by Robert Herold

When I found your article "Lots and Lots of Parking Lots" in the June 17 issue of The Inlander, I thought to myself that this would be another rant by an automobile hater wanting to turn back the clock in downtown Spokane such that it would look like 1920. After reading your story I must conclude that it was balanced and addressed the issue in a fair way.

Ultimately it is market forces that determine what is economically feasible for construction and/or demolition. A law preventing the demolition of junk buildings to be replaced with surface parking would be a good way to further the decline of downtown Spokane instead of preserving it. Derelict buildings standing vacant downtown are far worse than surface parking lots.

Downtown Spokane has an economy that can best be described as "stable" or "stagnant" -- take your pick. It is true that there has been investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in new construction and improvements in downtown Spokane in the 30 years since the boom of the Expo '74 World's Fair. But with the flight of retail and other businesses from downtown Spokane, the result has been that we have just been holding back decline and not really developing into a new and modern city.

A few years ago, my wife and I took a trip to Calgary, Alberta. We had a young student from Ukraine with us, Alex, and we wanted to see the sights. We took the elevator to the observation deck of the tower in Calgary. While viewing the spectacular view of the city, Alex pointed to a motley group of older brick buildings and said, "That looks like Spokane over there." He was right.

The most impressive new office tower in downtown Spokane is the former Land Bank Building. The bank left Spokane, and Metropolitan Mortgage later bought the tower at something of a fire sale price. Now that Metropolitan is in bankruptcy, it looks like the next buyer will get the building at a fire sale price.

A Spokane building developer bought up most of one block in downtown Spokane with a plan to put up another office tower of 20 to 25 floors. For various reasons, his dream has not been realized, but he does now hold a demolition permit to demolish most of the buildings on the block including the Mohawk Building, the old Rookery Building and the Merton Block Building.

The problem with a new office tower is simply that most people prefer not to live or work in a high-rise office tower. The skyscraper idea was great in its day, but the concept is dead today. In the 1930s, Bill Gates would most likely have built some sort of skyscraper such as the Chrysler Building in New York. But no -- he built a campus of low-rise buildings in Redmond with adjacent parking and landscaping.

The preservationists in Spokane are beating the drums to "Save the Mohawk, Rookery and Merton Buildings." Baloney! I have been in these buildings, and they are a landlord's nightmare. The best thing that could happen would be for them to be demolished. Surface parking would be a vast improvement for that block.

The preservationists believe that "Historic buildings record our history, create an aesthetically rich urban environment and help to make downtown an attractive destination for local residents and tourists alike." There are other buildings in downtown Spokane to which this statement might apply, but not so in this case.

The value of the developers' land is the price of the land, less the demolition costs. Aesthetically rich? Give me a break. These crappy old buildings have been a blight on downtown Spokane for years. The pigeons were roosting in the Mohawk Building back in the mid-1970s. Both the Mohawk and Rookery buildings are a maze of cubby holes with low ceilings that no one would want to live or work in. The Merton Block is so bad that even architects who are generally in favor of restoration think that it should come down.

These buildings are old and worn-out, so it is difficult for me to conclude that they are "historic." If they are, I would have to conclude that the shabby skid row buildings that were on Trent Avenue, (now Spokane Falls Blvd.) were equally "historic" and should not have been demolished to make room for surface parking between Bernard and Howard.

Downtown Spokane is still in trouble with excess vacancy rates for storefronts and vanished retail stores. Where there have been successes with new construction, ample surface parking is a significant factor. Consider the new American West Bank Building. Would this building have been built without ample adjacent surface parking? I don't think so. Take a look at the new Chili's Restaurant that replaced the derelict Union Gospel Mission. Would this restaurant have been so successful without their adjacent large and free parking lot? I don't think so.

The preservationists need to wake up and realize that this is 2004. Their idea of getting people out of their cars and into mass-transit ... and out of their homes and into town houses or high-rise towers is simply a gross failure to realize that this is not what the public wants. Business people who fail to realize this will be the ones to go out of business. The public votes with their feet -- and their feet will be on their cars' accelerators as they head for the mall.

Will Murray is the owner of the Sculpture Gallery in the Old City Hall in downtown Spokane. He parks his pickup truck daily in the surface parking lot behind Auntie's Bookstore.

Publication date: 07/08/04

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.