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Don't Fail the Falls 

With options exhausted, the original plan for the old YMCA is still the best

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The City Council majority has rejected YMCA developer proposals and may reject Conservation Futures funding. Instead, the council may consider some undefined future use of the YMCA building, trying to cobble together funding from undefined sources.

This is an irresponsible, head-in-the-sand position. Here are some of the many things wrong with this:

How is the City Council going to cover $350,000 per year in debt service? The Council has a $10 million hole in its budget. How many police and fire personnel will be cut to cover this added $350,000 expense?

Added taxes to pay for this? In the worst recession since the Depression, the notion that voters will support this as an added tax measure is completely silly — especially when a majority of those voters (57 percent) support acquisition by Conservation Futures.

What’s the council going to do with the YMCA? It has no idea. The council didn’t trust the highest-and-best-use study that said development of this building was a financial flop. So it sought real-world marketplace proposals from real developers — which it has rejected as too risky. Face it: this council made a $4.3 million bet and lost. It needs to accept the fact that nothing really works in this building at this site. Instead, the council may snub Conservation Futures even though it has no idea what the YMCA building will be or how to fund it.

Developing the YMCA as a recreation center is a lost cause. The YMCA abandoned this site and this building. Shouldn’t that tell the council something? It will take $8 million to $10 million to upgrade the YMCA to any contemporary standard of customer expectations. When done, the building will have poor customer access, inadequate parking, no “retail” presence to attract customers and a better competing facility about five blocks away (the new YMCA).

The public market idea is a flop. Why would the council think a public market makes sense when this has failed in Riverfront Park twice already, and the current public market folks have told Parks, in writing, that they don’t want to be in the YMCA building?

Others have rejected the YMCA site. The Spokane Tribe made an initial offer to take over the YMCA as a heritage center and backed out. Mobius Science Center was offered the YMCA site and said “no thanks.” We have tried to force fit many ideas in the YMCA building, but nothing really works.

Starting over: rethinking the YMCA and Riverfront Park? The council can rethink the YMCA all it wants because it owns 81 percent of it (Parks owns 19 percent with its $1 million payment). But, by Charter, the council has no authority over Riverfront Park planning. And the council should not expect the Park Board to roll out the welcome mat for joint planning after derailing its two-year effort to acquire this site via Conservation Futures.

Selling north bank land is not a council option. By Charter, this can only be authorized by the Park Board. Why would the Park Board sell north bank land for investment in a building that it doesn’t want? This sale will leave Parks with a “white elephant” building doomed to fail as a recreation center — and it won’t nearly cover the underlying $4.3 million in debt, or the $8 million to $10 million to rehab the YMCA.

Be prepared to pay back $1 million to Parks. If the YMCA is ultimately used for a non-park purpose, then the council must reimburse Parks for its $1 million down payment. Parks can’t be forced to buy a $1 million share of something it never intended to buy in the first place. This would be a Charter violation.

The YMCA is not a “historic” building. This is a hollow argument. It doesn’t have “historic” status because it’s not 50 years old (and won’t be until 2017). It’s not an “exceptional” building younger than 50 years old (except perhaps exceptionally mediocre). There is no regulation preventing its removal and conversion to open space based on its historic status.

It’s not a poor use of Conservation Futures funding. The council is ignoring the majority will of its constituents. In a scientific survey, 57 percent of voters who vote in 75 percent of elections supported this Conservation Futures acquisition. The council has a lot of its constituents upset with them over this issue. Besides, this is backdoor control of another agency’s program. If council members want to regulate Conservation Futures, they should run for county commissioner. What’s wrong with 250,000 people per year getting an eye-popping view of the falls? What’s wrong with city dwellers having a Conservation Futures site they will actually go to and enjoy?

Some council members are poised to reject Conservation Futures money and are ready to use new taxpayer money for a problematic building with a purpose they have not yet invented. Those council members are leading us to another dead end misadventure at taxpayer expense. Open space is the best answer for this site.

Steve McNutt served on the Park Board for 13 years. He was the nominating sponsor for the Conservation Futures acquisition of the YMCA property. Send comments [email protected]

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