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Mar 1, 2023 10 min read

Balancing history and the housing crisis

Balancing history and the housing crisis
For advocates of both history and density, preservation needs to be about function as much as aesthetics. (Photo illustration by Valerie Osier)
Table of Contents

A new historic district under consideration in the Cannon neighborhood raises the question: Can historic preservation and dense living coexist?

Perched southwest of downtown Spokane, the proposed Cannon Streetcar Suburb Historic District isn’t a snapshot of a single specific period of the city’s history the way many historic neighborhoods are. Instead, its story unfolds as a narrative, tracing the shifting trends and housing realities of a western city in search of identity and stability.

Starting as a handful of mansions nestled into the wild pines of an undeveloped south hill, the neighborhood evolved almost continuously through two world wars — and post-war building bonanzas — into one of the densest residential areas in Spokane today.

Through spasms of growth, the neighborhood stands as an “urban planning success from the turn of the 20th century,” said Logan Camporeale, a Historic Preservation Specialist for the city of Spokane. The proposed Cannon Historic District contains urban design elements the city is now trying to rediscover: easy access to public transportation and housing density near the urban core.

As the city tries to balance the ongoing housing crisis with preserving its historic character, city council will soon decide on the creation of a historic district in this neighborhood. Proponents of the new district say that it will protect the neighborhood's unique character. Opponents see the historic designation going too far and potentially blocking housing development during a housing crisis. Camporeale, a preservationist and millennial who has seen his peers struggle to find affordable housing in Spokane, thinks that’s a false choice, and that you can’t actually preserve historically dense neighborhoods without preserving — and ideally, expanding — density.

A dynamic history

The northernmost slice of the Cannon neighborhood grew up before the streetcars that now lend the proposed district came into service at the turn of the century. The oldest — and often largest — homes point to when it was one of the more exclusive neighborhoods for Spokane’s wealthy elite, and there was almost no development beyond. What we now think of as the “bottom” of the South Hill began its life as a ritzy enclave overlooking Spokane’s western downtown, a neighborhood largely destroyed by the construction of I-90.

World War I slowed development drastically, according to Camporeale. When it resumed, the neighborhood expanded south, and expressly marketed to people who wanted the ease of riding the streetcar and light rail services that once covered much of Spokane and connected to regional lines that went as far south as Pullman. In this era, houses were a little smaller, and blocks were often dotted with six to 10 unit red-brick and white-column apartment buildings.

After World War II, the neighborhood added more multi-family options in something closer to a mid-century style. As veterans returned from war and Spokane grew in almost every direction with proto-suburbs of small single-family bungalows like Shadle Park, many of the grand mansions in Cannon were subdivided into multi-family housing as housing needs exploded. Many of those mansions are still apartments. “What was originally a single family house and a carriage house is probably 15 or 16 units now,” Camporeale said.

But even that timeline makes the progression seem more linear than it actually was. Spokane experienced waves of housing need, and tastes changed quickly, such that families who built the mansions began converting them into apartments by the early 1910s. “Some of these mansions were impractical less than a decade after they were built,” Camporeale says.

And while the bulk of the neighborhood was marketed as the peak of accessibility to public transportation, that trend was fleeting as well. “Folks had to add garages in the teens and twenties if they wanted to play the car game — especially as train service declined,” Camporeale said.

Today, old spurs of cable car tracks can still be found in many neighborhoods, where mature tree canopies cast shade on brick-paved streets with houses set back from main roads. STA still runs a residential route up South Madison, tracing a former Washington Water Power City Car line.

What a historic district does

Since 2015, neighborhood property owners, with support from city preservation staff, have engaged in a multi-year effort to establish the historic district. Creating a historic district would restrict the demolition of historic buildings, offer grants and tax incentives for historically appropriate improvements, and create design standards for renovations, redevelopment and new construction.

A core group of volunteers pushed forward the effort despite delays and setbacks related to the pandemic. “We still believe in the core principles of having historic neighborhoods,” said Abil Bradshaw, who lives in a 1909 home in the neighborhood that she also lists as a short-term rental on Airbnb. “We really feel like we're not just doing this for our neighborhood, we're doing it for the city of Spokane.”

In November 2022, 56% of property owners voted for the creation of the historic district (many “no” votes were simply people who didn’t cast a ballot). “Property owners” is key: the voting process only included people who own property in the district. People who rent — approximately half of district residents — didn’t get a vote.

Historic districts create tax and grant incentives for property owners to renovate in a period-sensitive way, set design standards in the area for new construction and make it more difficult to demolish historic buildings. Under the proposed ordinance, 81% of the buildings in the district would be deemed historic and be eligible for financial incentives. The remainder of buildings would not qualify for the incentives, but would be subject to design review for remodels or other work that changes the appearance of the building.

The primary tax incentive for property owners is the “Special Valuation Tax.” This program gives tax relief for property owners who invest 25% of the property's value into renovations, which amounts to $100,000+ in most cases given the recent increases in home values throughout Spokane. If the renovations are appropriate and the building is maintained in good condition, the cost of the renovations is subtracted from the assessed value of the building for the next ten years (property taxes are based on a percentage of assessed value).

The city also has a grant program that offers up to $5,000 in matching funds for improvements to historic facades that would now apply to most of the buildings in the district. (The facade is the most prominent exterior portion of a building, usually the side that faces the street.)

In addition to financial incentives for property owners, the historic designation creates a set of design guidelines for remodels and new homes in the district. The standards cover everything from window types to exterior paint colors and guide a design review process that neighborhood residents must go through before getting approval to do work on their properties. The specific standards span about 60-plus slides and start on page 523 of this city council packet. The standards create an extra level of review that must be reviewed and scored for compatibility by either the City/County Historic Landmarks Commission or the Historical Preservation Office before property owners can get permits.

Included in the design standards for the neighborhood are guidelines to prevent the demolition of buildings with historical significance. That includes encouraging partial demolition of buildings and making the approval of demolition contingent on the property owners redevelopment proposal. Overall, the goal is to maintain and encourage rehabilitation rather than tearing down historic buildings. These demolition standards do not apply to buildings that have been deemed unsafe by city officials.

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NIMBY fears

For Alexander Ross, a college student who spent part of his childhood in Cliff Cannon and still has friends living in the neighborhood, yard signs in support of the district that read: “Cannon Can: Preserve History; Manage Density” were a red flag that the historic district designation meant more than protecting pretty, old buildings. Ross is concerned that the historic designation will exclude development and that increased property values will lead to higher rents to the detriment of lower income residents and younger people like him.

Ross, who lives downtown, attends Spokane Falls Community College and gets around using public transportation, points to public testimony supporting the creation of the district to back-up his worries that the historic district is a Not In My Backyard or “NIMBY” project. In letters to the Historic Preservation Office, some supporters of the project have made comments against denser development in the neighborhood. “I feel like we must do everything possible to prevent what has happened in communities like the Sander’s Beach Area in Coeur d’ Alene as well as Bend, Oregon where developers have bought up houses only to tear them down and replace them with garish, modern, multi-unit complexes,” one commenter wrote.

On the Spokane Historic Preservation website, the office promotes the district as a way to increase property values, in part by preventing some forms of development: “Local historic district designation stabilizes neighborhoods by controlling demolition and inappropriate infill in the neighborhood and ensuring that the physical integrity of individual properties is retained.”

Bradshaw, who moved to the area a few years ago, said that preventing density isn’t the goal of the historic district. She said that they regretted putting “Manage Density” on the signs because it gives the impression that supporters don’t want more housing in the neighborhood. “We want density, we just want it to look like the rest of the neighborhood,” Bradshaw said. “That's a hard thing to put in a sound bite.”

Supporters, city staff and council members don’t think the historic designation conflicts with ongoing efforts to expand housing options in Spokane. In an Urban Experience Committee meeting on February 13, council president Breean Beggs asked the Spokane City/County Historic Preservation Officer Megan Duvall if the designation would prevent denser development in the neighborhood, including development types permitted by Spokane’s Building Opportunity and Choices for All (BOCA) Initiative that passed in the summer of 2022 and allows up to a fourplex on most residential lots.

Duvall said that the district would not override the new laws encouraging denser housing. “We will not even be reviewing ADUs [accessory dwelling units or backyard cottages] in Cannon … we left that out of the design standards,” said Megan Duvall.

Camporeale echoed that sentiment: “We think that as new development is proposed in this district we'll be able to have some review over what the design looks like, but not discourage development and not change the density profile of this neighborhood — it's already dense and it's going to continue to be dense. I won't be surprised if in five years the density is higher in this neighborhood than it is today.”

Process complaints

While there have been mixed messages over the impact of the historic designation on future housing creation, residents like Ross and plan commission member Todd Beyreuther have raised concerns about the processes behind the designation and how they could impact housing equity and affordability.

Ross said the voting process that excluded renters — who make up about half the population of the proposed district — was undemocratic and elitist. “I think my specific age group and demographic are pretty resistant to things like [the historic district],” he said. “Great tragedy, we don't have four hundred thousand dollar mortgages,” so younger and less wealthy residents were excluded from the voting process.

Council member Lori Kinnear, a proponent of historical preservation in the Cannon neighborhood and Browne’s Addition before that, said that the voting process was determined by an existing city law. “The way the law reads, it has to be property owners,” Kinnear said. “So, there wasn't a lot of leeway there. Okay. If we had renters [voting], it would've swung even further in favor of a historic district, in my opinion.”

Bradshaw, who canvassed the neighborhood drumming up support for the historic district, echoed Kinnear. “Renters were for it overwhelmingly. They were like: ‘oh yeah, I want to sign that right now, that would be so cool,’” she said.

Those anecdotes aside, no polling was conducted to gather data on renter sentiment in the proposed district.

The other concerns about the process came from Todd Beyreuther, the lone dissenting vote in the plan commission’s 9-1 vote in favor of the historic district. Beyreuther, who also serves on the Washington State Building Code Council, teaches at Washington State University and is the director of product for Mercer Mass Timber — a wood products manufacturer in Spokane Valley — argued in his dissent that the creation of the district gives undo authority to the Historic Landmarks Commission and could stifle development in the district.

In the dissenting opinion (starting on page 513), Beyreuther writes that the additional design elements created by the historic district will increase the cost and time of new housing construction. Localized zoning codes make it more difficult to get approval for modular or prefabricated buildings that can be mass produced and more inexpensively built (in some cases, with the products Beyreuther’s employer, Mercer Mass Timber, produces in Spokane Valley).

Beyreuther proposed that the historic standards only apply to existing historic structures and not to the roughly 20% of buildings that are not deemed to have historical significance. That proposal lost in a 3-7 vote in the plan commission.

“Our community is trying to create housing opportunities for ALL across our entire city, accessing ALL of our community assets,” Beyteruther wrote. “Maintaining artificial scarcity of housing over existing infrastructure creates development pressure elsewhere within our growth boundary.”

Preserving affordable housing

As many cities, including Spokane, have embraced increasing housing density, historical preservation has at times been utilized to block new development. In Seattle, hundreds of proposed housing units have been blocked by historic designations.

This legacy of historic preservation as a tool to prevent new development isn’t lost on preservation specialist Camporeale. “Historic preservation is kind of at a reckoning moment right now. Most preservationists are frustrated that sometimes NIMBYs use our tools to get their way,” he said. “We don't want to be part of that. We want to be part of the solution. We want to allow density in historic districts without being ‘hysterical preservation’ about what the new design looks like.”

Camporeale believes there’s evidence that historical preservation has been a boon for affordable housing in Spokane, not a roadblock. He said that’s because developers have been able to use historical designation tax credits to create new housing, especially downtown.

In a 2022 article for the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, Camporeale wrote: “Including the projects in historic buildings that are not on the register, a total of 554 new units of housing were created in historic buildings in downtown between 2014 and the end of 2021—nearly twice as many units created in historic buildings as in new construction projects during the same time period.”

Camporeale also pointed to instances in Browne’s Addition where the creation of the historic district has prevented the demolition of historical buildings that include affordable housing. “A lot of Spokane's affordable apartment units are inside of converted houses,” he said.

Before the Browne’s historic district was created, development in the area was trending in a different direction. “One of the last demolitions that happened there were two historic houses that I think had about 12 total units. They were both demolished and replaced with luxury apartments on Coeur d'Alene Avenue. The last time I could find rent for one of those houses, it was renting for about $500 in the paper — those luxury apartments rent for like $1,700.”

While some of the price jump can be explained by time and the overall skyrocketing of rental prices in the area, Camporeale said he believes that historic preservation can benefit, rather than hurt, affordable housing in Spokane.

“Historic preservation can play some role in making sure that those naturally occurring affordable housing units aren't replaced with expensive housing units without much net gain in the amount of units,” he said. “I think that most preservationists, particularly younger preservationists, are committed to making preservation be part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

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