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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Park Board to vote Thursday on scrapping plan to re-cover Riverfront Park Pavilion

The rigging above the U.S. Pavilion in Riverfront Park, a staple of the Spokane skyline for decades, may remain uncovered indefinitely.

A design team developing plans for the structure, which was built by the federal government for Expo ’74 and then gifted to the city following the world’s fair, will present a plan to retain the naked netting at a meeting Thursday afternoon at City Hall.

The Spokane Park Board is then scheduled to vote on whether to remove a proposal to re-cover the structure from a plan for park renovations drafted in 2014. That plan was used as a way to sell voters on the $64.3 million in bonds needed to fund the work, and passed a city-wide vote with a 68 percent approval rating.

“They have very good reasons why they are not promoting a cover,” said Spokane Parks Director Leroy Eadie, referring to the design team, which is made up of Garco Construction, NAC Architecture, the Berger Partnership and THEVERYMANY Studio, a Brooklyn, New York-based artistic architecture firm consulting on design of the new building.

Those in favor of the revision cite the need for open views above the structure, the design of which will include ways for visitors to climb into the netting area on catwalks and view the Spokane River and other features in the park from areas previously inaccessible.

But those responsible for drafting the planning document and selling the park design to voters three years ago say abandoning the plan to cover the pavilion walks back a tent-pole design choice the city approved.

“We’ve taken a really big idea for our community, and shrank it, and shrank it, to the point it’s really close to what we’ve got now,” said former City Councilman Mike Allen, who served at City Hall between 2007 and 2015, in the midst of discussions about park renovations.

City Council President Ben Stuckart, a booster for a Riverfront Park plan that included a covered pavilion, said it was “disappointing” the plans were being dropped so soon in the process. The contract for the pavilion allows the design team to continue developing plans for the space even as construction, which could begin with the demolition of the old IMAX theater as early as September, commences.

“As a citizen of Spokane, I hope they don’t vote to take that completely off the table,” said Stuckart, who said he learned of the park board’s vote from a Facebook post by Allen earlier this week.

Eadie said the master plan, which was approved by the Spokane City Council and other stakeholders ahead of the November 2014 vote, included concepts other than “traditional” covers, and that focusing on whether to cover it or not avoided what he called the main goals of the master plan, which were to create a “central gathering place” that served as an anchor for the new park.

“We are not losing the vision of what we want the pavilion to be,” Eadie said.

Randy Cameron, a past Park Board president who has been critical of the renovation’s sputtering start, said a decision to remove the cover from future plans ignored the sales pitch that touted a covered facility as “the centerpiece” of the park.

“Every image, every piece of art of Riverfront Park had a covering over that structure,” Cameron said. He also pointed to the shrinking budget for the pavilion as a percentage of the overall park budget, saying officials have had to dip into bond funds originally devoted to the building to cover unexpected costs on the ice ribbon skating feature and additional work on the park’s bridges.

“They’ve not even launched yet, and sure enough they’re over-budget,” Cameron said.

Eadie said the pavilion’s expected costs are within the limits set by the park budget, as are the other features throughout the park.

But he acknowledged park board members have had to shift some funds, resulting in a reduction of money dedicated to the pavilion, from $24 million in the original proposal to $21.5 million, a figure that includes construction, design and what he called “soft costs” associated with rehabbing the old structure. A presentation given to the Spokane City Council on Monday night put the figure at $19.6 million in a “working budget.”

“Either way, that move is not keeping us from making any covering decisions,” Eadie said. “We still have the budget for that.”

But the $4.5 million price tag presented by the design team to cover the pavilion, with a 30-year guaranteed warranty, was an eyebrow-raising sum, said Ted McGregor, chairman of the Park Board subcommittee overseeing the Riverfront Park work.

“We’re trying to steward the 65 million as best we can,” said McGregor, who also publishes the Inlander. He pointed to the unexpected costs of fixing the Rotary fountain, which will eat up close to $1 million of bond money, as a scenario that could repeat itself if workers started attaching a new cover to rigging that hasn’t borne any weight from material or accumulated precipitation since the previous covering was removed in 1978.

Park officials also don’t know how much it would cost to maintain whatever cover is placed on the pavilion, McGregor said. Steve McNutt, a former park board member and consultant architect with the firm NAC, which is part of the building’s design team, said a covering for the pavilion in Spokane would pose challenges that similar projects, like the one over the airport in Denver, don’t have.

“Most fabric roofs in snowy environments have fully conditioned spaces beneath them,” McNutt said. “Snow hits the warm fabric, where it instantly melts, and is channeled off.”

In Spokane, snow could drift near the lower edges of the covering and cause the same tearing that prompted the city to remove the original cloth covering nearly four decades ago, he said.

Allen said the costs of a cover could likely be covered through partnerships with private businesses, including hotels and other downtown shops, who would see boosts in revenue from those visiting to see a signature downtown attraction. Allen said it was “frustrating” to see those types of options not being explored, given the visionary thinking that brought the park to downtown in the first place.

“Here we have the people who turned that entire railroad yard into a beautiful park, and we can’t even figure out how to cover the pavilion,” Allen said, though he commended current park board officials for their work so far on the redevelopment.

McGregor, who initially supported covering the pavilion, said Thursday’s meeting would allow the full Park Board to hear from the public and designers on their priorities and share why they believe altering the plan document makes sense.

“That’s why we’re talking about it now. We’re doing it in the light of day,” McGregor said.