When you look out on the site of Marshall Chesrown's Kendall Yards project from downtown Spokane, it appears as a mere sliver of land, rimming the Spokane River gorge. But if you get over there and walk around a little bit, you won't believe it. With the Spokane River below, and at roughly three city blocks deep and two miles in length, if it weren't for the omnipresence of the city skyline on the horizon, you'd think you were somewhere out in the country.
"That piece of property is unique," says Chesrown, who liked it so much he bought it for $12 million via the Met Mortgage bankruptcy auction. "There's probably not another one like it in America."
"That's one of the biggest sites that you'll find in an urban context anywhere," agrees Todd Johnson, principal with the Design Workshop in Denver, which was hired to create a plan for the 78 acres. "True to form for a lot of Western cities, Spokane had turned its back on the river. But you have, arguably, one of the great sets of falls. It's an amazing, almost theatrical setting."
Chesrown was inspired by another of Johnson's projects, the Commons in Denver, a mixed-use project along the Platte River in what were once old rail yards. (Kendall Yards runs along what was once a railroad right of way — thus "Yards." Kendall was the name of an early local settler who ran a Spokane River crossing.) With shops, office space and residential units — both condos and apartments — in a wide variety of price ranges, the Commons has been a big success for downtown Denver. Johnson sees the same potential in Spokane.
"If you just look at underlying land values, [Spokane is] on a par with other cities of the West," he says. "So you have the opportunity to create a destination."
"It's a major shift for city culture, but this is exactly what growth management was all about," says Kendall Yards Project Manager Tom Reese as we drive the property. "People are beginning to understand — it's a throwback to the way people used to live."
For Johnson, this reurbanization is part of a personal mission. As a young man, he watched his hometown in Minnesota get destroyed by a rerouting of the interstate highway and the development of a new mall out on the edge of town. He believes that there's a reaction against the suburbs, with the people in their twenties, thirties and even forties — the generation most likely to have grown up in the 'burbs — rediscovering the joys of urban living.
"There's a much more efficient way to live," he says. "People are looking for actual activity, you know, the pace of activity and stimulation that doesn't exist in the suburbs — building those cultural connections, the energy and ideas and art and all those things that are the underpinnings of urbanism."
Translation: There should be a lot to do, and you'll be close to all of it.
One thing Johnson was clear on from the start was that this should be no gated community, as the backers of the Commons in Denver initially pushed for. At Kendall Yards, the roads from West Central will run straight down to the edge of the gorge, where they'll encounter the Centennial Trail, which will run along the waterfront, not tucked behind buildings. About 26 acres of the site will be devoted to common areas, like plazas and green spaces.
Reese is busy putting the finishing touches on all the plans required to win building permits from the city of Spokane. But there are two sticky wickets the project needs the city to address, and both have to do with traffic. The first calls for allowing Kendall Yards to dig out a connection to Maple Street, so users of the bridge can access the district without having to drive all the way to Boone Avenue and back. The other is a proposed pedestrian crossing across Monroe Street at Bridge Street. Kendall Yards planners would like to see a pedestrian-operated streetlight at Monroe so commuters to downtown jobs can leave their cars at home and cross over to the Post Street Bridge as part of their on-foot morning commute.
These are major decisions for the city, but if that's all that stands in the way of putting so much property back on the productive tax rolls, it's hard to imagine the City Council would oppose the requests.
"The connection is huge," says Chesrown. "The issue is this type of lifestyle, the pedestrian lifestyle: We have got to have that. A vital walking environment is what people want."
Reese says if everything goes according to plan, they'll be breaking ground in 2007. The earliest part of the project will include the parcels closest to downtown, including the retail and some of the most expensive condos in the entire project.
Johnson says that was the model that worked in Denver — sell the high-end stuff first, create a buzz and watch the rest of the pieces fall into place.
But hey, you're probably thinking, this is Spokane. Where are all these condo dwellers supposed to be coming from? That's just the kind of skepticism the Commons was greeted with by greater Denver when it opened in 1994, says Johnson — until, that is, 80 percent of the first phase of condos were sold in a few weeks. The same plan worked even better for Johnson and the Design Workshop in Scottsdale, Ariz., where they can't build housing units at Kierland Commons fast enough to fill the demand.
"I'm getting probably eight to 10 e-mails a day about the project," says Reese, "and so far, a lot of the people who are calling are from Spokane. They just want to be downtown."
"Everybody seems to have the belief that Spokane is different," says Chesrown, "that Spokane people live differently. We have not seen anything to prove that.
"Retailers and developers — everybody thinks Spokane is more than ready."