Rekindling Kendall

After much speculation, it becomes official: A new developer will try to resurrect Kendall Yards

Rumors have been swirling for weeks, but on Thursday it should become offi cial — a land deal that could shape the future of downtown, the West Central neighborhood, Spokane itself.

Kendall Yards — 78 acres of prime real estate that have languished since Marshall Chesrown bought them in 2005 — will offi cially become the property of Jim Frank’s Greenstone Corporation.

“We expect to be under construction by the summer of 2010,” says Frank, who was hoping to keep a lid on news of the land purchase until Thursday, when they hope to close the sale.

In the past 25 years, Frank has established a reputation for building “neighborhoods,” not just “subdivisions,” with projects across Spokane and Coeur d’Alene. Indeed, he helped turn Liberty Lake from a freeway exit to a suburban boomtown, and his neighborhoods have stood out for their parks, porch swings and walking trails.

But Kendall Yards — which sits at the edge of downtown, a residential neighborhood and the Spokane River — presents a different challenge.

“I think Greenstone has the capability to do it,” developer Ron Wells says. “They have the experience developing that much raw land. I don’t know of any other housing developers who have as much experience, in developing subdivisions, that they do.”

The core of Chesrown’s vision for the property — and the name — will likely remain. But details differ.

“We’re looking to do a property less dense and more economically diverse,” Frank says.

While Chesrown’s Black Rock Development had planned for 2,500 residential units, Greenstone plans for 1,100. Black Rock designed a million square feet of commercial space; Greenstone plans for 600,000.

Shorter buildings, Frank says, can be constructed of wood — much cheaper than steel. And less-dense construction means more surface parking — much cheaper than parking garages. All that translates to a broader mix of price points.

“You can have a ghetto of a million-dollar houses, just as you can have a ghetto of $50,000 houses,” Frank says. “Real communities have economic diversity.”

While Chesrown planned for condominiums, Frank is looking at fee simple townhomes. With condos, tenants only own the building. With fee simple townhomes, they also own the land itself.

Greenstone is looking to develop the residential properties on the west fi rst, while Black Rock had planned to start with the commercial properties to the east.

Greenstone’s also looking at park options, a big riverbank path, an amphitheatre overlooking the rapids and immediately extending the Centennial Trail.

To be clear: There’s no offi cial design plan yet.

The Big Picture

Greenstone’s vision for West Central is far broader than 78 acres. They’re leading a charge to get Spokane to rewrite its more wonky development ordinances. Small neighborhood businesses, for example, don’t need, and can’t afford, the level of parking the ordinances require, Frank says. Other rules — like the one excluding fee simple townhouses from using a master utility unit — are just absurd, tailored for suburbia, not for urban development, he says.

“Kendall Yards by itself is not going to save the West Central neighborhood,” Frank says. “I personally met with the mayor. I’ve urged the mayor to look at the kinds of changes that need to happen so West Central can thrive.”

While Kendall Yards is exempt from many ordinances, Greenstone wants them to be updated citywide.

“We’ve been given development opportunities that don’t exist in West Central,” Frank says. “Why is that? That’s not right and it needs to change.”

Frank is tired of West Central being one of the poorest neighborhoods in the state. He’s tired of seeing disinvestment and deterioration. “I remember what that neighborhood used to be,” Frank says. “West Central has the ability to be the Queen Anne [Hill, in Seattle] of Spokane.”

West Central Neighborhood Council chair Brenda Corbett says Greenstone has thrown itself into the neighborhood in a way Black Rock never did. They attend all the meetings — even the boring ones.

Houses on the north end of the Kendall Yards area — on Bridge Street — will face current West Central houses, Corbett says, excited. The transition to Kendall Yards should be seamless.

“As time goes by it won’t be thought of Kendall Yards,” Corbett says. “It will be thought of as West Central.”

Big Promises

It’s certainly not the fi rst time the city’s been excited about the untapped potential of the property. Chesrown bought it at auction in 2005 from Metropolitan Mortgage, which had purchased the land from Union Pacifi c Railroad in 1990 and ultimately went bankrupt in 2004.

“It’s 8o acres in a downtown environment,” former project manager Tom Reese says. “You just don’t fi nd that kind of development opportunity anywhere in the country.”

Chesrown dubbed it Kendall Yards and penned a vision.

“The whole point was to create a new kind of urban living experience in Spokane,” Reese says. “One that’s mixed-use and very pedestrian-oriented — a lot of green space, very urban in character.”

The city, meanwhile, incentivized the project through tax incremental fi nancing — future property value increases could be used to fund infrastructure improvements.

And then in May 2007, with much fanfare, Black Rock broke ground. In the ensuing months Black Rock blasted apart the old bridge abutment and trucked away 223,000 tons of contaminated soil.

But the economy turned sour and the bulldozers fell silent. In November 2008, the project went on hold, and Reese departed. At another Chesrown development, American Bank fi led a $14.6 million foreclosure action. To help cover the Kendall Yards clean-up bill, Chesrown sued Union Pacifi c Railroad for $8 million. In the end, Black Rock never submitted a fi nal design plan.

City Council member Bob Apple calls the project a failure.

“We have generated 15 dollars [through tax increment financing] as of this last spring for Kendall Yards,” Apple says. “A whopping 15 dollars.”

Corbett, of the West Central Neighborhood Council, says the possibility of development had raised both property values and optimism, but when construction didn’t happen, she thought it never would.

But four weeks ago, the phone rang. It was the Greenstone people. They wanted to begin attending West Central Neighborhood Council meetings.

“Their roots are here. They understand here,” Corbett says. “No pie in the sky, just good steady reality.”

Jim Frank and the blank slate that is Kendall Yards.