Home / Editorial / Don’t Spend Conservation Futures $ on the YMCA building

Don’t Spend Conservation Futures $ on the YMCA building


I just sent this letter off to City and County officials. I’m ready for the hate mail to pour in. What do you think?:

Dear Director Chase, Commisioner Mager, Commisioner Meilke, Commisioner Richard,

I urge you not to consider using Conservation Futures funds to acquire the YMCA property in Riverfront Park. I am puzzled as to why you would consider using County funds on this matter. The size and recreational value of the land is small, but the cost is huge. How many larger, more deserving, Conservation Futures properties will go un-purchased because of the money used on this parcel? As a member of the recreational and conservation community I think I speak for many when I say I’d trade the YMCA property in a heartbeat for more projects such as Antoine Peak.

I’m also concerned about the opportunity cost to the City Parks Department for purchasing and operating the YMCA. My neighborhood, Peaceful Valley, just completed a park charrette process to take citizen action to improve our parks. Our play equipment is dangerous and our community center in woefully uderfunded. Will the YMCA property make further funds unavailable to us? Will it threaten Joe Albi re-development? Or Iron Bridge? Or the Great Gorge Park? Or a Native American Interpretive Center? Or ongoing Parks and Rec programs in danger of being cut? It’s too high a price to pay. All of the above mentioned projects are more worthy expenditures.

I don’t understand the opposition to a residential tower at the YMCA site. Spokane desperately needs more density. The Tower development wouldn’t threaten views of the falls. The Parks Board has had the opportunity for decades to purchase the property but they declined to do so until the price had appreciated into the stratosphere. Please take careful consideration before you spend County dollars on the YMCA.

Jon Snyder
Out There Monthly

About Out There Monthly


  1. Agreed. For years, our City’s parks system has struggled to maintain basic operations and maintenance needs for existing holdings. Meanwhile, places that should be prime centerpieces for the community – Riverfront Park perhaps the greatest among them – are beginning to fail as presentable, well-kept and functioning urban amenities. Why? That’s a topic for another discussion, but certainly one thing Riverfront Park suffers from is too much space for too few regular visitors. Try crossing it at night or even visiting some of the more underutilized spaces within it during the day; it just doesn’t feel safe. Surveillance cameras? Heavy policing? Those approaches may work, but only mitigate what’s essentially broken as an urban amenity. What’s needed are people, walking in the park, crossing through it at night, and yes, watching it from modestly-tall, well-designed residences, restaurants and park-friendly businesses abutting and overlooking the park.

    The YMCA property provides an opportunity for just such a feature – and if creatively approached, could even help add much-needed revenue to help maintain – or even improve – our most visible and notable park.

    The use of Conservation Futures funds closes that opportunity, instead mandating eventual restoration to some form of quasi-natural state. More bluegrass? Don’t need it. More open space? That’s great, but what about other open spaces languishing or even under immediate threat right now? What about the costs to remove the building and whatever contamination that may lie beneath it (the site was used for rail and industry for most of the last century)?

    Nice post, Jon. We’ve been told for years the City needs to make tough sacrifices for the sake of priorities. It’s time for the Parks Department to find other resources, or reconsider theirs in regards to the former YMCA.

  2. Jon; Thank you for voicing a strong opinion on this important issue. Because the park department exercised the right to take over my past purchase agreement to buy the YMCA property, I’m concearned that anything I say will sound like “sour grapes.” I assure you that it is not. Truth be known, I have absolutely no rights left under my former contract with the YMCA.

    But I do have a potential lands purchase that I am working on for an expansion of the county park at the south end of Liberty Lake. Even though there is one land owner that is generous, the others need money. That money must come from the county land futures progam. There are many others besides me working on wonderfull pieces of property key to the quality of life for future generations as our community grows. And grow it will.

    I was pleasantly surprised by Rick Hastings post here. He is dead on accurate. When the Ymca leaves the park to move north, there is going to be a void. It is going to be a different environment. The Y is a wonderfull organization bringing alot of eyes and ears to watch over our park. That will be gone. Other negative human elements will fill the void. I am hopefull the word gets out to heed Rick’s warning along with the several other points he makes.

    What is wrong with an integration of park lands and private lands? Look at Austin, Texas. Their park lands are way more utilized then ours. Sure there needs to be some concentrations of park land. But the rest should be integrated to create open space in highly urbanized areas. The old attitude of “us versus the damn developers” is old, obsolete, tired. There are many talented deveopers dedicated to making our cities much more livalbe. In my design, for example, there was a 50 foot setback from the river canyon to the building. This 50 feet, the most valuable portion of the property, was going to be open to the public as an extension of Riverfront Park. Cost to the public….zero. Now what is the cost? $4,400,000.

    There is a real issue of public trust here. The citizens of Spokane County are so generous. In good times and bad they voted to tax themselves for buying land for future open space. Now that they have voted to make this tax permanent, here comes all the hands raiding the cooky jar. Do people realize that the commitment the parks department wants is equal to three years of total tax revenues for the Land Conservation Futures program?

    Buying the YMCA building with these funds is simply inappropriate. It is an empty cry for the city parks department people to say that “if we don’t buy the YMCA property, it will be developed.” It is already developed. It’s been an office building, recreation facility for 45 years. And it is private property adjacent to the far northwest corner of the park.

    The parks department already controls almost all the propery from Division street to Post street on the south bank. They control some of the north bank as well. How much is enough?

    Perhaps what we really need is an amendment to the city charter creating oversite by the city counsel over the park department budget. Most cities have this connection. We have a total disconnect. No over site. No responsibility to our elected officials.

    Thanks again Jon for shining the light.

  3. Mark, I think you are right on. I would add that I think a big problem of oversight comes from the Parks board. They are very difficult to communicate with and it’s unclear how they are accountable.

  4. I think that this is an important issue and I’m glad that a forum exists here to discuss the pros and cons regarding acquisition of the YMCA building. A couple of points I’d like to make regarding the previous posts:

    Mr. Snyder is correct in stating that there are many worthwhile locations that could be acquired using Conservation Futures funds but how many of those locations have the potential to impact as many people as the YMCA site near Riverfront Park? I do agree with Mr. Snyder though, in a sense because as I understand it the building should it be purchased by the county would be left to stand for 15 to 20 years. The building, I think is an eyesore and should be torn down to make room for more open space or rebuilt to house a Native American Interpretive Center or other such PUBLIC venue. So, if the county’s plan is to leave the building standing then perhaps Mr. Pinch ought to be allowed to purchase the property.

    Mr. Pinch mentions in his post that there needs to be more oversight of the Park Board by City Council and I agree. Mr. Pinch needs to understand and agree that should he be allowed to purchase the site that the oversight by city and park officials should be sweeping. He may intend for the sight to be developed into private residences but it remains and should always remain a very public space. His plan for a setback from the river is an excellent one but he should also plan for public space on the ground floor of the building or somehow adjacent. This might include space for a restaurant or Native American Interpretive Center as mentioned by Mr. Snyder. This would encourage more visitation by the public and potentially at night in the case of a restaurant. Strict height restrictions ought to also be enforced so close to the river; if Mr. Pinch wants to build a tower maybe he should consider building somewhere further south in the downtown core.

    Mr. Pinch should understand that there isn’t a whole lot of trust for developers among certain members of the community and with good reason. Consider the monstrosities visited upon this city by developers in the form of the flour mill condos on the north bank and the new Davenport Tower; both of which take much from the city in terms of location and/or aesthetics and give very little back. There also isn’t a whole lot of faith in city hall when it comes to the regulation of developers; which is why there needs to be special oversight from both the planning and parks departments as well as ample time given for public input in order for Mr. Pinch’s project to go forward.

    If these criteria can’t be met then I see no reason to support private development of the site.

  5. Levi,

    Thanks for your post.
    “Mr. Snyder is correct in stating that there are many worthwhile locations that could be acquired using Conservation Futures funds but how many of those locations have the potential to impact as many people as the YMCA site near Riverfront Park?”

    On the contrary, I’ve never been aware of potential CF sight that would have LESS impact than the YMCA property. It’s tiny, it’s been developed for close to 100 years, and it’s completely redundant to wildlife and recreation because it is surrounded by Riverfront Park.

  6. Agree with everyone. Not only is the county’s proposal a poor use of CFP funds, but the result would be a poor use of that land. A residential high-rise in that location, and others near the park, would sell quickly and provide much-needed human presence in the park, especially at night.

    Stanley Park in Vancouver is abutted on its south end by high-rises whose residents regard it as their backyard, thus creating a constant presence. That is exactly what RFP needs.

  7. Hi John and Dad and Levi,

    Glad to see such an intelligent conversation taking place here. Many great points being made! Levi, just wanted to address some of your points above, which I thought were well-taken. Including a Native American Interpretive Center in the building design was actually something that we had discussed with (then councilmember) Mary Verner when the project was still under consideration. Depending on the size of the center, it was a concept that could potentially been included. We had also discussed some sort of restaraunt or walk-up cafe/ deli or something of the like.

    Since the project is now a no-go, these points are no longer really that important, but just wanted to let you know that this could have been an innovative mixed-use project that would have activated the space at Riverfront Park. We sat down face to face at length with parks board members and explained all of these concepts to them, but they absolutely were not open to any of these ideas. NO RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT was their knee-jerk reaction. They were worried that people would move in then start complaining about noise and traffic during public events. Stepping in to buy the property was a purely defensive move, and they were not interested in negotiating, nor did they portray any sense that they had any obligation to do so (never mind the fact that they did not have enough money to step into the contract position that they stepped in to). As a sidenote, I’m curious what will happen if the conservation futures fund pulls out- then what? The Parks Board has made a million dollar non-refundable deposit for 5.5 million dollar purchase they have no way to fund, other than asking for help from other public entities. This whole episode definitely illustrated to me the need for better financial oversight and more accountability for the Parks Board.

    Also wanted to talk about the proposed “tower,” at 15 stories, would have been in compliance with current height regulations on the site. Since that property is in the downtown core, it has the same height restrictions as other areas.
    Though the idea of a tall tower on the bank of a river may not at first appear to be in keeping with a desire to match view corridors, many cities have acknowledged that actually tall, skinny buildings protect view corridors better than wide, low, sprawling ones (like the one there now). Blocking a view horizontally is worse, from human-scale ground view, than a tall, skinny spire that can be seen around. Again, this is not really relevant anymore to the YMCA, but I think it is an important urban design concept that the city should really think about. One way to address it is to regulate floor plate sizes, instead of or in addition to height restrictions. If floor plate restrictions had been in place, we likely would not have wound up with the two sadly institution-like projects you mentioned- which, I agree, erode the public’s trust in developers. However, as a recent grad of an urban planning program, I have to point out that the developers on both those projects built buildings that complied with building code (and design standards) already on the books in Spokane. If we want to change the way buildings look when they come out of the ground, we have to change the code.

  8. Jon,

    Perhaps impact was the wrong word; what I meant was that the YMCA site has the future potential to be visited and enjoyed by more people of diverse abilties and means; i.e. those that are young, old, disabled, short term visitors to Spokane or just those that don’t have the means to travel to some of the more remote CF sites. I am absolutely in favor of conservation whether it be a remote mountain top or urban green space.

  9. Is that true the the tower is completely dead? Even if Parks can’t come up with the money to buy the land?

  10. Hi Jon (sorry for misspelling your name earlier!!),

    My understanding is that if the parks board doesn’t come up with the money, the YMCA gets the property back and they can do anything they want with it, which would likely mean putting it back on the market. They are not obligated to sell it to us, by any means. So a tower is not completely dead- it would really just depend on who the next buyer would be and what their plan for the site would be.

  11. I think I’ve come to the conclusion that if by using CF funds all we gain is a couple acres of grass then perhaps developement of a different sort is preferred. The debate rages on here and over at Metrospokane blog…is anyone from the parks board listening??

    Off subject a little bit but does anyone know what happened with the Parks Board and the proposed Mobius site?

  12. Interesting comments. And Levi, to further your point, it is not even two acres of grass. It’s 0.9 of one acer for $5,400,000 of taxpayer money.

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