Decade in Review: Years of development change look, livability of downtown

Sunday, December 29, 2019

(as reported by Nick Deshais in The Spokesman-Review)

When 2010 began, the nation was still clawing its way out of major economic decline, and downtown Spokane was a different place.

Riverfront Park was tired and showing its age from its last big renovation in 1974. Macy’s still sold its wares on floor after floor of its Main Street building. A parking lot – and nothing else – was on the full city block across the street from the opera house. Kendall Yards was nothing but a lot of clean dirt. The pedestrian bridge in the University District was years away from gaining a crude nickname from a City Hall regular.

Now, as the decade closes, downtown is in the midst of a yearslong growth spurt and everything’s changed.

New neighborhood

When Jim Frank’s Greenstone Corp. purchased the 78-acre Kendall Yards site on the north bank of the Spokane River in the closing days of 2009, a lot of work had already been done, namely the removal of 223,000 tons of contaminated soil from the former Union Pacific Railroad yard.

In less than a year, however, work began on the mixed-use development. In April 2010, Frank said the first 18 residential units would be done by the end of summer. They sold for as little as $120,000.

Today, the development has 350 rental units, 250 single-family residences and 150,000 square feet of commercial space. Townhomes can sell for $500,000, and a standalone house sold for $875,000.

There’s still plenty of land left to develop in Kendall Yards, most notably the vast parcel at Summit Parkway and Monroe Street that stares across the gorge to the tall buildings of downtown Spokane proper.

Kendall Yards was at the forefront of development on the north bank of the Spokane River. In 2018, the former Wonder Bread factory was converted into an office and retail building called the Wonder Spokane building. Its first tenant was Parametrix, a Seattle-based engineering company that largely focuses on public infrastructure, which occupied its space in December 2018. In the year since, the building has filled up with the offices of Rover, a Seattle-based dogsitting and walking startup; HDR, an engineering, architecture, environmental and construction services company with more than 200 offices around the world; and an Evans Bros. cafe and High Tide Lobster Bar.

In 2017, Larry Stone and his company, L.B. Stone Properties, announced a project to build multiple high-rise towers on the site of the old YWCA building. Work has begun on The Falls, and recent plans filed with the city show a 22-story residential building, which could make it the tallest in Spokane.

Lastly, the $42 million Sportsplex, plans for which were first unveiled in 2015, will be built on the open land east of Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. The 180,000-square-foot facility will be for nonprofessional, nonspectator sports, and will have a 200-meter, six-lane indoor hydraulic banked track, 17 volleyball courts, 10 basketball courts and 21 wrestling mats.

A grand hotel

In 2009, the last remaining building that was connected to Spokane’s once-thriving Chinatown was demolished to make way for a parking lot.

The building had most recently housed The Blvd., a bar, and before that it was the Arizona Steakhouse, Henny’s restaurant and the Fish House. But the building was constructed as part of Trent Alley, also known as Chinese Alley, which was the scene of a raucous Chinese New Year celebration in 1889, when “thousands of crackers were fired, bombs exploded and Chinese rockets were sent heavenward,” according to a contemporary account in The Spokesman-Review.

Even into the 1960s, this part of downtown hosted the Hip Sing Association Social Club and the Fung Chun Social Club. In preparation for Expo ’74, Trent Alley was largely razed, leaving only this one small building.

By 2009, the tired old building was accompanied by a large weeping willow and lots of asphalt. It was demolished for a parking lot, but three years later, in 2012, hoteliers Walt and Karen Worthy announced plans to plans to build a 700-room, 15-story hotel connected to the Spokane Convention Center on the lot, making it the city’s largest hotel.

In 2015, the Davenport Grand opened. The $135 million hotel with 716 rooms quickly became the epicenter for visiting conventioneers and work parties. Like the Worthys’ historic Davenport Hotel, the Grand is something of a public place, with a rooftop terrace that affords singular views of nearby Riverfront Park.

On the west side of downtown, the historic Otis Hotel saw new life. In 2017, Curtis Rystadt purchased it for $1.4 million and unveiled plans to get the building back up to code for development. It’s anticipated to open as Hotel Indigo in March.

The bridge to universities

Spokane’s University District has made major gains in the last decade, most obviously with the creation and construction of Washington State University’s medical school in the heart of the urban campus.

But no structure tells the story of its growth better than the aptly named University District Gateway Bridge. The bridge is elegant and lofty, and can be credited with what’s happening on the other side of the BNSF Railway tracks, where a long-derided stretch of East Sprague Avenue is undergoing significant rehabilitation.

At the south landing of the bridge, Avista and McKinstry are building a high-tech, net-zero energy building that will house 4,000 Eastern Washington University students.

It’s a long way from being a bridge to nowhere, or worse, but the growth surrounding it is surely just beginning.

Downtown living

Since its first days, Spokane has always had residences downtown. But as the city core emptied of its retail in the 20th century, living conditions worsened and it became less than desirable.

Not anymore.

A bevy of buildings have been converted to residences in the last decade. Retail, offices and hotel units have all gone the way of home renovation.

Perhaps the most conspicuous of these conversions is The M building. The former Bon Marche building didn’t sit vacant long after Macy’s moved out in March 2016. Months later, in June, the building was bought by Centennial Properties, a subsidiary of Cowles Co., which also publishes The Spokesman-Review. Work to convert it to apartments began immediately.

The 114 units at The M were rented out in 2018 for between $1,350 to $3,000 a month, depending on size and view. They range from about 650 square feet to 1,700 square feet.

Due south, at the base of the South Hill, the stately Cooper-George was renovated into the high-end living it was originally built for. It opened in 1952 as upscale living for seniors that had two dining rooms, a grocery store, a dry cleaner, a beauty shop and a doctor’s office. More recently, it acted as assisted-living housing for older people on Medicaid. The refurbished building’s 144 studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments went for $820 to $1,575 when it reopened in 2018.

Lastly, and on a much more modest scale, the former Ridpath Hotel underwent a slow renovation beginning in June 2017 to become “workforce” housing for people earning minimum wage. On top of the Ridpath’s 206 units – many of which are “micro-apartments” and studios averaging 220 to 300 square feet in size – will be condos.

There’s still more new housing downtown, including the continued work on the Knickerbocker Apartments, the creation of the SoDo Commons and the conversion of the Chronicle Building.