by Michael Buhler

Last October, while attending a joint conference sponsored by the Washington State Chapter of the American Planning Association and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, I had the opportunity to stay at the beautifully renovated Davenport Hotel in downtown Spokane. With planning and preservation professionals gathered from throughout the Northwest, the conference was the ideal showcase for a string of recent successes in the ongoing revitalization of Spokane's downtown. The Davenport's rebirth is just one of several historic renovation projects in Spokane that has caused the National Trust to take notice of the city. What we now hear about Spokane, unfortunately, is that the city's historic Rookery Block, just a stone's throw from the Davenport, may be demolished for surface parking.

Richard Florida, in his book The Rise of the Creative Class, notes that historic cities are places valued for their authenticity and uniqueness necessary to attract the creative individuals who help fuel the new economy in America today. "Authenticity comes from several aspects of a community -- historic buildings, established neighborhoods, or special cultural attributes." Such authenticity doesn't just "happen," as noted by National Trust Executive Vice President David Brown in his plenary address at last year's conference, "it requires careful thought, planning and tenacity on the part of lots of organizations, public agencies and individuals. Strong commitment and leadership by city government is essential." Spokane has shown this commitment. In 2003, the city led the state of Washington in total historic rehabilitation dollars invested, even beating out Seattle and Tacoma. In recent months, Spokane-area residents have sent more than 2,000 letters and signatures to the Mayor and City Council, urging action to save the Rookery Block.

In the 1960s, Seattle tried to demolish all of Pioneer Square -- and Pike Place Market to boot -- in an effort to spur downtown growth. A small group of preservation-minded citizens showed the city another way, and today it's hard to imagine Seattle without these unique places. Denver's Lower Downtown district, or "LoDo," is another compelling example of how historic resources can serve as catalysts for economic development. This 25-block area of handsome brick warehouses and commercial buildings now thrives with small businesses, arts and entertainment ventures, and hundreds of housing units. It is the most thriving, hip part of town; real estate values continue to rise, and not long ago much of it was slated for surface parking.

Over the past decade, Spokane has been undergoing a similar transformation. Just up the street from the Rookery Block, Steam Plant Square -- recipient of a 2001 National Trust Honor Award -- is a gleaming example of how preservation can help rescue a once-blighted industrial district. "Once, these buildings were deserted," remarked National Trust President Richard Moe, "now they're the heart of a vibrant new district, bringing money downtown and proving that preservation is great for business." Steam Plant Square was the first project to adopt the recommendations of the Davenport Arts District Plan, calling for a mix of restaurants, office space and retail shops. Its success has inspired other diverse development projects in the vicinity, including the Davenport, the Fox Theatre, the Big Easy, and a short distance away, the small group of arts-oriented businesses known as "West First," which will soon be joined by the renovated Montvale Hotel.

As the traditional center of the "Inland Empire," Spokane's historic downtown business district plays a unique role in the regional economy. It provides urban-style options for shopping and housing, to complement the more suburban-style developments that surround it, and gives the entire region a focal point and sense of identity. While downtown needs adequate parking to remain economically competitive, it needs to develop urban, rather than suburban, solutions. Other cities have employed angle parking and even free parking on selected streets with great success. Mixed-use parking structures, offset by the revenue generated by nearby high-density development, also work well in urban areas.

Certainly, what Spokane does not need is more surface parking. As recently noted by The Inlander, "Usually you have to drive out of town a while to get to the wide-open spaces, but not so in downtown Spokane." ("Lots and Lots of Parking Lots," 6/17/04). Without a doubt, losing the Rookery Block and its tremendous economic potential for reuse -- and to lose it for a parking lot, no less -- would be a major setback in longstanding efforts to reclaim Spokane's downtown.

Michael Buhler is the regional attorney and senior program officer for the Western Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in San Francisco.

Publication date: 07/08/04

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