When the last of the more than 5 million visitors to Expo ’74 jumped on a bus leaving town, Spokanites had pulled off a World’s Fair they would be talking about for generations. They’d also created the beginnings of Riverfront Park: a huge green space with a gondola ride spanning the falls and an IMAX theater featuring the newest in projection technology.
In the following 40 years, few major changes have been made to the park. The Pavilion lost its roof in the 1980s and it was not replaced. Events run on a tangle of extension cords, and access to bathrooms and parking is limited. And though Spokane residents may be familiar with the park’s layout, visitors from out of town are better off listening for the falls than trying to find a sign showing the way.
All that may soon change.
A group of 23 community volunteers – the Riverfront Park Master Plan Advisory Committee – has met on a monthly basis since last spring, tasked with dreaming up a modern and revitalized Riverfront Park.
Chaired by Ted McGregor, publisher of The Inlander, the committee has come up with a draft plan for sweeping changes. Five recommended capital improvement projects quickly rose to the top of the list:
• Creating a pedestrian promenade through the heart of the park.
• Tearing down the IMAX.
• Removing the children’s rides in the Pavilion.
• Relocating the ice rink out from under the Pavilion to park land across the street from City Hall.
• Covering and adding lighting to the Pavilion.
Those changes and other renovations would be a major undertaking with a price tag of about $60 million.
“We decided to just do ideas within reason and not worry about the cost,” McGregor said. “The park is tired. It shows its wear. It probably wasn’t built to last this long in the first place.”
Mayor David Condon and City Council President Ben Stuckart have proposed refinancing current park and street bonds to provide $60 million for Riverfront Park restoration, along with $25 million each year for street repair. City voters would consider the proposal in the fall.
The proposed north-south pedestrian promenade through the park, starting at the Rotary Fountain following the Howard Street right-of-way through the park, would open into a plaza on Havermale Island at the Pavilion. The promenade would include a new and clearly identified park entrance on the north bank, as well as benches and updated infrastructure to support larger events and small vendors and food trucks.
The children’s rides at the Pavilion would disappear and be replaced by two new playgrounds elsewhere in the park. Moving the Ice Palace would free up space under the Pavilion’s new roof for concerts, markets, fairs and other events. Ideas for lighting it include interactive light displays like the one on the San Francisco Bay Bridge or the ability to project movies on the roof.
The Ice Palace would relocate to the Gondola Meadow just east of City Hall by The Joy of Running Together sculpture. The committee believes this would make the ice rink more visible and, hopefully, busier with better parking choices. The ice rink would include a concession stand and a building for maintenance equipment and skate rental. This rink would not be covered and could be turned into a plaza in the summer.
The meadow is not large enough for a hockey-sized ice rink. The committee, which supports a separate effort to build a field house on the north bank of the river, would like to see a hockey rink there instead.
The committee decided a new building to house the Looff Carrousel – one of the most beloved attractions in Riverfront Park – is needed, too. The outdated carrousel building lacks proper bathrooms and catering facilities. The committee pictured a much bigger building with glass walls so the carrousel is visible from the street.
The park’s infrastructure also needs major work, including updates to wiring, plumbing, lights and signs. The committee said these improvements must be a priority if more events will be brought into the park. Wheelchair accessibility, pathways and seating should be added, as well as more lights, signs and interactive storytelling features, the group said.
The draft plan would preserve all public art in Riverfront Park, though some may be moved to make room for new developments. The committee also recommends more of a playground around the Red Wagon.
Juliet Sinisterra, the committee program manager, said she already is getting feedback from people. Some worry there’s too much cement at the cost of green space in the draft plan.
Sinisterra said it’s important to remember that the plan presented by the committee is a draft and that drawings and renderings don’t reflect what will be the final plan.
“If the bond passes, these public spaces will be thoughtfully designed to include a balance of landscape and hard-scape,” Sinisterra wrote in an email. “There has not been a formal design process for any part of the Master Plan. If the bond passes, detailed designs will begin soon after.”
Building on past effort
It’s not the first time the Park Board has tackled plans to update Riverfront Park.
Parks Director Leroy Eadie said the city has accumulated a stack of Riverfront Park master plans over the years. One did result in the purchase of property on the north bank, but few had any effect on the park itself.
The renewed interest in updating Riverfront Park should be credited to former Park Board member Jim Quigley, who died last year. Quigley had brought it up when the Park Board was debating bathroom construction near the Rotary Fountain, Eadie said.
“He asked why we were just doing the bathrooms,” he said.
Eadie said the Parks Department looked at old plans and ideas, then took a look at all the parks in the city.
“When we looked at all the parks in the system and the updates we’ve done over the years, Riverfront Park was the one with a glaring lack of investment,” Eadie said.
In his presentations, McGregor repeatedly pointed out that the Park Board must allow more entrepreneurial activity in the park, including leasing out small business pads for food trucks or other temporary seasonal vendors as well as allowing larger tenants in the park.
“No one funds a park the way we do any longer,” McGregor said, citing examples of successful independently operated urban areas like New York City’s Central Park, which is a conservancy, and Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, an independent nonprofit organization.
“Charter changes would be necessary to allow more entrepreneurial activity in Riverfront Park,” McGregor said, “and we urge the Park Board to be brave and make some of the necessary changes.”
He said investing in Riverfront Park will drive economic development around it, benefiting the entire community.
Kim Pearman-Gilman, who served on the advisory committee, reminded the board how underused the park is.
“It’s a 12-month-a-year park. We should ask ourselves how we activate the park year-round,” she said after the committee’s first Park Board presentation. “There’s no reason why we can’t have many more events booked there.”
Renovating a 100-acre park is expensive. The committee focused on public-private partnerships – bringing in tenants and renting out facilities as revenue streams – that would justify spending $60 million on renovations. Eadie said it’s not unrealistic to demand that a park break even, but some parks have no revenue streams and others have many.
“It’s up to the community how much you want to subsidize the park,” he said, adding that it costs the Parks Department about $1 million a year to maintain Riverfront Park. “The kids’ rides are not a source of great revenue for us, and the IMAX Theater is outdated and not used enough.”
The bonds proposal from Condon and Stuckart would allow the city to retire the debt from the 2007 park bond issue without raising property taxes. The mayor likened it to refinancing a home to pay off debt.
“We are proposing sustainable funding for streets and reinvigorating our parks without asking citizens to reach deeper into their pockets,” Condon said.
Spokane taxpayers pay 91 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value toward repayment of three street and park bonds. That rate would remain the same and the bonds would be paid off in 20 years.
The refinancing proposal is expected to be on the November ballot.
A can-do attitude
Almost to the day, 40 years after her father cut the ribbon at the opening of Expo ’74, King Cole’s daughter Mary Cole was back at City Hall to listen to the last presentation about the draft Riverfront Park Master Plan. Park Board President Randy Cameron presented her with some Expo ’74 commemorative coins that had been unearthed during a City Hall cleanup.
Cole said she felt like she had come full circle. Her father often told her that if only he could get the right people together, with a yes attitude, then he could make anything happen.
“This is a great plan for Riverfront Park,” Cole said. “My dad would have been very proud of it.”