Council hears pitch to revive Town Square Park project
By Craig Howard
For Liberty Lake City Administrator Katy Allen, it was hip to be square at Tuesday night's City Council meeting.
Addressing one of the three top priorities established by the governing board at its summer retreat, Allen shed light on the past, present and future of the 6.4 acres owned by the city along Meadowwood Lane that have been discussed as the site of a town square and civic center for more than a decade.
Council members voted in July to prioritize a strategy for the property going into 2014.
On Tuesday, Allen said she had spent the last month researching the history of the plot in hopes of providing "an historical perspective on the 6.4 acres that is factual and objective."
"I just wanted to get the facts straight on the story," Allen said.
Allen's anthology began in 2003, when the city adopted its comprehensive plan which included mention of "a public presence in the central business district." Allen cited regional examples of similar themes, such as McEuen Park in Coeur d'Alene and Riverfront Park in downtown Spokane.
In 2005, the city purchased the 6.4 acres for $1.75 million. The debt, Allen noted, will be paid off in 2020.
Following the land acquisition, Allen described "the rigorous process" the city went through to develop a design strategy. The architectural firm Bernardo Wills was eventually selected to devise a vision for the property. While bids came in high for the town square portion of the project, plans moved forward on an ambitious community center/library development that carried a cost of around $10 million.
By April 2008, the project had made its way to the ballot. Voters resoundingly rejected the $9.8 million proposal by a count of 961 to 598.
Looking back, Allen said the failure of the capital facilities bond could be attributed to a variety of factors, from the shaky economy to a fire district initiative being on the same ballot to the community simply not being supportive of such a large-scale expenditure. Whatever the reason, Allen said the land "went into holding mode" after the 2008 vote.
The city moved ahead later in 2008 with the purchase of a former industrial building that would eventually house the municipal library and the police department. While the 6.4 acres gathered cobwebs, Allen said citizens continued to express support for open space, trails, fields and a public presence in the central part of town.
Last March, the city hosted an open house to discuss design options for the 6.4 acres. The first phase of the Town Square Park development – featuring trails, parking and an amphitheater – was estimated at nearly $850,000, though failure to secure a state grant earlier this year set the project back yet again.
"Now it's 2013, and we're still asking what to do with this property," Allen said.
While applauding the level of citizen feedback on the 6.4 acres over the years, Allen pointed out that a better strategy might be for the city "to put together a vision, then ask informed questions."
"I'd like to shape something, then ask relevant, real-time questions that are relevant to what a municipality can do," Allen said.
Allen concluded her presentation by expressing hope that the city could "take the town square project, put some context to it and bring it back for discussion as part of the 2014 budget." City staff has had discussions with the Spokane Transit Authority – which operates a park-and-ride lot adjacent to the acreage – about collaborating on the parking portion of the project.
"I'd like to see if there's a way the Town Square Park can be built with other entities without going into debt and not necessarily having to decide on the rest of the property," Allen said.
In other city news:
• Council approved an interlocal agreement with Spokane County regarding Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer protection funds. The new format means the city will receive two-thirds of the funds generated each year through a $15 fee per household with the remaining third going to the county. The first read of Ordinance No. 208 – establishing a municipal Aquifer Protection Fund – also occurred on Tuesday night. The city will receive roughly $90,000 annually to address aquifer protection efforts within Liberty Lake city limits.
• A pair of ribbon cuttings will take place this Saturday, starting with an informal event at the corner of Sprague and Molter at 2 p.m. to acknowledge the completion of the Sprague Avenue Trail. The first installment of the Fallen Heroes Circuit Course will be at the center of a ceremony at 4 p.m. in Rocky Hill Park. Representatives of the armed forces, the West Valley High School marching band and Spokane County Commissioner Shelly O'Quinn will be on hand.
• Allen said the city had no plans to unearth the utility tax discussion after council reached a consensus to stand pat on the 3 percent rate at a workshop earlier this month. The conversation regarding any tax shift would not occur, Allen said, "unless the council as a majority wants to bring it back." Meanwhile, city staff will continue to monitor potential increases to Avista rates for gas and electricity going into 2014.
• Allen said bids will open for the first phase of the Liberty Lake Ball Fields on Sept. 26 with the project expected to be awarded Oct. 1.
• Amendments to the city development code were part of a workshop discussion on Tuesday night. On Oct. 1, council will hear a second read of an ordinance to approve 14 amendments to the code as recommended by the planning commission. The agenda will also include a public hearing on the ordinance.
• Council approved $7,500 for Project Access, a local program that provides basic medical care for low-income residents.
• Finance Director R.J. Stevenson provided an update on the 2014 budget with word that Mayor Steve Peterson's official budget will be ready for council review by Oct. 15. Council agreed to convene for a budget workshop on Oct. 29 while "Mayor Budget Questions," featuring inquiries and ideas from the City Council on Peterson's financial game plan, will be part of the budget process again this year following a successful premier in 2012.