The Journal’s View: City must remain committed to core while studying needs
~March 2nd, 2023
Spokane’s elected leaders are right to study the city’s facilities and determine the best uses for public spaces, but such efforts must factor the importance of a municipal presence in the downtown core.
City council members seem to be on board with committing to downtown after raising the ire of many in the community with the notion that it could move a large portion of city services to the Premera office campus, less than a half-mile from the city limits on the eastern edge of town.
In a press release following the backlash, Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson said, “I do not think the Premera building will have the support needed to house City Hall. I heard the message that keeping City Hall downtown is important.”
It’s especially important in a post-pandemic era in which fewer people are working in the core, tourism and convention activity are projected to be a couple of years from returning to normal levels, homelessness has increased, and perceptions of rising crime rates persist.
Put another way, the elected officials’ timing for floating the idea of moving out of downtown couldn’t be much worse.
It will be interesting to see what that space-utilization study concludes, and it certainly is possible there is a better space downtown for City Hall than the historic, 110-year-old Montgomery Ward building at 808 W. Spokane Falls Blvd.
That said, the challenges at the current City Hall building are neither surprising nor insurmountable.
Critics of the current building point to the fact that the city has to replace the roof and HVAC systems in the structure, which will cost $5 million or more. But facilities maintenance is an inconvenience of owning large properties. And if, in theory, the city decided to sell that building, one would think it would have to replace the roof and HVAC system for the new owner anyway or deduct the cost of those improvements from the sale price. Regardless, there likely is no getting around that expense.
The larger emphasis, however, has been on the fact that City Hall’s office space is underutilized. Council members estimate City Hall is anywhere from 50% to 70% occupied right now. Like many in the private sector, the government has more remote and hybrid workers following the pandemic. It makes sense that it’s facing the same challenges as other employers in determining physical-space needs in that new reality.
But if the city has excess space, there’s nothing saying it can’t lease it out to other tenants. It has done so in the past.
The point here isn’t that the city needs to stay where it is; it’s that the challenges the city faces with its current facility aren’t extraordinary.
That said, while it’s a bad time to be considering a move out of downtown, it’s a good time to be looking for office space, for better or worse. We hope the city finds the best fit for serving its constituents and functioning efficiently, while remaining committed to the core of the community it governs.