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Avoiding Asphalt 

by Tim Lawhead

The Inland Empire Section of the American Planning Association finds both the proposed demolition of the historic Rookery, Mohawk and Merton buildings and the proposal to replace them with surface parking to be in direct conflict with the Comprehensive Plan and the Downtown Plan. Economically, it's also imprudent for our government to support.

City government, alongside the Downtown Spokane Partnership and local developers, has worked hard to implement the goals of these community plans. These efforts have been extremely successful, with more than $1 billion invested in downtown Spokane over the last several years. Spokane is gaining national recognition for its outstanding examples of historic renovations, such as the Davenport Hotel, the Legion Building, the Steam Plant and the Holley Mason buildings. Another surface parking lot offers little economic return to our downtown and holds no attraction for the coveted foot traffic necessary for businesses. We urge the mayor and City Council to step in with strong leadership and stop the demolition of these economically valuable historic buildings while continuing to support the revitalization of downtown Spokane.

Mayor West has received more than 1,000 citizen comments opposing the proposed demolition. These citizens correctly reference policies in the City of Spokane Comprehensive Plan and the Downtown Plan that seek to preserve our historic buildings and return them to productive use. These adopted community-planning documents represent many thousands of hours of citizen time and effort. The investment in downtown Spokane is not the result of happy accident -- it is the result of a community process that produced good plans, intentionally creating the economic potential that is now being realized.

The thrust of policy statements regarding historic structures in the Comprehensive Plan and the Downtown Plan is the preservation, and where possible, renewed and productive use of the original investment. The City of Spokane should support the community's vision as identified in the adopted plans. This is a vision of downtown that captures the significant economic benefits of preserving and returning the historic buildings to a productive reuse that enhances Spokane's unique sense of place.

The goals of the plans are for a compact, lively and walkable urban experience, not the lifeless sterility of an asphalt cradle for cars. The plans speak emphatically to the value of the authentic sense of place shaped by historical architecture that cannot be replaced once gone. Our historic buildings tell the story of Spokane's past. When it comes to driving economic investment and producing spillover benefits, developers of other downtown projects have found the value of possessing the original is pure gold.

Planning and preservation efforts are part of an economic development package that pays significant dividends. Local governments in many Northwest cities have actively encouraged and planned for the redevelopment of historic structures by deliberate and thoughtful utilization of the tools available to municipalities.

The American Planning Association supports sustainable economic development strategies. Preservation of historic structures is an essential and powerful component of downtown revitalizations that has proven successful in Spokane and across the country. The Rookery Block has the potential to serve as a catalyst for further development -- or, if demolished, to be a blight in the downtown core. The mayor and City Council must take action to engage the private sector and actively explore a preservation strategy for the Rookery Block. As a last resort, the swift and decisive application of local government's powers of condemnation and establishment of a public-private partnership for redevelopment is necessary in order to prevent significant damage to Spokane's downtown core and retain the momentum of the economic recovery.

Tim Lawhead is past president of the American Planning Association's local chapter.

Publication date: 08/26/04

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