by SUZANNE SCHREINER & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & R & lt;/span & ecently, WSU Spokane hosted a public forum on the trendy topic of smart growth, the first of three to be held over the next few months. A couple of out-of-towners and a couple of locals talked about how smart growth could be done in Spokane. One of the handouts suggested 20 reasons why historic preservation is smart growth.
Two days later, at a meeting on a late Friday afternoon directly across campus, WSU Spokane Chancellor Brian Pitcher listened to architects, developers, faculty and citizens plead the case for preservation of the 1909 Jensen-Byrd warehouse. The tone was civil, but the crowd's arguments flew in the face of many of the conclusions reached by WSU's outside consultants, who said redevelopment of the building just didn't pencil out financially. To date, WSU has not committed to saving Jensen-Byrd. Do you detect a whiff of irony in the air?
At this point, WSU is not advocating tearing down the old warehouse. Chancellor Pitcher insists there is no deadline for a decision on its fate and that the university is open to further discussion. He also admitted that the university has been surprised by the force of public reaction to the possible loss of the building.
JENSEN-BYRD: A SHORT HISTORY
Built in 1909 for the Marshall Wells Hardware Co. of Duluth, Minn., the Jensen-Byrd building arrived on the wave of prosperity that washed into Spokane in the early 20th century. Architect Albert Held designed the warehouse with impressively high ceilings and handsome exterior detailing. Six stories high with 120,000 square feet of space, the brick building stands as the county's second-largest historic warehouse and one of the largest historic buildings in downtown Spokane.
It's important to note that the five-sided Jensen-Byrd building fronts on Main Street, WSU architecture professor Matt Cohen points out. "This is an architect-designed warehouse," he says. "Think about what that means. This was a more formal time, when architecture was a formal civic gesture, even if it was a warehouse." From where River Park Square now sits, he adds, "the same fa & ccedil;ade wall of Main Street continues up to this building." Because it was on Main Street, Jensen-Byrd was designed and built to behave in a dignified urban way, says Cohen.
Held designed the warehouse with formal elements that subtly echo the features of a Greek temple. Vertical pilasters call to mind Greek columns. The ground floor, where the loading bays were placed, also mimics the "rough and heavy" ground floors of ancient buildings, where the centurions would be posted to repel attacking troops and the assorted evils of the city. "It may be just a warehouse," says Cohen, "but it carries traces of history all the way back to Roman times."
CAN IT PENCIL OUT?
"Budgets are ideology without the rhetoric," quips Gordon Price, who teaches urban planning at University of British Columbia and served six terms on the Vancouver, B.C., City Council.
Interestingly, SERA, the Portland architectural firm hired by WSU to evaluate the building's feasibility, didn't factor in tax credits for historic preservation as part of the development equation, nor had WSU required that preservation of the Jensen-Byrd building be a part of any proposed redevelopment plan.
Gary Lauerman, an architect with local developer RenCorp, thinks a rehabilitated Jensen-Byrd could make money. Citing RenCorp's own warehouse project -- the 44,000-square-foot Jefferson Auto Lofts -- he points out that labor costs for a private developer would be significantly less than WSU would have to pay, and local and federal tax credits make the project even more viable.
Unlike Jefferson's eight custom residential units, which range in size from 810 square feet to 2,500 square feet, Lauerman says Jensen-Byrd offers floor plans that could be repeated and thus reduce square foot costs -- by stacking bathrooms so plumbing could be dropped through several floors, for example. Lauerman thinks the costs of developing Jensen-Byrd could be as much as 30 percent less per square foot than calculated by SERA.
Chris Batten, co-founder of RenCorp, says SERA likely erred on the side of caution: "The various higher costs add up, so we didn't spend a lot of time looking at Jensen-Byrd."
A more stubborn obstacle to restoration is the 55-year lease offered by WSU for the land on which the building sits. For smaller, local developers like RenCorp, such a lease takes condos off the table. Though used in much larger markets like New York, the long lease is unfamiliar to Spokane, Batten says. Lauerman questions the need for WSU to retain ownership of the land, asking why the university doesn't sell the parcel so others can develop it.
Bellingham developer Robert K. Hall agrees. Hall wrote a letter to WSU describing his experience with historical buildings, including 30 historic buildings in the downtown cores of seven Washington cities. In Spokane, Hall is renovating the Metropole Building at the corner of Second and Howard, which will offer four retail spaces and 16 apartments. Hall argues that rehabilitation of Jensen-Byrd is the most cost-effective solution "because the bulk of the material for the rehabilitation is in the existing building." The cost of raw materials, he says, has risen almost 25 percent in the last few years, further favoring renovation. Get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places, he says, and it would be eligible for federal tax credits equaling 20 percent of the total cost of the project. In addition, the city of Spokane offers a 10-year property tax abatement for creating city housing units.
Sarah Hansen, special projects director for Conover Bond, says, "We think first-floor retail and upper-floor apartments would be the highest and best use for the building. Apartments are a great fit for the area and best complement the University's vision for the expansion of the campus. The U District needs housing -- it needs people and the vibrancy people create. As the campus grows, apartments could help provide that vibrancy. An apartment/retail project would also allow us to utilize historic [preservation] tax credits, an essential part of making the project work."
FUNKY IS THE NEW BEAUTIFUL
But there are broader reasons, too. Hall argues that a masonry and heavy timber structure like Jensen-Byrd, if restored, "will be standing 200 years from now, and this cannot be said for most modern buildings."
Hansen adds, "With any historic building, there are obstacles, and this space certainly provides some unique challenges -- all of which we firmly believe add to the quality and character of the space. Yes, the ceiling heights are lower than other historic warehouse buildings, and yes, the column spacing is less than ideal. However, the beautiful exposed structural elements, large windows and bright open spaces would make fantastic places for people to call home. With a little creativity in how the apartment units are configured -- perhaps with the inclusion of an interior light well -- these spaces could be fantastic, and completely unique to Spokane."
SERA gave low marks to the building for parking availability, but Hansen says, "Depending on how the remaining acreage is used, parking may or may not be an issue. Regardless, our experience has been that people who are drawn to downtown housing options are less inclined to require dedicated parking."
Gary Lauerman says the design challenges would result in something organic and original. "When there are more constraints to deal with, you have to be more creative and that's more fun. Difficult projects can be the most exciting," he says, and can yield something that is richer and more beautiful."
"A STUDY IN OPPOSITES"
Of course, smart growth does not begin and end with historic preservation and does not require a return to the 19th century. Consider the car. Isn't "pedestrian-friendly" just code for 'banish the car?" No, says Matt Cohen. On-street parking buffers people on the sidewalks from traffic going by and even creates little events on the street -- people getting in and out of cars, for example. It's all part of the theater of the street.
If WSU Spokane wants to adopt smart-growth strategies, says Cohen, it might look to its neighbor across the river. Leading his students through the Gonzaga campus, Cohen sees it as an example of a real urban campus, with buildings forming outdoor rooms, and benches, tables and trees placed in them to provide gathering spots for people crisscrossing campus. A comparison of the two campuses becomes "a study in opposites," Cohen says.
Whatever its future intentions, the Riverpoint campus is now ringed by parking lots and carpeted by large swaths of lawn. The distance between the Health Science building at one end and the Phase I building at the other is a full two city blocks, says Cohen, making the campus neither dense nor easily walkable. Of course, those parking lots are designated "placeholders" for future buildings, and Pitcher concedes that the campus needs to be more dense.
Integrated neighborhoods that weave together social, economic and physical purposes matter more than the brilliant architecture of individual buildings. Relationships matter, says Cohen. "That's why urbanism is more important than architecture. You can have a stupendous building that behaves in an un-urban way but you'd be better off with a building that works by the rules." The urban attitude is oriented to the street and not the parking lot. Which reminds him of the architectural critic Lewis Mumford, who said, "The city is a theater and the street is the stage." Cohen is hoping that a rehabilitated Jensen-Byrd will remain a player in Spokane's urban theatre.