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Taking The High Road 

by MICK LLOYD-OWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & t first, the Duncan family didn't want to budge. They felt connected to their old house, despite all its flaws. Holes in the floor. No insulation. Space heaters in every room. One bath for seven people.





"I did not want to move," says Diana Duncan, formerly a 30-year resident of the East Central neighborhood. "But they said they'd help us move, and our house was falling down."





As it buys up property to expand I-90 as part of the North Spokane Corridor project, the Department of Transportation is adopting a kinder, gentler approach to relocating those in its path. Some, like Duncan, have already experienced a significant upgrade in their living conditions and quality of life, even if saying goodbye to the old neighborhood was hard.





Duncan -- a 68-year-old widow with disabilities -- her daughter Roberta and five grandchildren were living in a ramshackle house on Second Avenue when the DOT's Eastern Region offered to purchase it. Family members were skeptical, but warmed to the idea when they realized the DOT was concerned with their personal welfare. Now the family is living in a newly remodeled home outside of the project zone.





"It was wonderful," Duncan says. "They went out of their way to find a house for us. A lot of places didn't have bus routes on Sunday, so we couldn't take them. Then they found this one, and we loved it."





The DOT also built a wheelchair ramp for Grandma Duncan and even installed a play set, which had been given to the children by the Make-a-Wish Foundation.





"They asked us what we were looking for," says Roberta Duncan. "We told them we needed another bathroom, that we needed to keep our kids in District 81, and wanted something that still had access to the buses so we could get Mom and the kids to medical appointments. This is the house they found us," she says, adding that the agents who helped them have almost become part of the family. The hardest part was learning that the maple trees she climbed as a kid would be cut down, she says, but she's otherwise elated with her new home.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & onstruction around I-90 is still years away, but the DOT is now acquiring land systematically from willing sellers around the projected site of the interchange. The new freeway will go north from I-90 between Fiske and Ralph Streets, but the high-speed interchange ramps will spread out as far as Haven and Thor. I-90 will be widened to accommodate extra lanes for the interchange.





Partly to atone for past sins and partly because it makes better business sense, the DOT is taking a new, people-first approach, says real estate acquisition supervisor Roxanne Grimm. "The process is simple, but a little different from what we've done in the past," Grimm says. "It seems to be working effectively as far as the taxpayers are concerned."





With $152 million allocated through the Transportation Partnership Act of 2005, the Eastern Region of the DOT is buying houses in one section of the affected neighborhood at a time. The total area -- which includes about 450 houses -- is divided roughly into four quadrants, and the DOT will spend two years buying homes in each quadrant. Through 2009, the agency will continue to solicit homes north of I-90 and west of Thor Street from Second Avenue to the first alley northward. According to Grimm, the DOT has already closed on 43 out of 110 homes in that quadrant.





"It's a lot of work -- a lot of families," Grimm says, "and there isn't one detail that goes undone. We're taking care of utilities, making sure the closing details are taken care of, working with their realtors, lenders, clearing titles, you name it. We pay their excise tax and their closing costs -- we take them from beginning to end." Despite challenges posed by low-income homeowners and renters and an environment of tightening credit the feedback her department has received since last July has been positive, Grimm says.





"When the freeway [I-90] came through here in the late 1950s, there was no consideration given for people," says Jerry Numbers, an East Central resident and former chair of the neighborhood council. "They said: 'Here we are, we're buying your home and you're gone.' There was no mitigation, yet it split the whole East Central neighborhood in half.





"They didn't do the neighborhood justice at all, that time," he says.





Grimm says there are still people living in the neighborhood who remember or know people who remember that ordeal. Paving the way to better relations, the DOT has been consulting transparently with neighborhood residents and council members. From ongoing discussions over the course of years, the council and the DOT have adopted the current approach to avoid randomly spot-buying through the entire area, which would lead to a "bombed-out" and decaying neighborhood.





"That's not good for the neighborhood, nor for the taxpayer," Grimm says. "It made sense to go block by block so once we acquire we can clear the right-of-way, so those driving down the freeway can actually see a bang for their buck. That's what taxpayers want." Some residents northeast and south of the planned interchange who are ready to sell now might not be happy about having to wait, says Grimm, but at least there is a concrete plan.





Checking off lots on a huge map, a representative from the DOT will call individual property owners and ask them if they want to sell their home. Federal law requires that the DOT offer "fair market value." If the owner is willing, the government will provide an appraiser or owners may be reimbursed up to $750 if they wish to hire their own. Renters will not be turned out onto the street if their landlord decides to sell -- the DOT will handle their relocation and expenses. Depending on the renter's income level and circumstances, they may be eligible for rental assistance or other aid.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he DOT is not using its power of eminent domain at this time -- a situation that the new strategy is intended to avoid wherever possible. It's not until the government has construction contracts and project managers lay down specific timetables that eminent domain comes into play. At that point, the DOT files for condemnation of the property, and a judge and jury decide what the owner will be paid. "Eminent domain is a legal process that is very disruptive and expensive, and we don't need to do that," DOT spokesman Al Gilson says. But for the few holdouts who want several times what their house is worth, Grimm adds, the choice is theirs.





Numbers says that the original animosity of the East Central neighborhood to the project has mostly given way to resignation. "We have a choice," he says. "We either work with them on mitigation and relocating people, or we fight them and get to the end and say: 'Why didn't we get mitigation?' and be told: 'Well, you didn't work with us.'"





The new freeway will go north along what is currently Greene Street, all the way up to Parksmith, where it veers northwest, crossing Hwy. 2 and eventually joining with Hwy. 395 by the Wandermere Golf Course. The stretch of the new highway between Francis Avenue and Farwell Avenue is scheduled to open in 2009, with the final segment to Hwy. 395 opening in 2011. Because funding for the lower section has not yet been allocated, there is no date set for its completion.





"If we had the money in the bank today - $2.1 billion - we could build the entire job," Gilson says. "We're ready to build, but we don't have the checkbook, the legislators in Olympia do." Funds from the "Nickel Program" established in 2003 have been used for the segments currently under construction, he says.





Nita Moses, a 71-year-old renter in the East Central area, was relocated in February when her landlord chose to sell the house she was living in - "if you can call it a house," she says. With the DOT's assistance, she is now a homeowner for the first time in her life. "They treated me with the utmost respect and helped me with my down payment," she says. "Every member of the highway department I talked to treated me as if I were special." Best of all, she says, she got to keep her two dogs.





"I would say that most of [the displaced] will end up in homes of greater value than they had," Numbers says. "Now, does that make up for being uprooted from the neighborhood where you've lived for 30 or 40 years? I don't know."

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