bought the homes, then it leveled them and now it wants to build new ones in the same spot.

Redeveloping the land won’t be easy, but the money needed to make it happen has started flowing.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week announced it’s giving the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium $500,000 to assess vacant land and abandoned buildings in East Central, West Central and Hillyard for contamination. The grant will reduce costs for developers and, officials hope, incentivize affordable housing construction that wouldn’t be financially feasible otherwise.

Ben Stuckart, the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium’s executive director, said it’s difficult for developers to get loans for projects until they’ve tested a property for contaminants. Banks don’t like financing projects until they know the ground’s clean of asbestos, gasoline and other hazardous materials, he said.

“You never know what was on those sites 50 years before the freeway was built,” Stuckart said. “That’s why you test.”

The $500,000 grant should be enough to cover assessment costs at 10 or so sites in East Central, West Central and Hillyard, Stuckart said. The former City Council president estimated that those sites could one day support 650 units of affordable housing.

The Department of Transportation hasn’t decided how much of its land along I-90 could be developed. Ryan Overton, a WSDOT spokesman, said the department hadn’t settled on a final interchange design until a few weeks ago and hasn’t determined precisely how much property it still needs.

No matter how much affordable housing gets built along the freeway, WSDOT won’t be selling a lot of the ground. The agency will be a landlord instead.

According to state Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, the department has told lawmakers it can’t sell property, even though it’s unneeded, due to Federal Highway Administration requirements.

So Billig in 2022 sponsored an amendment to state law that allows the Department of Transportation to lease its East Central land to community nonprofits or the Department of Commerce for five possible uses: housing, parks, community revitalization projects, economic development projects and “enhanced public spaces, such as trails and public plazas.”

While government agencies generally have to sell or lease their real estate at or above market value, Billig’s amendment allows the Department of Transportation to lease its East Central land for less than it’s worth, so long as the lessee takes care of the property and doesn’t try “to generate exorbitant profits.”

The bill, which passed with bipartisan support, exclusively applies to WSDOT lands along I-90 and the North Spokane Corridor. It doesn’t change the department’s policies elsewhere in the state.

Billig said the Department of Transportation will likely sign 99-year leases with developers. Long-term projects are the goal, and no one wants to see new housing built only to be knocked down all over again, he said.

A summary of the bill, included at the top of the document, says the intent is to “remedy past impacts to historically marginalized populations.” East Central is Spokane’s most racially diverse neighborhood, and both the freeway and North Spokane Corridor have disproportionately affected people of color.

While it isn’t formalized in the legislation, Billig, Stuckart and East Central community leaders said the redevelopment will be led by a stakeholder group organized through the Carl Maxey Center.

“The big-picture, ‘What do we need and what do we want?’ will come from the people who live there,” Billig said.

Overton and Billig stopped short of calling the Department of Transportation’s over-purchase of land a mistake.

“I wouldn’t say it was a mistake, because the original design was the best practice at that time,” Billig said. “Now we can do it better, and we’re able to return that land to the community.”

The Washington Senate majority leader said he hopes redeveloping some of WSDOT’s land will help East Central recover from the negative impacts of the 50-year-old freeway.

“This was a community torn apart on I-90, and this happened all over the country to low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods that didn’t have as much political power,” he said. “Now we’re trying to right a wrong.”

Work to watch for

The TJ Meenach Bridge will be closed Monday through Friday as part of stormwater work in the area. Motorists will be asked to use the Maple Street bridge, so commuters using that span should be prepared for heavier-than-normal traffic.

Upriver Drive between Ralph Street and Carlisle Avenue will close at 7 a.m. Monday through Aug. 11 for relocation of a sewer line as part of the North Spokane Corridor project. The Centennial Trail will also be closed in the area. Detours are available for motorists and pedestrians.

Paving crews will be working on Nevada Street between Courtland and Glass avenues, and Perry Street between Courtland and Glass avenues, this week in the Bemiss neighborhood.

West Aero Road at South Fruitvale Road off Interstate 90 near the Medical Lake exit will close Monday through Aug. 18 for frontage improvements in Spokane County.

Northwest Boulevard will be closed between Bemis and Gustavus streets beginning Monday through Friday for a sewer project.