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Paving the Future 

by Robert Herold

With the Rookery Building in peril, Spokane faces the loss of yet another historical building to be replaced by more surface parking. With the destruction of the Spokane Falls Brewery, we're on a roll, so to speak. I drove downtown the other day and made a rough calculation of all the surface parking lots. Turns out they occupy 20 to 25 blocks of curbside space.

Now if each of these parking lots takes up only half a block, we end up with something like a dozen square blocks of parking in downtown. You add to this staggering sum the footage in buildings that are empty above the first floor (or, for that matter, just count those buildings empty from the first floor) and you might come close to doubling that dozen.

The sad truth is that downtown Spokane is home to more than 20 square blocks of empty space.

But let's just concern ourselves with the surface parking. If you add up all the parking spaces involved in our dozen or so square blocks of space, perhaps two high-rise parking garages could accommodate an equivalent number of cars. With buildings designed for urban use on all that unused space, wouldn't downtown be a much more vital place?

Obviously. Yet the surface parking merely reflects market demands, you say. Nonsense. What it reflects are three things: First, greed and a lack of civic concern (which explains the failure to save the Rookery Building). Second, a tax system that encourages the deterioration of downtowns throughout our state. And third, an anemic city government, from the mayor to the council.

Let's take up these problems in order. About greed: Everyone who has looked at the Rookery Building (as just the latest example) concludes that the owner has dramatically overvalued the property, thereby making the "white knight" solution untenable for even a well-heeled knight. Yet others in town have figured out ways to save the city's historic legacy while making sound business decisions -- Walt Worthy, Ron and Julie Wells, Rob Brewster, to name a few.

My point is that while surface parking lots might make a buck or two, they do nothing for the health of the downtown -- or for the city's spiritual health. The owners who tear down these buildings have a choice to make, and they make these choices in a decidedly uncivic-minded way. Shouldn't they be called to account at least in the court of public opinion?

About the tax situation: To say that market dynamics dictate an abandoned downtown makes about as much sense as saying that suburban tract housing isn't at all a reflection of the ability to write off interest payments. Change the way the tax system structures incentives, and - presto! -- you change the market dynamics.

What we have is a lousy tax system. It creates all the wrong incentives. We allow speculators to get away with murder. Speaking on a panel program that I hosted a few years back, Ron Wells suggested that if we did nothing more than base taxes on what the land speculator says his building is worth rather than what the tax assessor says it's worth, most of the problem would go away. Worse yet, the building's owner is taxed on the type of building, not on the building's location. Were the owner to be taxed on location, the surface parking lot alternative or the largely abandoned building would make no business sense, even for the greediest of owners. At the same time, the owner would have an incentive actually to fix up his or her buildings without fear of another tax gouge. To change to a tax system that actually structures incentives where they belong would require a state constitutional change, which would be a good idea.

Finally, about our mayor and council: Mayor Jim West says that the city has no interest in getting into the parking business. Why not? What is a more obvious public concern than public parking? Granted, this is a tough subject to broach, but we expect our elected leadership to offer solutions to vexing problems, to express the public values that they believe best serve the city and to use the power of the city government necessary to both solution and values. Doesn't Mayor West even have a point of view on the matter? Or how about Council President Dennis Hession? Or any of the other six next-to-mute members of the Council?

We read that Mayor West challenged city officials to "dare to be dull" -- no doubt a well-intended suggestion. Our community was left exhausted by the Lincoln Street Bridge and River Park Square fights. But enough is enough. Can't we bring ourselves to say that surface parking destroys urban life? Has our government become so apolitical that it simply can't bring itself to address such important issues?

Here's a parting thought: Dare to be bold. Take as a role model someone such as, say, Chicago Mayor Richard Daly. He would have figured out a way to use the city government to make life miserable for the land speculator who would trash his downtown. Zoning changes perhaps? Landscaping requirements? Building code enforcement? At least he'd make some public pronouncements.

The power to govern is the power to choose. Some choices are in order. It's called politics, and we need more of it.

Publication date: 03/03/04

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