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Can Spokane embrace a national trend and make downtown a desirable place to live?

click to enlarge Looking west at downtown Spokane. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Looking west at downtown Spokane.

Dan Spalding remembers the old days of downtown Spokane. Well, not the old days, necessarily, but about 20 years ago, when he first moved to his apartment in the building he owns on the east side of downtown.

Once the downtown work crowd vacated on a weekday, the city was largely "left to the wolves," recalls Spalding, a local Renaissance man known in the community as a visual artist and real estate developer, among other designations. These days, he doesn't even get a sideways look when he tells people he lives downtown.

Spalding, who owns six buildings in the downtown area, including residential units, says that having a contingent of people actually living in the city's core is vital to solidifying the ongoing and slow-burning process of propping up downtown Spokane.

"I feel like I've been preaching this for years, but I'm never sure who's listening. Just having the presence of residents downtown — and visible — makes an enormous difference. It gives a sense of pride of ownership," says Spalding.

According to the Downtown Spokane Partnership, a nonprofit organization that has advocated for the area since 1995, there are roughly 2,200 housing units in downtown. DSP estimates the addition of about 300 units per year for the next decade. (By comparison, there are an estimated 227 residences in Coeur d'Alene's downtown business district, according to Ignite CDA, the city's urban renewal agency.)

Developers and local government representatives are realizing the economic and cultural possibility that could result from an increased residential presence at the core of Spokane. They're hoping a national trend of people and businesses gravitating toward downtown areas also happens in Spokane, giving spark to an area that has long been trying to escape a downtrodden and dilapidated reputation.

"We need it so badly. It's past due, but it really needs to happen," says Spalding.

HEADING FOR THE CITY

The American dream is changing. That picket fence and the kids playing within its manicured boundaries — as well as the mortgage payment that comes with all that — aren't necessarily what recent data are telling us that young people want in 2016. Maybe someday they'll chase those things, but not, at, say, 27 years old.

"In the 51 largest metropolitan areas [in the U.S.], college-educated 25-to-34-year-olds are more than twice as likely than all residents of metro areas to live in close-in urban neighborhoods," writes economist Joe Cortright in a 2014 study for City Observatory, a think tank that investigates the factors contributing to the success of American cities. In February of last year, Cortright authored another paper finding that recent years have seen more jobs locate in downtown areas after more than 50 years of businesses, especially large corporations, opting to set up shop in suburban areas. The migration of jobs to city centers has also helped facilitate the residential influx, wrote Cortright.

The Northwest's other primary cities have seen downtown residential booms. Two decades ago, neither Seattle nor Portland's downtown areas featured robust residential populations. But gentrification of both those cities' cores — as seen specifically in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood and Portland's Pearl District — have led to an increase in people living downtown. In Portland specifically, city planners hope to double the number of downtown residential units in the next two decades.

For Spokane to join this trend will require a change in culture.

"Right now, there's massive apartment outgrowth along Nevada up north and Regal on the south end. That is the opposite of what a smart city does," says Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, who has advocated for downtown housing, including affordable housing, during his tenure on the council. Last month, he made a push for the city to do what it can to help someone turn the recently vacated Macy's building into a mix of residential units and street-level retail.

Stuckart says that if the city is going to offer incentives to developers, they need to do it downtown. He has mentioned a specific tax increment financing district for downtown to help bring more development.

"The question is how much intervention can the city do. Can we offer more incentives?" says Stuckart. "If we're investing in incentives, it's got to be downtown, because density builds your tax base. You can raise your median income or you can have more people living in the same space."

More downtown residents might also cause the city to rethink its downtown infrastructure, says Spalding.

"We have all these big, fat one-ways — basically a number of freeways running through our city core — and most cities have proven that to be backward thinking, and embraced a model where as you get closer to an urban area, it's more walkable," he says.

Stuckart agrees, using as an example a proposed change to break up the east end of Main Avenue, home to a vibrant dining and shopping scene, with tree planters and bike pathways. He says that building up the residential core of downtown Spokane would have other ancillary benefits.

The city council president says he was speaking to a class of Gonzaga students recently, and when he asked for a show of hands of how many of them planned to stay in Spokane after graduation, not one was raised. Stuckart thinks that keeping educated, bright and inspired young people in the city is key to building a stronger Spokane. Right now, about 95 percent of Gonzaga graduates leave town after finishing school.

"If we want to build a strong entrepreneurial center, we need to keep the students in town, and part of that is having the environment they want and need," Stuckart says. "Part of that is having a safer, more pedestrian-friendly downtown."

GOING FORWARD

At this point, the story of the Ridpath Hotel — now going on eight years of dormancy and fallen far from its days as a beloved downtown Spokane institution — feels like a soap opera. There have been many false starts in the promise to bring back the building, the sign of which still illuminates the Spokane skyline, but nothing has materialized yet.

Spokane developer Ron Wells has long been part of this twisted ownership puzzle of the building, which was sold piecemeal in 2008. Wells still hopes to turn the building into 200 apartment units, many of which would be designated as affordable housing. Last week, Wells says his lawyers don't want him talking about the Ridpath, the sale of which is tied up in a Nevada bankruptcy court with a developer looking to make the Ridpath into a hotel again.

"I think it's going to work out, but I can't say anything else," says Wells.

Wells has support on his side in the form of city council, which pledged last month to make Wells' company eligible for $1.75 million in federal housing loans, a deal a hotel project normally wouldn't be eligible for.

He isn't new to downtown housing. Wells' company owns about 150 units downtown and maintains, on average, a less than 2 percent vacancy rate. While he acknowledges an influx of young people in his buildings, he says that in some of the higher-end units, some of which are fetching the highest rents in the history of Spokane, there's growth at the other end of the age spectrum.

"It runs the gamut. I think you're seeing more active retired seniors moving downtown because they want to work-out at the Spokane Club or other fitness centers, and they want to walk to entertainment and dinner," Wells says, adding that he sees this trend continuing.

In addition to the possibility of the Ridpath, there are other projects in the works. Spalding says he is hoping to announce a project of about 16 units in a new, from-the-ground-up building sometime soon. There are other plans for the inclusion of apartments and condos in mixed-use remodels throughout downtown, as well as other housing units under construction just outside of downtown proper — near Gonzaga, in the Kendall Yards development, near the Spokane County Courthouse and elsewhere.

For longtime downtown advocates like Spalding, there's a feeling that now is the time to make this push for the center of the city.

"So many things hinge on that residential element," he says. "If there's not a minimum amount of people living down here, the other hopes for downtown don't fly." ♦

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