Stories of the Year

by TED S. McGREGOR JR., KEVIN TAYLOR, JOEL SMITH and DOUG NADVORNICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t was a year of highs and lows in Spokane city government, from complaints by city council members in February about their rocky relationship with the mayor to the spoils of a strong economy: a budget surplus and a decision to roll back a temporary property tax hike. This fall's mayoral race -- and the folks who made their voices heard during the race -- hit all of those issues and were judged by The Inlander to be among the top local stories of the year.

The long-festering problem of Spokane's lack of good low-cost housing gained a more prominent place on the political agenda, when hundreds of people were booted from their downtown apartments as building owners sought new uses for their properties.

Finally, water and the environment were catalysts for other significant stories, from the results of a study of the region's aquifer to progress made in building a wider network of bicycle lanes on Spokane's streets.

Read on as The Inlander reviews some of the most important stories of 2007. (DN)

The Streak Continues

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & pokane hasn't reelected a mayor since the 1970s, and that streak was proudly kept alive again as voters rejected Dennis Hession in favor of Mary Verner. (Truth be told, Hession wasn't technically running for reelection, as he took office only after Jim West was recalled, but still.)

It's just too juicy a storyline to resist -- what's up with a city that hates its leaders so much? But what if there's more to it than that? Another analysis of the mayoral outcome suggests that perhaps Spokane is -- gasp! -- going Democratic. This started a year ago, when Democrat Bonnie Mager beat longtime good-old-boy Phil Harris for a seat on the Spokane County Board of Commissioners. Harris contends to this day that he lost because the national Republican Party dragged him down. And even though the Spokane municipal races are non-partisan, you can divine party affiliation, and Verner was clearly the more diehard Democrat. (Ironically, despite his buttoned-down appearance, Hession's politics are Democratic, too, although he claims to be an Independent.)

So when you look at Mager and Verner, perhaps a trend is emerging -- perhaps the neighborhoods, more interested in livability than big business, are taking control. Perhaps our political landscape is shifting in some profound way?

Nah, we just like to tell our leaders they're fired every few years.

Whatever dynamic is in play around here, Verner better get the hang of it. So far, she was elected on a platform of openness and immediately hired two top officials without any public process and then recruited a bunch of advisors whom she would not initially name publicly. And so the drama of the next four years is set: Is it beginning all over again, or will Verner win the love it takes to break the streak?

As former mayor Jack Geraghty put it: "When I ran, our campaign theme was 'We are not part of the problem.' Later, one of my friends said, 'Now that you're elected, you are going to be part of the problem.'" (TSM)

The Year of the Underdog

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & his was an extraordinary year for a city that cynically believes all things are controlled by an invisible cabal of good-old-boy business interests and "power elites." In 2007, small groups made a lot of noise and effected disproportionate change, and grassroots organizations overcame big money and social alliances in politics.

The prime examples of the latter, of course, are the successful campaigns of Mayor Mary Verner and Councilman Richard Rush, both of whom were grossly outspent by their opponents, Dennis Hession and Brad Stark. They were also backed by the wrong people -- that is, not Spokane's usual moneyed set. The list of contributors and endorsers to the Hession and Stark campaigns read like a Who's Who of Spokane: Avista, Black Rock Development, the Community Builders Trust. Verner had tribes and unions behind her. Rush had lefties like state Senator Chris Marr and green developer Jim Sheehan.

Dennis Hession was also undone by another of this year's underdogs: a group of pissed-off, proactive and occasionally vitriolic Corbin Park residents. In June, acting on a recommendation from a city efficiency study, Hession decided to discontinue garbage pickup in the alleys around the north-side neighborhood, opting instead to pick up trash at the curbs in front of the house. The decision, aimed at increasing efficiency and saving the city time and money, outraged residents, who argued that it sullied their historic environs, that it inconvenienced those physically unable to haul their trash out and that Hession never sought -- or later listened to -- public input on the decision.

What must've seemed like a minor decision to Hession became a sizable factor in his campaign, as the Corbin Park residents organized via neighborhood meetings and e-mail listservs, won media attention, and made their presence known at debates and on street corners.

Neighborhood activists also rose up in 2007 to mount loud protests against development, as in the cases of a proposed tower that would've loomed over Peaceful Valley from Riverside Avenue and an extensive development planned to dig into the side of the bluff on the back side of the South Hill. In the former example, Peaceful Valley residents were able to stall construction of the tower to open negotiations with developer Mick McDowell. Time will tell the outcome of the latter case.

But in all of these cases, the little guy was heard more clearly than ever in a city where, you know, the Cowles family pretty much runs everything. (JS)

The Housing Iceberg

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & ent cities, shanty towns, tenement apartments... it wasn't quite the stuff of a Sinclair Lewis novel, but homelessness and poverty were revealed as close neighbors to the gentry in Spokane this year.

The much-anticipated return of the Fox Theater was a sort of capstone to crown the continued revival of downtown into a place where people wore their best threads to art events (and shopping) and cruised watering holes that offered $30 martinis or funky d & eacute;cor or fusion cuisine.

The happy tide of gentrification swept past the Fox itself into the adjoining two blocks of West First Avenue, which for many years has been the city's ignored slum.

Three buildings that were home to people with fixed or extremely low incomes -- the Commercial Building, the New Madison Apartments and the Otis Hotel -- were sold and plans announced for exciting new uses.

Which didn't include the poor.

"We moved 144 people from those three buildings. There is no (low-income) downtown housing so we scattered them throughout the city. These people are losing their community," says Bob Peeler of SNAP (Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs), one of the key players relocating tenants from the Otis.

Flipping three buildings -- among the last large buildings available for people making as little as $339 a month -- all at once overloaded the social services network and caught the city by surprise.

The mayor formed a crisis team that included social service agencies, developers and property owners, bankers, firefighters and police. The city council allocated emergency funds. Activists assembled at a city-owned boulevard strip downtown and set up the first of two tent cities this fall.

The upshot: Blue Ray Technologies is burning Blu-Ray discs in the Commercial, while the Otis and New Madison are empty and shuttered for the winter as renovation awaits.

Chris Batten, who extended the eviction process for tenants of the New Madison and Otis, says, "This was the iceberg." He contends there won't be a crisis like this again.

"That's the iceberg he was dealing with," says Steve Cervantes, executive director of Northeast Washington Housing Solutions. People and agencies that deal with the poor see continued scarcity of affordable housing -- and a growing need.

Bob Peeler of SNAP adds: "We are seeing more new people -- young couples -- who have never been homeless before."

There is an air that people are dusting off their hands, willing to call the problem solved, and contending downtown revival is all upside, that there is no human cost, that the low-income tenants are in better places.

It is true they are in better housing, Peeler says. "The Otis was crappy housing ... but it had a big lobby so all the people had a place to go and a sense of belonging. They are losing their community."

It remains to be seen, Peeler and others say, if the city will be less timid about trying to create the atmosphere that could result in mixed-income housing developments so all can share the sense of community. (KT)

Water Wrangling

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he year of 2007 brought one significant water-related story with huge ripples to the Inland Northwest.

In early May, scientists released the results of a multi-year study of the Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer. "It is the most robust attempt to develop a model for the entire aquifer system from Lake Pend Oreille to Long Lake," as Washington state Ecology Department hydrogeologist John Covert categorized it at the time.

Covert and his colleagues determined the water level in the aquifer is stable, despite the growing demand.

That news brought a mixed reaction. Elected officials breathed a sigh of relief; it meant the region isn't "mining" its water resource, and there's room for the region to grow. Others took the opposite view, saying the result would lull the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene area into believing there's no need to conserve water.

And that leads to one of the most important findings of the aquifer study: When large volumes of water are pumped from underground, the result is lower Spokane River levels. Water watchers in Washington are nervous about that.

"The state of Idaho will never see the level of the aquifer drop," said former Spokane County water manager Stan Miller.

Some believe officials in Idaho will continue to allocate water rights without thinking how that will affect water levels in Washington. One 2007 development that might affect that is the decision by the Idaho legislature to start reviewing and updating water rights in the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene area. There are rumblings that process could also start in Washington.

The findings from the aquifer study had a ripple effect on other water projects. Local companies and governments that discharge phosphorus into the Spokane River agreed with the state of Washington on phosphorus discharge limits -- although the Sierra Club and Center for Justice may contest those, arguing the limits would allow more the release of more phosphorus than the river can handle. The state's phosphorus plan is due to be formally released in 2008 and could face a legal challenge.

That process is holding up Spokane County's efforts to build a new wastewater treatment plant along the river in east Spokane. County officials are in the process of reviewing two companies' bids to design, build and operate the plant. The news that the county plans to enter into a 20-year agreement with a private company to operate the wastewater plant has riled people who worry it will lead to poor service and higher sewer rates (more on that in a future Inlander).

While there isn't yet a mass water conservation movement in the Inland Northwest, several local governments and special districts started or improved water conservation projects this year.

The Spokane Aquifer Joint Board ran a summer media campaign urging conservation. Spokane County doled out $44,000 in state money for five irrigation projects, helping cemeteries, school districts and other large water users become more efficient. And the city of Spokane started a pilot project on Downriver Golf Course that uses reclaimed water to irrigate tee boxes and fairways. (DN)

Spokane Goes Green

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he environment was so hot this year. Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for blowing the whistle on global warming. Prince Charles is driving a hybrid. So hot.

And while signs of green life have occasionally cracked through Spokane's sidewalks in previous years, progressive Earth-friendly approaches to development and urban life broke new ground in 2007, becoming positively trendy.


* In May, Marshall Chesrown broke ground on the 80-acre, mixed-use Kendall Yards development. While the project has been barraged with questions about its approval process and public funding, it clearly represents the kind of development city officials are slavering for. Its dense design would leave a small footprint and make more efficient use of infrastructure, and plans call for it to be -- unlike a lot of coveted property in hoity-toity Spokane-- open and public, with open plazas and (perhaps most importantly) unrestricted access to the Centennial Trail overlooking the river.

* In September, developer Jim Sheehan cut the ribbon on the Saranac building, which will likely be the first platinum-certified green building in Spokane. The building's construction features massive rooftop solar arrays, reused-denim insulation, a rooftop garden and rainwater collection, and it houses the Magic Lantern art house movie theater, art galleries, a restaurant and offices.

Fast becoming a hub for green- and sustainability-minded organizations, that block could also become the gateway to the University District. In January, six urban design consultants were flown in to dream up and draw out plans for a district that would make a livable, walkable, bikeable, vibrant neighborhood out of what's now dead-end streets and railroad tracks. The gateway would be the corner of Division and Main Avenue.

* Throughout Spokane, smart growth and environmental planning have nearly dominated the social discourse. Mayor Mary Verner and Councilman Richard Rush were both elected on platforms that emphasized the environment and the city's comprehensive plan. (On the stump, Verner said she wanted to turn Spokane into a hub for green industry.) Discussion of progressive design has also heightened online. The MetroSpokane blog -- which regularly offers commentary on land use, provocative info mash-ups and fascinating what-if essays on downtown -- has become must-read stuff for anyone interested in the life of the city.

* Bicycling finally started to take off in Spokane in 2007, with cyclists beginning to form an actual cycling community -- via blogs, online route sharing, etc. -- and effecting political change. Bike advocates lobbied city hall to get bike lanes painted into a street repaving project on Southeast Boulevard, and at the end of the year outgoing Councilman Brad Stark shepherded an amendment that would pay for bike projects in the coming year. Fixed-speed hipster bikes finally washed ashore here this year, as did at least one bike messenger and a bike-oriented nonprofit, which endeavors to "use the bicycle as a tool to empower people and build healthier" communities through fixing up beaters, teaching bike repair and donating used bikes to kids, commuters and African villagers.

Thirty-four years after the environment-themed World's Fair, it's getting easier to be green in Spokane. (JS)