Spokane Journal of Business

Putting the plan into play

U-District advocates look to hire exec, set up entity to promote, oversee projects there

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Proponents of the University District here say that after years spent laying the groundwork, theyre preparing to execute some of the top priorities outlined in a U-District master plan approved in 2005.

Development plans have been reenergized recently with the formation of an advisory board thats seeking ways to implement the master plan. Meanwhile, the city of Spokane is putting together a new downtown master plan, and WSU-Spokane also is creating a new master plan, both of which will include U-District projects.

I think its starting to get legs. Were definitely in view of the launching pad, says Dave Clack, co-founder of the East Spokane Business Association and a U-District proponent. The planning was important, because otherwise we wouldnt have a track to run on, but now were up and running.

Although some high-profile projects, such as the Academic Center at the Riverpoint Campus and the Edge mixed-use development, at 103 E. Sprague, have been completed since the plan was approved, the U-District for the most part has been kind of sleepy, says Melissa Wittstruck-Eadie, economic-development planner at the city of Spokane. U-District proponents attribute the sluggish pace to a number of factors, including time needed for further planning and the lack of an organization dedicated solely to promoting and overseeing growth in the district. One of the biggest ongoing challenges is securing funding, they say.

We got a lot of momentum, and then it languished because nobody was willing to kick the potters wheel, says Bruce Butterworth, another co-founder of the East Spokane Business Association and a U-District advocate. Theres a lot of public recognition about what this project is, so once things start happening and dirt starts getting turned, I think people are going to get pretty jacked up about it.

Bisected by the Spokane River, the U-District is anchored by Gonzaga University on the north side of the river and the Riverpoint Campuswhere Washington State University at Spokane, Eastern Washington University, and Community Colleges of Spokane offer programson the south bank. The district is bordered, generally speaking, by Sharp Avenue to the north, Hamilton Street to the east, Interstate 90 to the south, and Division and Browne streets to the west.

U-District advocates are pushing for what they view as catalytic projects that would spur broader development in the area. Those projects include the city of Spokanes planned extension of Riverside Avenue, a pedestrian bridge that would span the railroad tracks that run between Sprague Avenue and the Riverpoint Campus, and housing developments, among others. With student enrollment in the U-District expected to climb to more than 11,000 students by 2010, housing will be a critical component to help support the growth in the area, they say.

Ultimately, it goes back to real estate development, says Chuck Murphy, vice president of finance for Gonzaga University. There needs to be some catalytic projects that get the ball rolling, and I really believe they have to be housing related.

Since around the time the plan was adopted, more than $300 million in projects have been completed or launched in the district, Wittstruck-Eadie says. Among them are the WSU nursing school building, the Sirti Technology Center, and Gonzagas PACCAR Center for Applied Science and Kennedy Apartments.

Meanwhile, EWU has moved its Spokane operations from downtown to the Riverpoint Campus, and the Washington Legislature appropriated money for the extension of the University of Washingtons medical and dental school programs at Riverpoint.

U-District proponents say that the universities have done their part to spur demand for the types of developments envisioned in the master plan, such as housing, retail, and office, and now its time for the city and private developers to step up with projects that will meet that demand.

If you look at what the schools have done, you see that theyve done their part, Butterworth says. We need to get some of these key projects in place that will allow the marketplace to come in and do what it does best.

Last August, former Mayor Dennis Hession created a U-District advisory group of city of Spokane employees, university officials, business advocates, and others to guide the implementation of the master plan, Wittstruck-Eadie says. In December, Mayor Mary Verner offered to host a subgroup within that group that would devise a plan for an organization that would take over leadership of U-District initiatives, Wittstruck-Eadie says. That group is working on finalizing a mission for the organization, devising a budget, and creating a job description for the executive that would lead it.

We need someone who has this as their sole focus, someone who would get up in the morning and have a bowl of U-District for breakfast and get on it, Butterworth says.

Wittstruck-Eadie says the subgroup plans to report back to the larger group on May 7. She expects an organization will be formed and an executive will be hired within the next 90 to 180 days.

This is a huge step forward, she says. In the past there hasnt been that leadership group to push projects forward. Now well have a group that will take ownership over a collaborative effort and execute it.

Upcoming projects

The largest upcoming infrastructure project in the U-District will be an extension of Riverside Avenue, scheduled to start by early 2010 at the latest (see story page A17), Wittstruck-Eadie says. Streetscape improvements to Spokane Falls Boulevard are planned to coincide with the Riverside extension, although that estimated $1 million project hasnt been designed yet, she says.

Brian Pitcher, chancellor of WSU-Spokane, says those two projects are top priorities for the university, both because they increase connectivity in the area and provide safer pedestrian and bicycle access for students and faculty. WSU expects to complete an update of its master plan for the Riverpoint Campus this summer. That plan will overlap significantly with the U-District plan, especially with regard to traffic planning and transportation issues, Pitcher says.

A transportation-related initiative thats essential to improving connectivity is improving safety at the intersection of Main Avenue and Division Street, at the west end of the U-District, to encourage pedestrian flow between the downtown core and the district, Pitcher says. Another top priority for WSU-Spokane is a shuttle system that would provide transportation within the district and connect it with neighboring areas such as the medical district to the south. Specific proposals havent been drawn up yet for that project, but its under discussion, he says.

WSU also recently received redevelopment proposals for the Jensen-Byrd Co. warehouse and adjacent parcels located on the south side of the Riverpoint Campus. Wittstruck-Eadie says that WSUs willingness to supply the building for private, mixed-use development is a real breakthrough in the discussion regarding U-District development.

Foremost on U-District planners minds in terms of projects, however, is the proposed pedestrian bridge between Sprague Avenue and the Riverpoint Campus. The bridge is described in the master plan as the major catalyst project for the Sprague business district, and its hoped it would spark mixed-use and high-tech research development in the Sprague area near the campus. It also would connect the Riverpoint Campus to the medical district.

Wittstruck-Eadie says the city is trying to secure $500,000 in federal funding for the design of the bridge, which could cost between $2 million and $5 million to build. She says the soonest the project could start would be 2011.

Projects that likely would start sooner include a refurbishing of the Iron Bridge further to the east to accommodate pedestrian and bicycle traffic, she says. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, together with a coalition of public agencies, community organizations, and businesses, is trying to secure state funding for the estimated $500,000 to $750,000 project, she says. Construction could start next year at the earliest.

Meanwhile, the city also is looking at streetscape improvements to Sprague that would involve resolving parking issues, widening sidewalks, and adding bicycle lanes, she says. She says streetscape improvements within the U-District are baby steps that should have the cumulative effect of increasing the curb appeal of the district and perhaps help attract more developers, residents, and businesses to it.

The old adage is that for every dollar of public investment you can put into an area, you can get $5 in private investment, she says. The fact is that grand slam projects dont come along very often, and Im fine with just getting some of these base hits for now.

Wittstruck-Eadie says that the citys update to its downtown plan, which is expected to be completed this fall, will identify streetscape improvement projects within the portion of the U-District that lies south of the Spokane River. It also will address the need for residential developments in the Sprague business district.

Meanwhile, the city also is working with Sirti on ways to address the need for projects in the U-District that would provide midsize incubator space for biotech companies that have graduated from Sirtis program and need to move to larger quarters, she says. Areas that would be ripe for such projects include the Sprague business district and a 24-acre site, located mostly on the south side of North Foothills Drive between Hamilton and Perry streets, that the city plans to sell. The city is looking at cleaning up the brownfields on that property and then issuing a request for proposals for certain types of developments there, she says. Possible uses for the site include clean tech manufacturing, affordable housing, and retail, she says.

One of the key issues highlighted in the master plan was the need to clean up brownfields in the district to make way for redevelopment. In 2005, the city received a $200,000 brownfields assessment grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study suspected contaminated properties within the district. The city had to return the money, though, because it wasnt able to find any participants interested in using the money to assess or clean up their properties, Wittstruck-Eadie says.

Its difficult for private companies to be interested in undertaking something like that, she says. It takes someone with a lot of nerve or deep pockets.

Despite such setbacks, and the somewhat slow start to development in the U-District, Wittstruck-Eadie says shes encouraged by the progress thats been made recently.

She says one of the keys to ensuring the project continues to move forward will be persistence on the part of civic, university, and business leaders, and Pitcher agrees.

One of the big lessons weve learned through this whole process is to be patient, he says. This is a partnership, and to be successful we need to be inclusive and present a vision for the community that involves opportunities for neighborhoods, businesses, the city, and the students and faculty.

Contact Emily Proffitt at (509) 344-1265 or via e-mail at emilyp@spokanejournal.com.

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