Bridging the Gaps
Forty-year-old businesses and new restaurants stand side by side along streets that now feel safe and walkable.
The recently finished University District Gateway Bridge, at the east end of downtown Spokane, has already made its mark on the city’s skyline. That striking visual is just a teaser for the impact the bridge is set to make on the communities it connects. The pedestrian overpass links the University District’s academic core — a medical education hub boasting two medical schools — to a a historic business district on the path to revitalization as well as a local the Medical District and several East Central neighborhoods. Promoting the health of people, communities and business is as much a part of the bridge as is its 120-foot iconic arch.
Just east of the bridge site, the East Sprague Business District was, in recent years, the focus of a City of Spokane “Targeted Investment Pilot” including street renovation, an affordable housing development and other revitalization efforts. Now, street trees line the freshly-paved corridor. Forty-year-old businesses and new restaurants stand side by side along streets that now feel safe and walkable.
As the City of Spokane, private investors and local stakeholders all contribute to this fresh take on a once-struggling business district, a delicate balance has been struck: Welcoming a brighter future that includes those who have been there all along.
“We’re hoping that this transformation is an exercise in local empowerment, where the people who’ve invested here and made their livelihoods here can be part of it,” says Bill Grimes, principal at Studio Cascade community planning and design firm.
Grimes and clinical social worker Lucy DePaolo, who are married, believed in the vision for the area’s future long before it began to take shape — they bought three parcels of land near the south landing of the bridge in 2012, five years before the bridge broke ground. Avista Development (a non regulated subsidiary of the utility company) has sought input from local business and property like Grimes and DePaolo to help create and cast a vision for the District’s future. Grimes and DePaolo are making plans to develop the South Landing Lofts that will include a 1,500-foot retail space with nine apartments above.
“I envision the future of our neighborhood as pedestrian-, cycle- and business-friendly with just the right edge of industrial grit to pay tribute to its hard working roots,” DePaolo says. “With the Catalyst project and the EWU presence, I hope the neighborhood will be energetic, youthful, and filled with people who want to learn, contribute, play, commute and live there.”
The multi-million dollar Catalyst Building, slated for completion in 2020, will move 1,000 students and three degree programs from Eastern Washington University's Cheney campus to the Gateway Bridge's south landing — along with a few carefully selected and cutting-edge business tenants.
From the beginning, the Catalyst project has been centered around innovation in bio-science, medical technology and data science. Placing industry and academia alongside one another in one building is key to that vision, says Latisha Hill, Avista’s Senior Vice President of Development.
”That’s where innovation can really take place differently than it has in the past,” she says. ”We want to put folks there who really want to make a change in the world. When you start a project that way, the conversations are a lot different.”
The Gateway Bridge’s south landing location at the Sherman Street intersection signifies a long-term vision: rekindling a connection between East Sprague and the rest of its East Central neighborhood, which the I-90 freeway bisected when it was built in the 1960s.
“It really is a vein that connects the north side with the south,” Hill says. While that connection isn’t strong yet, Hill expects increased traffic to the area will draw new business investments.
Sandy Williams, East Central resident and editor of Spokane's only black-owned newspaper, The Black Lens, isn’t waiting for developers to invest in her community. Inspired by the late Spokane civil rights lawyer Carl Maxey, she and a group of co-organizers are making their own plans.
“It takes having a place, an infrastructure, to be able to address some of the issues that are taking place right now in terms of disparities,” Williams says. This June, Williams announced plans for the Carl Maxey Center, a future hub for Spokane’s African-American community.
A smattering of other home-grown businesses have popped up on the Fifth Avenue corridor in recent years, including the just-opened Fresh Soul, a soul food restaurant that’s both employer and mentorship program for the teens who work there. Williams says the area has finally mustered a critical mass of home-grown businesses, infusing the corridor with new energy.
Ryan Brown from the Union Gospel Mission (UGM) sees the University District’s student populace as a perfect fit for the Gateway Bridge’s vision of connecting districts for mutual benefit. As he sees it, students can apply their learning in the community where they live, thereby improving people's lives.
So, Brown founded UGM’s Student Impact Center, a faith-based youth hang-out and resource center staffed by resident interns from the local universities. Set in a renovated historic hotel on East Sprague, the Impact Center provides much-needed work experience for students and a supportive atmosphere for local at-risk youth.
Anyone aged 13-19 is welcome — and Brown says so far, the center is used by neighborhood kids and homeless youth alike, with little judgement between them. While they’re there, youth can access homework help, computers, space to lounge and even washing machines. In the evening, everyone sits down for a big family dinner.
“We specifically only bought one big giant table because we want kids to have that family experience, sitting around the table,"”Brown says. “That's kind of our motto there: We’re not a facility, we’re a family.”