by Cara Gardner
If you think expanding a convention center isn't a big enough job, try getting into the restaurant business at the same time. When the Public Facilities District (PFD) decided to expand the Spokane Convention Center eastward rather than to the south, it signed on to the predicament of what to do with Azteca, the Mexican restaurant located at the heart of where the Convention Center's new exhibit hall will be. What the PFD didn't sign on for was all the controversy following its deal with the restaurant.
Mike Edwards, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership (DSP), an organization that works to improve the city's urban core, is part of the group that pushed heavily against the Convention Center's expansion to the east.
"There is a sort of nagging sense that the south site would have worked best," Edwards says. "You wouldn't have had to move Azteca."
Arguments regarding the direction of the
Convention Center expansion have shifted now into disagreements about Azteca's relocation.
To buy the restaurant out, Azteca wanted the PFD to pay $5 million. Instead, the PFD is giving the restaurant a 30-year lease on 10,000 square feet of property on the northeast corner of Washington and Main, which is currently a surface parking lot, along with a little more than $2 million to rebuild.
"In the time I've been in Spokane -- 35 years -- that block has basically sat empty. Developing there is better than letting it sit empty for another 35 years," says Kevin Twohig, executive director of the PFD.
But it's not as simple as it sounds. For years, the DSP, along with downtown businesses and real estate holders, have worked on the Downtown Plan, a set of stipulations about future downtown structures and lasting projects. Those who've worked to uphold the Downtown Plan claim that Azteca's new design doesn't fit in and that the one-story building will prohibit future development on the site that could be more beneficial, such as downtown housing.
Ron Wells, the chairman of the board for the DSP, the immediate past board chairman for the Spokane Regional Convention & amp; Visitors Bureau and owner of a downtown-based real estate company, is opposed to the PFD's relocation plans for Azteca.
"It's an inappropriate solution for urban development. It's totally and completely irresponsible; it's the wrong thing to do," Wells says, explaining that building a one-story restaurant will take away even more parking from the Convention Center project (which struggles already with a low number of parking spaces).
"It's a missed opportunity if they site [Azteca] there," Edwards agrees. "One of the things that prohibits downtown housing is the cost of the land, so if [the PFD] is giving the land to Azteca, what do they care about air rights?"
Edwards explains that instead of giving up 10,000 square feet of land for a one-story building, the PFD could have arranged for more development, a taller, mixed-use building, with a restaurant on the first story and housing above it.
"Someone [with the PFD] was quoted saying no one would build housing there," Wells says, chuckling. "To my knowledge, they've never asked. I would say yes, and I'm not the only one."
Twohig realizes that not everyone is happy with the PFD's efforts to relocate Azteca, but he says the PFD is working openly and fairly.
"Would the DSP like to see a full-site development? Yes. Have they looked at these plans, offered suggestions and helped improve the design? Yes. Is everyone getting exactly what they want? No. Has everyone had lots of input? Yes. Tons."
As a side issue, Edwards also claims the deal puts Azteca in an enviable position in the eyes of other restaurant owners.
"The DSP has trouble with the use of public fund financing over a period of 30 years, providing free rent in the context of a downtown that's had restaurants closing," Edwards says, adding that Azteca's owners have been gracious and flexible all along. "A lot of people feel really uncomfortable with people subsidizing rent and setting up a false sense of competition with other restaurants."
Twohig explains that the owners of Azteca hired an architectural team to build its new restaurant and that the PFD board is working closely on the design. He says the exterior of Azteca will be "a sedate and urban style restaurant building -- arched windows with granite surrounds and cornices, lots of glass, columns." And parking will be behind the restaurant, not in front as is common in more suburban architecture.
But Edwards still isn't convinced it won't be much more than just another suburban-styled building.
"It has a strong Mexican feel; the building itself is a sign [for the restaurant] and we're apprehensive."
Obviously this debate isn't just about what the restaurant will look like. Ideologies clash concerning the image of downtown Spokane, and old arguments flare regarding decisions that have already been made about land use and the direction of the convention center expansion.
"We feel [the PFD] should condemn the property and move on," Edwards says. "We think over the long term it will cost them less.
"We'd hope the PFD would consider that the expansion of the convention center is different from the Arena," Edwards continues. "We would hope the PFD's intention is not to surround the Arena with suburban-style parking lots; we'd hope more would come from this than just solving their problem of relocating Azteca. The PFD has to recognize it is part of something larger than itself."
The PFD board will decide on Azteca's design plans at a closed meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 24. Wells says he thinks there are people on the PFD's board who "understand real estate and downtown development issues," adding that it's "not too late to do it right."
Publication date: 02/19/04