Shawn Vestal: Division Street beautification a testament to possibility

For the longest time, “Division Street exit” was code for “Spokane’s ugly front door.”

Well, it ain’t ugly anymore. And the reason it’s not is a testament to the richness of Spokane’s current cultural, political and economic soil – and the fruits borne of collaboration and coincidence among government officials, businesspeople and even the city’s artists.

The Division Street exit and entrance was spiffed up with a city project last year that took some $600,000 and invested it in artwork, landscaping, retaining walls and other amenities. The spiffing-up was intensified with the opening of a little strip mall three months ago – Peppertree Plaza, with a new bagel shop and barber – where before was a big hole in the ground for eight years.

To look at it now is to wonder: Why did we live with the old front door for so long? There are many reasons, and a big one – so far as the plaza goes – was a series of economic difficulties for the property owners, starting with and stemming from the Great Recession. But at the risk of seeming grandiose, I think there is another reason and it has to do with the spirit of the city: We’re becoming a place that doesn’t settle for an ugly front door.

This renewed sense of civic possibility and pride has been palpable in recent years. Neighborhoods are blooming with possibility. You can’t keep up with the good restaurants. Streets and infrastructure work continues apace, and we’re getting ready to make over the city’s central park. Downtown is a potent swirl of activity fueled in significant measure by Walt Worthy’s new Grand Hotel.

Anymore, when I see a “Spokane Doesn’t Suck” bumper sticker I find it irritating, because we’re past merely not sucking.

Which brings us back to the Division Street gateway.

Leaders in this city have known for many years that improving the front door was a possibility, and a relatively cheap one. Bafflingly, we’ve found reasons for years not to do so.

Mayor David Condon mentioned the city’s blighted gateways when he announced his run for mayor.

“I’m not bashful about being proud of our city,” he said this week, “but let’s face it: We were not putting our best face forward at these entrances. … It was just an obvious thing to me.”

Improving those areas had long been a priority for downtown businesses, and Condon’s administration, led by former head of Business and Development Services Jan Quintrall, began pressing to make it happen.

“You come down the hill on I-90 and see this lovely city sitting in a green bowl,” she told the Journal of Business in 2015. “And then you exit off and it’s like, yuck. It’s like having a beautiful house and your front door is made of barbed wire and duct tape.”

I recall driving to Spokane from Moscow, Idaho, in the late 1980s. Getting off the freeway and coming onto Division Street was a depressing affair then – like stepping into a world of cracked, weedy asphalt – and it has remained so for a long time. If anything, it’s been worse in recent years, thanks to the pit at Third Avenue and Division, which sat there pocked by rebar and concrete since 2008, when construction on a new hotel was halted by the economic meltdown.

In 2014, community, business and arts organizers concocted a way to hide the lot behind a fence covered with artwork – an ingenious idea, but not a permanent solution. However, what grew out of that project was a crucial collaboration between the property owners, Rita and John Santillanes, and Baker Construction and Development Co.

The Santillaneses agreed to the art project, and Baker Construction volunteered to build the braces to put up the artwork. The city coordinated obtaining and displaying the art. The Santillaneses, who are hoteliers without retail experience, were struggling to find a viable business use for the lot at the time. Brooke Baker, the director of business development for the construction company, noticed how much street traffic passed that corner and had a suggestion.

“I said, ‘Rita, I don’t know hotels, but I do know retail,’ ” she said.

They had coffee and began discussing the concept that would become Peppertree Plaza. Brooke and Baker Construction President and CEO Barry Baker helped along the way, their company built the plaza, and now the Santillaneses and Bakers are partnering on hotel projects in Nampa, Idaho, and Bend, Oregon.

“It all grew from the art project,” Rita Santillanes said.

Meanwhile, the city was putting in the improvements at five spots getting on and off Division: signs, a statue of a Native American fishing, a retaining wall and other fencing. Baker said her firm consulted with city planners on the design of Peppertree Plaza, to match materials with the infrastructure work. The city’s project was funded in part by changes the Condon administration made in the way the city leases its property around the freeway, and it involved collaboration with both state and federal governments.

One example: Condon said he was forced to negotiate permission to use lilacs in the gateways, because they were not on the federal list of native plants for use in and around freeway projects.

The city work was finished a year ago this month; the plaza businesses opened three months ago. The city will be moving on to further gateways improvements in the coming years.

“This year, it’s Lincoln, and next year … it will be Division from Third Avenue to the river,” Condon said.

If Spokane’s new front door – and the collaborations that made it a reality – are any indication, those will be changes to look forward to.