“The Gateway Bridge and south landing projects are going to change the face of downtown.”
Designer and artist Travis Masingale sits with a cold brew coffee, working from a tablet at a favorite neighborhood spot. We’re perched on Spokane’s lower South Hill, in the hospital district, just south of where ground is breaking on a project that will change his professional life — and the lives of many others.
As an Associate Professor in Eastern Washington University’s popular Visual Communication Design (VCD) program, Masingale will relocate from Cheney to the Catalyst Building at the south landing of the University District Gateway Bridge in 2020.
“The Gateway Bridge and south landing projects are going to change the face of downtown,” Masingale says. “But for our students and faculty, it radically changes the experience and opportunities. To be so close to other academic and industry experts, for shared learning, internships, guest speakers, collaboration on projects… it’s a real plus for our program.”
He adds, “Being downtown in the city, our students will be able to engage with business, arts, and culture in ways we haven’t before.”
Since graduating from the EWU design program, Masingale has spent a couple decades participating in Spokane’s visual arts scene, helping emerging artists and designers get their start professionally, creatively, and helping instill the importance of giving back to their community. The way he sees it, the setting will enhance all of it. And not just the proximity to downtown.
The Catalyst Building itself will be a marvel of design and innovation. A 159,000 square-foot joint project of Avista Development and the building systems experts at McKinstry through South Landing Investors, LLC, the structure will use a new generation of sustainable materials and smart systems, instantly carving out a new class of buildings in Spokane.
Built not just for hyper-efficiency and smart energy generation, but with a concern for the environment that begins at the level of the raw materials themselves, the Catalyst will feature structural Cross Laminated Timber (CLT), an innovative wood technology which puts to use small-bore timber harvested from sustainably managed forests. Small-bore timber — think of the thickets of scrub pine that populate the west and burn so easily in seasonal wildfires — can’t be used in other applications, so CLT as a process helps limit carbon emissions created by fire or wood decay. The Catalyst Building won’t just be energy neutral, it will actually create more energy than it uses, sharing the surplus with nearby buildings.
Equally intriguing are the innovative plans for when the doors open in 2020. In addition to the VCD program, the Catalyst Building is envisioned as an incubator that will intentionally mix EWU’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science departments with several private industry tenants in the design, data, energy and construction sectors. To start, these will include Avista, McKinstry, and Katerra, a California-based leader in CLT technology whose owners have Spokane roots. (Katerra has also chosen nearby Spokane Valley for its first major CLT production facility, a 250,000 factory currently under construction.)
For McKinstry CEO Dean Allen, a member of South Landing, LLC, the Catalyst Building is the anchor facility in a series of what he calls “industry clusters” — the second of which will be announced soon.
For Allen, clustering is key. “We are purposeful about how we invest in our communities, and how we hope academia and industry will collide,” he says. “There are a lot of incubators around the world, but we’ve learned that the question is: Do you have a critical mass of thinkers, innovators, and talent that centers around a specific cluster of industry? That’s where we see momentum. And, if we want to move fast, setting up these clusters that have a tightened focus — that is how we can really leverage the asset of Spokane’s University District.”
McKinstry has a long history of supporting STEM education and invests deeply in the idea of incubation, having created its own Innovation Centers in both Seattle and Spokane over the past decade. Allen says that, in the process, they have learned a lot about cross-disciplinary collaboration. Catalyst will be the next step in the evolution of that thinking.
Allen casts a vision of the power of intentionally shared spaces, because of the glimpses he has witnessed at the Innovation Centers. A group of academic researchers share a daily coffee with industry leaders who are creating new products and services—and jobs—in a related business sector. Across the atrium, talented and motivated students grab lunch with leaders in their field, picking more experienced brains as they plan for their careers. Grants get co-authored. Products are developed. Walls come down. Better ideas come to life.
For the Catalyst Building, the product of these sorts of close collaborations will be built into the walls, quite literally. Allen shares a story from McKinstry’s Spokane Innovation Center, the historic street car maintenance building the company redeveloped in the University District and opened in 2012. Five years ago, a Washington State University engineering professor, Dr. Todd Beyreuther, set up a desk in the space to focus on new research and development in wood building products. McKinstry’s primary expertise was in metals, so Allen remembers thinking, “Sounds like a pretty wacky idea, but let’s see what comes of it.”
Fast-forward through some great industry connections for Beyreuther, along with a thousand concepts and ideas and iterations and conversations and “what comes of it” is the CLT wood product that Dr. Beyreuther’s current employer, Katerra, will be using to build the very bones of Catalyst Building.
“That’s my favorite recent Innovation Center story,” Allen says, laughing. He doesn’t think CLT is so wacky anymore. Neither does the Avista Development team that’s partnering closely on not only the Catalyst Building, but also a broader Catalyst project which seeks to accelerate productive collaboration in the University District.
Nor does it seem quite so crazy to invest in the future of Downtown Spokane and the University District as they grow together—a city core and a hub that are clearly on the rise.
In June, along with Avista CEO Scott Morris and Cowles Company Chairman Betsy Cowles, Allen led a tour of Spokane for the Washington Round Table, a group of 50 executives from the state’s top companies. The mission — Allen calls it “giving the pitch” — is to show not only why McKinstry set up a headquarters in Spokane several years ago, but also why they are now helping lead another investment of over $100 million in the south landing area alone.
As big as Dean Allen and others are thinking about industry-shaping breakthroughs and city-changing developments, young professionals like Travis Masingale are looking forward to the smaller near-term benefits: the improved lifestyle available for all who live and work and study in the University District and surrounding neighborhoods, and the everyday interactions between students and cross-disciplinary thinkers.
It’s precisely that mix of big thinking and everyday interactions that Allen believes will spill out of the Catalyst building and become part of the larger culture here, impacting not just the students and entrepreneurs, but the entire region.
“The lifestyle, the cost, the culture of Spokane — and this new juxtaposition of academia and industry downtown — makes it a great place for a Washington company like ours to put down roots and be a strong part of the community,” Allen says.