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A deal to save the Rookery Block falls apart

A week ago, we reported on last-minute negotiations between a California-based developer and local property owner Wendell Reugh to save the downtown Rookery Block from the wrecking ball. We said that, as of press time, the deal looked like it could go either way and that, aside from all the financial minutiae and the fine print, the whole deal seemed to be riding on the answer to one crucial question: Is this the kind of thing that Spokane -- not Reugh, not the developers, not city officials -- can pull off?

Looks like the answer was "no." Just as our faithful readers were picking up their papers on Thursday, the project -- which would have renovated the Rookery and Mohawk buildings, installed about 100 ritzy condos and created 21,000 or so square feet of street-level retail space -- began to crumble.

Renaissance Community Fund LLC, the California development company that aimed to give the block a makeover, seemed more than a little hesitant to sink all its money into a project -- and a block and a city -- that might just completely founder. To protect themselves from such a risk, and to "make the economics work," they wanted to bite the project off in stages, paying owner Wendell Reugh as they completed each phase. They also submitted a letter to the city of Spokane on Feb. 7, making five separate requests for help. These requests -- a waiver of certain permit fees, a 20-year abatement of property taxes, an upfront kickback of project-generated sales and excises taxes -- look to be what ultimately killed the deal.

City officials, most of whom are now talking about the deal like their favorite aunt just died, say that they could have met some of the requests, or at least parts of them. But other requests, like the sales and excise tax reimbursement, simply fly in the face of Washington state law. Not to mention the fact that one of Renaissance's requests was that the city lease a parking structure for five years to help defray the cost of construction. And as we all know, asking the city to jump into a parking lot deal, at this point, is about as wise as pitching Kevin Costner a script for Waterworld 2. Earl Engle, a senior partner with Tomlinson Black Commercial, says, "I can fully understand why the city wouldn't want to touch that -- not with a 10-foot pole."

Developers and economic thinkers had high hopes for the project, suspecting it might finally satisfy that desire for downtown housing and bring a new residential, community presence to the city's core. But as Ron Wells told us last week, the project was a leap of faith to begin with. And as this week's events seem to indicate, Spokane just isn't yet ready to make that leap.
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