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Where Are The Risk Takers? 

by Dan Spalding

At the risk of dating myself, I remember Expo '74 and what a big deal it was for a small city like ours to host a world's fair. I remember my mother helping my sister onto the chair lift and then getting tangled up herself, dangling 15 feet above the ubiquitous and odiferous "beauty bark." I also remember the Native American credo of the fair: Man belongs to the Earth; the Earth does not belong to man. It is in the spirit of that slogan and the sense of adventure of the fair that I would approach the needs of downtown Spokane today. So, I'd say: fill the whole town with chair lifts and beauty bark.

Just kidding.

If one assumes a traditional Native American approach to ownership, then owning property is a kind of stewardship. For those blessed with property ownership, there exists an inherent responsibility for respectful use and preservation. This land and the structures on it come with the rich history of our rugged blue-collar town. They embody a common local heritage. To allow our legacy to decay is reprehensible. To raze our history is a crime. These gems were constructed using materials and techniques that will never be used again and cannot be replaced. Yet we quietly lose a few buildings each year: a parking lot here, a mysterious fire there, a prefab Kleenex box where there once stood a venerable collection of brick and stone with enormous rough-sawn timbers.

Why does this happen? I'll go out on a short limb: greed, shortsightedness, a lack of care and respect, and maybe a dash of complacency.

As with most things, the easiest path is not the best. It's far easier to allow old buildings to be destroyed for a more immediate return on investment rather than providing a use that respects history. It is easier still to allow these buildings to decline through neglect. We seem to be waiting for the enormous building boom that might -- or might not -- sweep through our conservative burg. (Skyscrapers and shiny boxes -- Oh, the places you'll go!) Unfortunately, we have too many deep pockets waiting for some out-of-town savior to swoop in and raise everyone's property values, so that the dirt they own will be converted into a fortune. Where did the Expo visionaries and risk-takers go?

While the people with wealth in our community hold it close and tight, the city reveals too many vacant storefronts and empty shells and -- on the bright side, I suppose -- one of the most content pigeon populations I've ever seen.

So how do we make the transition from pigeons to people?

Start with what we're doing right: The Davenport, Steam Plant and Holley Mason buildings, among other projects, have given us unique spaces and saved priceless downtown architecture. Even the controversial River Park Square has been a needed boost to the core and given people a reason to come downtown.

Now we need a reason for them to stay.

Simply, we need a commitment to more mid- to upscale housing. The cherries of office space and real estate have already been picked, but the upper floors of too many buildings are empty, their windows boarded over. While a few adventuresome types are beginning to create housing at the edges of downtown, it is a slow, piecemeal process.

Developers need to commit to long-term renovation, even at the expense of short-term profits. The city needs to do its part with planning, tax breaks, historic preservation and streamlined zoning and permit application. Downtown housing will attract entrepreneurs and small businesses that will create unique office space that promotes and fosters creativity. Housing will also require services that will transform downtown -- restaurants and bars, support for the arts, maybe even a grocery store where you can buy more than a 40-ouncer and a pack of Winstons.

More housing won't work without a commitment to more efficient parking solutions and a public transportation system that makes sense economically and aesthetically -- that people actually want to ride -- say, light rail or clean-burning streetcars (real ones, not buses made to look like them). Spokane used to have a streetcar system, of course; it's one of the things in our past that we need to reclaim. Focus on those things unique to downtown Spokane, those things that can't be built into some mall. We shouldn't try to be Seattle or San Antonio. Spokane's downtown core should be a dynamic mixed-use center with open spaces and inventive architecture built around a beautiful river that is still our greatest and most under-utilized treasure.

Oh, and put beauty bark between all the buildings.

Dan Spalding is an artist and a co-founder of David's Pizza (which used to be a tenant in downtown Spokane). He owns downtown real estate that houses street-level tenants.

Publication date: 04/24/03
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