“There’s a powerful draw to a historic building.”
If your only impression of The M was from the apartments inside, you probably wouldn’t guess that it used to be a department store. Or that it’s over 100 years old. A sleek, modern design on the inside is a striking contrast to the historic exterior that’s been preserved along Wall St.
Doug Yost, who manages the project for Centennial Real Estate Investments — a division of the Cowles Company — is certainly pleased with how quickly the development has come together, especially when other old buildings have sat empty for a decade or longer. When Macy’s announced it was closing its store and vacating downtown in early 2016, Yost says the whole community seemed to rally behind the idea of not letting such a landmark building languish. “I’ve never experienced a project where we got so much support and cooperation from everyone,” he says.
“There’s a powerful draw to a historic building, Yost says. “[People] grow up looking at these buildings,” he says, “but they might not have the opportunity to go inside and view them up close. What I’m finding is that everybody wants the historic atmosphere of the building, but they also want, you know,” Yost gestures around the newly renovated penthouse space: “This.”
Flooded with natural light and a dazzling view of the University District and the Gateway Bridge, this penthouse is one unit of 114 total units. For a city like Spokane, that has tended to grow out instead of up, a focus on housing in the urban core is “the logical next step,” as Yost describes it, for a downtown area looking to grow as a community.
While Yost and Centennial’s recent projects are focused on the top end of the market, another equally ambitious project in an even older building is working to preserve architectural history and affordable ambiance for young people, artists, and creatives that have injected so much life downtown.
Just a couple blocks south, another renaissance is taking place at the 118-year-old Ridpath Hotel. An iconic feature of the Spokane skyline, the Ridpath has been vacant for a decade and has suffered through multiple fires, renovations and additions, legal battles, shady dealers, and an ownership structure so labyrinthine it took years of fighting to even begin the renovation process. In 2019, a completed $22 million renovation has transformed one of city's best-known buildings into 206 apartments — a mix of both market-rent and more affordable homes.
Just over 100 of these units will be micro-apartments, averaging just 220 square feet apiece — which is a nod to both a cultural moment (downsizing and simplifying for a more free and urban lifestyle) and a civic need (housing in the city limits that average working people can afford).
“Historic structures capture a time and place,” says Ron Wendle, the architect on the project. He is seated in an office (a back room, really) of the Ridpath as residents are beginning to move in. One challenge has been maintaining that sense of history while creating modern homes that offer multiple benefits to residents, and to the downtown neighborhood as a whole.
Wendle told The Spokesman-Review of the ownership group's desire to create housing that appeals to those seeking "an edited lifestyle." From downtown baristas and bartenders with modest incomes to downsizing retirees to young professionals, the Ridpath Club Apartments are for people who wish to spend less time and money on their home and possessions, and more out enjoying the city.
The hope is to create a sense of inclusivity and shared space, building up a neighborhood in what has recently been a blighted block of downtown Spokane.
Neighborhoods don’t just blink into existence, though. They respond to their environment and the individuals who inhabit them, maturing over years and even decades. Just a handful of blocks away from The M is the Community Building, a center for social change in the Spokane area.
Jim Sheehan, the founder of the Community Building, has spent the past two decades utilizing a large inheritance to renovate six brick and mortar buildings that host a collection of shops, cafes, bars, restaurants, co-ops, art galleries, and businesses.
“I’d say if this place and [Sheehan’s] projects had a thesis, it’s that community is one of the most important things and it has to be experienced,” Summer Hess, the Project Manager of the Community Building, says. “Jim and the people he’s hired over the years have really focused on creating spaces where people can be in community with each other.”
Her point was backed up by the setting. The Saranac Commons, an open-air market inside an old garage, is surrounded by a handful of shops that include a bakery, florist, a café, a biscuit joint, nano-brewery and a shop focused exclusively on showcasing Native American artists, artisans and makers.
More telling, though, is the open door that leads next door to a building not owned by the Community Building, where the comic book shop Merlyn’s is located.
Community is a broad term. It can be applied to a whole city, the downtown area, or a single block on Main Avenue. Spokane isn’t a city filled with modern skyscrapers. Instead it is blanketed by squat, brick buildings constructed a century ago. These buildings are survivors and are tied to the identity of Spokane.
“Real community is completely inclusive,” Sheehan says. “When we get ourselves into issues, culturally, instead of throwing walls up around ourselves and building gated communities we break those walls down and come together.”