King's Command

by Ted S. McGregor Jr. & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & y first recorded comment on a public land-use decision came in 1974, a week before my ninth birthday. I was hoisted up on my dad's shoulders so I could get a look out over the sea of humanity. Way off in the distance, people pointed out, there he was -- the President of the United States. Between our perch and Richard Nixon was a stunning ribbon of blue. Apparently I was unaware that a river ran through Spokane, because I remarked to my parents -- or so they tell me -- "Wow, they even brought in a river for the World's Fair!"

I have since learned that was precisely the reaction the city's leaders were hoping to create. Since very early on, the Spokane River had been hidden from public view and used as a sewer. In the 1960s, like any city worth its salt, Spokane endeavored to reinvent itself, especially its downtown. A major public effort resulted in new buildings and even a new form of government, but the lasting legacy of that era is Riverfront Park -- a piece of common ground, you can easily argue, unmatched in any American city.

This vision of the importance of public space came, largely, from one man. To spearhead their efforts to save downtown, local boosters hired an up-and-coming urban planner out of California. That man was King Cole.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & ic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas. King Cole called me last Friday, and he was speaking in Latin. It was his 84th birthday, but don't be alarmed: He was making perfect sense.

I've known Cole for many years, having worked with his daughter Ellen back in my Seattle Weekly days. His encouragement when The Inlander was just starting out helped keep me going. Mostly, I've loved his stories: How he got Washington Water Power to turn on the Spokane Falls one August day when skeptical World's Fair officials were visiting; his whirlwind audience with the empress of Iran; how he took the job in Spokane after cocktails at a lounge in the Ridpath -- the King Cole Room.

Cole was fired up about a single comment in our recent cover story about development in south Spokane ("Shrimp Versus Goliath," 2/9/06). We quoted Spokane County Hearing Examiner Mike Dempsey as saying, "This is a very strong property-rights state, and the basic tenet is you should be able to do with your property whatever you want to do -- as long as it's consistent with regulations in place."

It's a fairly tame comment, and seems to reflect the prevailing attitude in the Inland Northwest. But to Cole, it's not only mistaken, but dangerous.

Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas: Use your own (property) so as not to harm others.

"When I was at work and in school, that was the way it was taught to me, in Latin, as the maxim on property rights," Cole explained. "If you go back to the basis of our laws, from the principles of English common law, then you can't use your property to harm others."

Cole has no specific opinion on the project in question. It's the principle of the thing. It's about rebutting the notion that anything goes. It's about reminding people -- developers and citizens alike -- that there needs to be a balance between freedom and responsibility. It's about understanding that regulations are only as good as how they are interpreted by elected officials and judges. And it's about not setting self-destructive precedents in land-use decisions.

"I don't practice law," continued Cole, who holds a law degree from the University of San Francisco, "but I just want to say that's the way it used to be, and it's very important here. You've got to be very careful on this one, because you're talking about precedent. We're talking about a very long-range set of circumstances that are going to be used as guidelines on future decisions on land use in this county.

"I just hope whatever they do with respect to land use development, that they respect the underlying principle upon which our property rights are based."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & lso back during my Seattle Weekly days, I managed a delivery driver who once offered me his dark take on growth. I can't remember his name, but I'll never forget what he said, while we admired his collection of Chevy Luvs up on blocks in front of his trailer in the woods outside of North Bend. (He preferred living far away from all the damn people, he told me many times.)

"People are like rats," he said. "They find a place to live, they infest it, they ruin it and then they move on to the next place to ruin."

It's an over-the-top analysis, and hardly accurate, but it creates the kind of image that drives home the need to tend to a place. I don't think we would behave like rats if there were no regulations, but many of the Inland Northwest's newest residents are here to escape places that, some say, have been ruined by bad urban planning -- or no planning at all.

Growth is not, in itself, good or bad. This region is growing -- probably faster than it ever has. That's just a fact. It's how we grow that can be good or bad, and growing the right way takes those qualities rats don't have, like a conscience and a vision of what the future could be.

On May 4, 1974, when King Cole cut the ribbon on Expo '74, he shared with the world his vision of how public space creates common good. Now he's reminding us of that vision. And even if it comes in Latin, we'd better listen.