by Joel Smith & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t was standing room only in council chambers at Spokane City Hall last Thursday as developers and the public weighed in on Kendall Yards, the 80-acre development proposed for the north bank of the Spokane River. Hearing Examiner Greg Smith listened intently as, one after another, concerned citizens and West Central neighborhood residents stepped to the microphone to opine about a development that would bring in 2,600 new residences, thousands of people and a million square feet of commercial space, dramatically changing their neighborhood.
The testimony was largely positive. Stephanie Swan, who lives below the proposed development site, in Lower Crossing, said, "It's hard not to be excited ... It's cleaning up this part of the city." Summit Boulevard resident Jerry White noted that the project would bring "vitality to the city."
But even amidst the general support, there was an undercurrent of concern. What effect, wondered 23-year West Central resident Bea Lackaff, would the development have on the flight of the geese through the gorge? What effect would it have on the river itself?
The most frequently voiced concern was an aesthetic one. Kendall Yards plans to build as many as five 12-story buildings throughout the development. That's like putting a couple of Federal Buildings on the riverbank -- an idea illustrated by river-watcher Dr. John Osborn, who showed a short, Monty Python-esque video of several Spokane skyscrapers sprouting out of the ground to tower over the gorge area. White drove the idea home by suggesting how tall said buildings would seem not only from the ridge, but from the surface of the river, where rafters, tubers and -- soon -- whitewater kayakers can easily lose themselves in nature just a mile downstream from downtown.
Developers insist the buildings won't lord over the river, saying that they will be tiered away from the ridge, building to their maximum height as they move away from the river.
Still, Thursday's meeting made it clear that there is not yet a public consensus as to the whole of the proposed project. That lack of consensus is evident even among river-focused organizations.
Rachael Paschal Osborn is an adjunct law professor at Gonzaga and one of the community's most ardent river activists. She and husband Dr. John Osborn have helped form the Summit-Bridge Alliance, an ad hoc neighborhood coalition made up of residents concerned about the project. Together, they filed an appeal of the development's Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) last week, saying that it "incorrectly concludes that the Kendall Yards development will have no impact on the Spokane River ... [and that] traffic impacts in the neighborhood will be nominal." Also, they say, it fails to address impacts on affordable housing in West Central.
At the public hearing, Osborn called the EIS legally "invalid" and "insufficient," saying the developers didn't follow protocol for allowing public comment on their (allegedly flawed) traffic study. And yet, she says, the city allowed the proposal to get this far.
"I don't know how you can build something that intensive and still maintain the integrity of the habitat. That's really the challenge for the city. You've got to identify the problem before you can solve it. And that's what the city hasn't done. And that's really irresponsible."
On the other hand, there's the Friends of the Falls, a nonprofit organization whose stated mission is to preserve Spokane's historic waterfalls and gorge area. The group -- which, with heavy community involvement, developed a strategic master plan for turning the gorge area into a kind of urban nature Shangri-La and is now pushing the development of a whitewater park near the Sandifur Bridge as its first order of business -- has come out in favor of Kendall Yards, testifying in its support on Thursday.
The group's executive director, Steve Faust, notes that the project fits in perfectly with the master plan, as it promotes urban density and focuses more attention on the once-ignored river. "One of the big themes in this plan is that bringing more people to the gorge is a positive thing, that it will bring a greater feeling of stewardship and caring for that area. You're already starting to see that."
He praises the developers for planning in public spaces and putting the Centennial Trail front-and-center in the blueprints. And although he recognizes the concerns about tall buildings, traffic snarls and impacts on habitat voiced by Osborn and others, he feels the gorge area will ultimately benefit.
"If the tradeoff for that kind of open space and connection to the river is increased density, that's a tradeoff that we're willing to accept ... We see it as a really important choice that the city's going to make -- to make a choice that's really progressive."
Osborn agrees -- she just wants the city to do it right. "I was surprised by the Friends of the Falls," she says. "They've proposed some great projects, but at the same time there's never been any big-picture look at what it means if all of these people come tromping down into the gorge."
The hearing examiner has until Sept. 1 to decide on the Osborns' appeal and the developers' application. Should he judge that changes to the EIS are necessary, the project could be delayed.