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Citizen Birthrights 

by ROBERT HEROLD & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & D & lt;/span & on Barbieri, the Spokane land developer and unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Congress in 2004, recently had published a letter to the editor in the Spokesman-Review calling for Avista to stop shutting off the river during the late summer months. Citizens, wrote Barbieri, should be able to see the river, as did his ancestors. Avista, he charges, is denying Spokanites their "birthright" -- access to the Spokane River.





First off, let me endorse Mr. Barbieri's position. A dry basalt riverbed isn't a pretty sight. Surely after last winter there is enough water to cover those rocks throughout the summer -- that is, if Avista gives the problem some thought.





This said, for Mr. Barbieri to take up the mantle of the populist, a man of the people, concerned with the public realm, i.e. the commons, rings just a tad disingenuous. This is, after all, the same Don Barbieri who more than a decade ago chaired the mayor's committee that gave the final go-ahead to build the Lincoln Street Bridge over the Lower Falls -- also blocking the sight line from the public overlook east, past the falls and to the old WWP building, one of Cutter's finest designs. This travesty of the commons, thankfully, was defeated by a few intrepid citizens.





We haven't been good stewards of the river and its banks. While visiting Spokane a few years back, University of California architect -- and New Urbanist -- Dan Solomon commented that we have managed to extend the river's public realm to "maybe 18 inches on each side of the Centennial Trail." Mr. Barbieri, it must be pointed out, is mostly responsible for this result. With a nod from the city, he has succeeded in largely privatizing the riverbank commons all the way from downtown east to the Gonzaga district. From his early motel (the suburban-designed River Inn) to his larger project (now the Red Lion Inn at the Park) to his most recent assault on the public realm, his condominium project west of the Flour Mill, Mr. Barbieri has managed to reduce the public's river access to a crammed narrow trail, giving new meaning to Jane Jacobs' observation that living in cities is learning to live with strangers.





Then, what Mr. Barbieri hadn't privatized, the city and county gave away. I refer to the monstrosity of a convention center, which shows off its outdoor plumbing to citizens while saving the view of the river for out-of-town conventioneers.





Mr. Barbieri's recent concern for a "commons" must refer primarily to his condominium project: the heavy and over-scaled building looming as a giant wall of bricks over the river. It even blocks out the city skyline from the lower Arena area looking to the south. The only citizen access to the river past the project is provided by a short curved pathway to the footbridge. The commons at that site has been reduced to what can only be termed a "peek" at the river on the way to that bridge.





So, perhaps Mr. Barbieri will understand that his appeals for citizen birthrights are drawing guffaws. Citizens? You mean customers who can afford to spend more than a half-million dollars to buy one of your condominiums? Those citizens?





To be fair, the commercial trashing of the north riverbank has been going on for some time now. Whose idea was that nondescript, invasive building now occupied by Anthony's? Frankly, there isn't a building of any architectural quality on the north riverbank, none that would impress Kirkland Cutter. Most would blame these sad results on Spokane's default posture: business as usual. Every private property claim against the commons that bears the promise of tax dollars will trump all stewardship claims of the commons.





While exploitation of the commons is accepted as legitimate here in Spokane, it isn't in many other cities -- most much more affluent than Spokane. (Could it be that stewardship of the commons actually pays off better than commercial exploitation? Now there's a radical thought.)





Consider Portland's park on the Willamette River's west bank. Or, how about the many efforts in Boise to protect the natural environment against private exploitation? Over the years, in contrast, Spokane has limped along with a weak and directionless city government that wasn't going to challenge developers; Spokane, 40 years ago, could not put together a long-range riverbank development plan, nor adopt effective design review. Rather, following Expo '74, riverbank development was left to private property owners who had waited years for the city -- i.e., the public -- to do something to add value to their various land speculations that had sat stagnant.





As luck would have it, however, all is not lost. Not yet. Spokane has one last chance to save what's left of the riverbank commons. I refer to the Gorge Park project. With some care the north riverbank should develop nicely as an extension of the Chesrown project. It is the south side that needs attention. Perhaps Mr. Barbieri could direct his undeniable energy and resources to this important public cause.





In the meantime, we "citizens" might not get all that excited about a few multimillionaire condo owners having to look at rocks for a month or two. Between the condominium development and others mentioned, taken together with the outrageous convention center, we "citizens" can't easily see the river anyway.
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