A Cup of Joe: Building Communities
By Craig Howard
When not immersed in his studies or working part-time to save money for college, Jim Frank once bounded over hurdles as a letter-winner in track at Gonzaga Prep High School.
Years later, the same work ethic and tenacity that carried Frank down the cinder straightaway would bode him well as one of the Spokane area's most original and dynamic developers.
The oldest of four kids, Frank was raised in a humble home where he learned the value of a reliable work ethic - not shortcuts. His father supported the family as a brickmason. In high school and college, Frank held a slew of part-time jobs at places like Kaiser Aluminum, a drive-in restaurant, a clothing store and the Lutz Bakery, where he was employed as a janitor and later a cook.
This year marks the 30-year anniversary of Greenstone Homes, the company Frank launched while still working as an attorney practicing land use and environmental law. The communities he has developed over the past three decades span from Spokane to North Idaho, but it is his wide-ranging influence on the Liberty Lake area that has emerged as Frank's signature work.
In the early 1990s, a decade before Liberty Lake incorporation, Frank formed the groundwork for a community that would distinguish itself from surrounding areas by emphasizing traits like plentiful shade trees, pedestrian access, well-designed parks and grassy medians. The origins of the newly formed residential grid could be traced back to the time Frank spent growing up in the Emerson Garfield section of north central Spokane, where Corbin Park was the heart of the neighborhood and eclectic civic life emerged from real estate charted on a diverse scale of price points.
From the resident-generated impact fees that covered street upgrades on Harvard and Country Vista when Spokane County could not foot the bill to the summer concert series that draws thousands each year to Pavillion Park, Frank has been central to key initiatives that now define the character of Liberty Lake. The central Greenstone office on Meadowwood Lane sits directly adjacent to the site of the Liberty Lake Farmers Market, another project championed by Frank over the years.
An avid cook, cyclist and baseball fan, Frank lives just outside municipal limits, south of Sprague Avenue near the shores of Liberty Lake. He has three kids and 10 grandchildren. When the idea of Liberty Lake forming a city began to gain momentum in the late 1990s, Frank paid for the feasibility study. After the vote for incorporation passed in 2000, he leased the ground floor of his office to the city at a bargain price.
Frank's emergence as one of the region's most successful developers involved a circuitous route. The Spokane native earned a degree in chemical engineering from Gonzaga University and signed on with Monsanto after graduation, relocating to Idaho and addressing work in air and water pollution control. While at Monsanto, Frank enrolled in the MBA program at Idaho State but eventually found his way back to Spokane to attend Gonzaga Law School.
Law degree in hand, Frank found employment at the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority, where he worked for four years before opening his own legal practice specializing in land use and environmental law. In 1983, he established Greenstone Homes, juggling both law and real estate development for close to a decade before closing down the law office.
Over the years, Frank has never been the self-promoting type, opting instead for a quiet profile that steadily makes a difference. He served for years on the board of Spokane Valley (now Greater Spokane County) Meals on Wheels and has provided technical and financial support to groups like Spokane Housing Ventures and Habitat for Humanity. He formed the Greenstone Foundation to assist a variety of community causes.
The Splash caught up with the Greenstone CEO recently to chat about 30 years of home and community building, Liberty Lake incorporation, urban vs. suburban living and more.
Q: Greenstone opened shop in 1983. What do you remember about that first year?
A: I was a lawyer at the time. I was practicing land use and environmental law. I was familiar with the industry, having represented people from both sides of the issue. I represented some developers and business owners, but I also represented a lot of neighborhoods. So, I think I gained from that a really good perspective on what the issues were on both sides of the coin. I learned that those sides have a lot more in common than people generally give them credit for. Mostly people who are developing are trying to do the right thing, and they're trying to follow regulations. And, very often, people who are in a community want to see economic development happen; they just want to have it happen the right way.
Q: Looking back on three decades of building homes and developing communities, what are you most proud of?
A: I'm most proud that it's here 30 years later. We've been able to build an organization that has some sustainability to it. That's due to a lot of people. There aren't a lot of businesses that last 30 years. Sometimes, (what I'm proud of is) something as simple as a tree. I look at a tree and say, ‘That's a tree that's worked out. It was put in the right place, and it's been there now for 20 years and it looks nice there.' It's not just that we build nice houses; it's caring about those types of things.
Q: With all your success, I'm guessing you've probably always been the ambitious type. What kind of kid were you in high school?
A: I was probably a nerd. I mean, it wasn't that I was never involved in athletics. I did get a letter in track in high school, high and low hurdles. Mostly, I was probably nerdy and intellectual, pretty studious.
Q: You've talked in the past about growing up in the north central part of Spokane where parks, sidewalks and housing diversity really created a strong sense of community. How do you think living in that neighborhood affected some of the priorities that you have instilled at Greenstone?
A: I think my experiences growing up in that neighborhood really formed the foundation for a lot of the thinking that we have as a company about what it takes to have a great neighborhood. Having grown up in a very strong and stable neighborhood and looking at the things that made it so and trying to take those factors and apply them in the context of a modern neighborhood. You can't go back and redo the past, but you can take lessons from the past. There were things there that made that neighborhood work. Parks were kind of the focal point of that community. So, we've really looked at parks and open spaces at being critical center points for the communities we develop. The other part of it was just walkability. You walked to things, and those neighborhoods were a bit more mixed use so stores were close by.
Q: Do you think Liberty Lake has succeeded in being the sort of walkable, mixed-use community with accessible open space that you're talking about?
A: Liberty Lake has a really nice mix of uses in the community, so things are close by. I've asked people ‘Where would you live in Spokane County if you didn't have a car?' And honestly, Liberty Lake is one of the few places that you could live and not own a car. Liberty Lake has employment within walking distance, grocery stores and more. I grew up in an area where there was a strong sense of neighborhood where lower density and higher density housing could co-exist with commercial and office uses. It really comes down to a design and the details of that. When you look at Liberty Lake, the details of that have been implemented pretty well, so you've got residential , for example, across the street from the Meadowwood Technology Campus. That's a very nice pedestrian corridor there, and I think the things that are happening on the commercial side of it actually support and enhance what's happening on the residential side of it.
Q: Where did the vision for the Liberty Lake community originate?
A: It started with a mixed use plan that Bill Main had conceived. It consisted of a retail center and a business district and the residential all merged together in a mixed-use community. HP (Hewlett Packard) was the first commercial tenant. That was the late '70s. Then it was a decade before anything of any consequence came in because you just got caught in the very difficult times for real estate in the early '80s, when interest rates were sky high. It wasn't until 1990 when you saw more residential and the commercial, and they both developed side by side. From 1990 over basically the next 25 years, both of them grew at kind of an equal pace. Telect came in and Itron and lots of others at the same time the residential was growing. We have an aerial picture of Liberty Lake in 1994, and there was virtually nothing here.
Q: What can you tell us about Bill Main and his role in believing what Liberty Lake could become?
A: I got to know Bill way back in the days when I was doing land use and environmental work. He was a real estate developer. He was a visionary. He had some great ideas about land use. The original concept of Meadowwood, which we eventually built out, was the concept that Bill initially had. He got derailed by the very difficult real estate times of the 1980s. He got Meadowwood approved in 1975 but wasn't really able to develop it until 1995. In the meantime, Bill survived all of that. We had a good partnership for about 20 years until Bill retired. I think Bill is proud of the way Liberty Lake turned out.
Q: How did the incorporation of Liberty Lake in 2001 affect the course of development here?
A: Liberty Lake formed late so they were able to come in with a set of development regulations that had a real urban character to them. Most jurisdictions have suburban development regulations where these mixed uses don't take place. They don't encourage parks and open space and bike trails or narrow streets and traffic calming. They really were designed for very low-density, automobile-oriented development. (Former Liberty Lake Community Development Director) Doug Smith was instrumental in designing the original set of development regulations for Liberty Lake and I think, by and large, Liberty Lake has done a good job under Doug and other people with the city and the planning commissions we've had. We made a provision for a lot of these things we are talking about - narrower, more pedestrian-oriented public right-of-ways, higher density residential regulations that allow for townhouses. Even things like roads standards - you have cities that require big, wide roads. You look at Molter, for example, it has a collector, arterial status but once the residential area begins, the road narrows and you have those center islands and it really slows the traffic down. It's the same thing with Country Vista. It's only 32 feet wide, and it's tree-lined. You have islands. These things slow traffic down.
Q: Is it fair to say that the city of Liberty Lake essentially followed Greenstone's lead as far as establishing regulations that would determine how the city continued to develop?
A: I think they adopted the concept of mixed use, of walkability, of parks and open space. They saw that and said, ‘That's the direction we want to go.' They could have gone a different direction. They could have said we want to be more suburban - we don't want this mixed-use stuff. I think they made a decision that this was the city we want to be. At the end of the day, the people that were involved in forming the city supported that approach. We were all on the same page. I think that's part of the reason that Liberty Lake is turning out the way it is. We're all trying to accomplish the same thing.
Q: How do you think incorporation has worked out overall?
A: I think it's been fantastic. First of all, you look at the level of service. It's far superior to what we would have with the county. We have our own library. We have a fantastic police department. We have a fantastic police chief. I think it has also strengthened our sense of community. I think we feel like we are a place, that we belong to something. I think that all of us recognize that we are Liberty Lakers. That sense of community has enabled us to move forward with things like Pavillion Park and Rocky Hill Park and the Farmers Market and all kinds of things. Just look at the roadwork that's been done over the summer.
Q: The latest Greenstone project that we're hearing a lot about is Kendall Yards, just outside downtown Spokane and actually only about a mile south of where you grew up. Do you think Kendall Yards will have a galvanizing effect in that area in the way a development like Meadowwood did in Liberty Lake?
A: I think there are two or three levels at which Kendall Yards will have an enormous impact. One level is that it's going to open up public resources that have never been open to the city before. The city has a lot of parkland in the Spokane River gorge. They had a plan and a vision for the river gorge but it was put away on a shelf for 100 years. It really goes back to the Olmsted brothers and the original vision for a parks and open space corridor through the gorge. What happened was the railroads were already on that property when the Olmsted brothers created that report. The railroads shut that property off. There were three major railroad lines through there, so it became a factory railroad yard. Now that area can be accessed. I think the second thing that Kendall Yards will do is demonstrate the viability of urban neighborhoods, that they are wonderful places. We didn't really have a strong urban neighborhood before Kendall Yards. I think people will look at Kendall Yards and say, ‘These townhouses are working. The concept of mixing residential and commercial is working.' I think that will be transforming over the next 20 years. I think the final thing that Kendall Yards is doing is injecting an enormous amount of investment into the West Central neighborhood. As a result, I think you'll see some real changes in that neighborhood.
Q: Speaking of mixed use development and transforming a neighborhood, what is your opinion on the idea of a central business district in Liberty Lake? The idea was introduced a few years ago but we haven't heard much about it for a while.
A: I think it's still in the plan. You have to recognize that to make that change is going to take time. Once the new freeway interchange is in, I think narrowing Liberty Lake Road to two or three lanes makes sense. There's no reason for it to be five lanes. That's going to open up an open space pedestrian corridor there that makes it easier to get to the bridge over the freeway. I think it opens up the opportunity, as properties there are developed, to create street fronting, retail uses. You have a lot of uses on that street already, so it's really just a matter of how those uses are going to redevelop. It's not that complicated. It would be a variation of what's already there, but by narrowing that street you can start to create a center for Liberty Lake, and that's one thing we don't have right now.
Q: The most talked about property in Liberty Lake - the 6.4 acres owned by the city - sits right outside your office. The city has revisited a plan for a townsquare park recently, but are you disappointed that nothing has been developed there yet?
A: I think over time, some things can happen to an area that could be an urban core for the city. If some level of municipal services can happen there, it will probably be a good thing. It could probably be used for some kind of mixed-use development once the city decides what it's going to do. I don't think the city can use the entire 6.4 acres. Some of it they could use for city functions and the rest of it could go to urban infill kind of uses. There's open space there that could allow the Farmers Market to expand and become more viable. There's been talk that it would be a good place for a new post office. I think it's all part of an evolution there, but I don't think it's going to happen over a five-year period; it's going to be 10 or 20 years. A big key to that is a new freeway interchange, because all the traffic will then not be on Liberty Lake Road. Some of it will be on a bridge that will be located to the west. When that happens, there's no reason for Liberty Lake Road to be four lanes anymore. The city has to have a vision. I think they do have the right vision for what that downtown core will be over time.
Q: It's clear your company is about more than just building homes. Themes like conservation, preservation and restoration seem to emerge often when Greenstone is involved in a development. Why is a priority placed on these pursuits?
A: There are assets that every community has that are irreplaceable. You want to make sure that the things that make you special and unique stay there. I think there are a lot of things we've done in Liberty Lake as a community that fall into that conservation category. Part of it is protecting the lake watershed. I think we've done a good job of that. The community as a whole, the sewer district, the city, the people who live around the lake, everyone has been a contributor to preserving that lake watershed. There are some important corridors from the lake to the freeway. That corridor along Liberty Lake Road that serves as outlet for the lake, stormwater control, open space and pedestrian space is another important corridor that's been preserved. Then, along the Spokane River, just recognizing that the corridor and the habitat along the river are irreplaceable. All of those things have been a big part of Liberty Lake and a big part of our philosophy as a company. You have to recognize what's important and try to maintain that. When we developed Rocky Hill, we saw that rocky knoll and realized this could be a very special place. It's been part of this land for a long time, so we wanted to protect that. At Rocky Hill Park, four acres of that park are that rocky knoll.
Q: What's the best part about living in Liberty Lake?
A: We are all neighbors, we support each other, we work together to solve problems. When I first moved to Liberty Lake, there were 3,000 people here. These were the people who built a sewer plant, who created trails, who built Pavillion Park, they got HP out here. I saw the power of people working together to make their community stronger. Part of it is creating opportunities to gather. It's really trying to understand what it takes to build community. You throw mud on the wall and some of it sticks and some of it doesn't. I really think the Farmers Market is mud on the wall that stuck. It's really been fantastic for building that sense of community. It's become an institution out here. People come to the market just to gather. It's kind of having a vision and working to find an answer that works for everyone. We've been fortunate here in Liberty Lake - a lot of it's worked.