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Shawn Vestal: The evolving Riverfront Park is grand – and a bargain, too

This rendering shows the “StepWell” interactive art project, which will be installed in Riverfront Park this summer. The piece, by celebrated designer Meejin Yoon, is one of two major artworks that will be installed in the park, along with other improvements. The second piece, also slated to be put in place this year, is a maze-like sculpture by Spokane’s Sarah Thompson Moore, “The Seeking Place.”  (Courtesy Spokane Arts)

It was a beautiful sunny day – one of many in our recent windfall of beautiful sunny days – and we were walking through Riverfront Park.

Around every turn lay something cool and new. The promenade and viewing platforms over the river. The new accessible playground for kids. The Looff Carrousel, in its new, beautiful home, and the curl of the ice ribbon. People stood in line to ride the gondola, and climbed the stairs under the Pavilion tower – whose light shows have been a vibrant addition to the night sky – for a great view of the city.

Not all of what we encountered was new-new, of course. Still, following the dark winter and pandemic gloom, a sunny day at Riverfront Park was like the parting of the waters – an almost surprising rediscovery of the evolving beauty of the park in the center of our city.

If you’re down on Spokane, a walk in that park might be the antidote.

We did a good thing when we voted in 2014 to issue bonds to pay for the park work, and the people in city government at the time did a good thing when they devised a way for us to do it without a tax increase.

Since the day it opened, Riverfront Park has been central to the story of Spokane. Its very creation – built for the World’s Fair in 1974 on the site of former rail yards – marked a transformative passage for the city, a greener vision of the future on the site of an industrial past and a shared space that re-centered the city around the long-neglected and abused river.

And yet the story of Riverfront Park had gradually become a story about the city’s past, much like Expo ‘74 itself. A tale of bygone days. There had been no major investment in the park for 40 years. The work funded under the 2014 bond is changing the park’s story into one that is, again, about the future.

A new playground with an Ice Age theme on the north side of the park will open later this year. That whole quadrant of the park, with a skyline opened up by the demolition of the IMAX theater and the spiffed-up entrance right next to The Podium sports complex, has been remade in exciting ways.

And, as awful as it was to see the Expo butterfly go down in the January windstorm – following such a long journey to find and restore the piece to a prominent place – it’s heartening to know park officials say they’re working to bring back a version of the sculpture.

Among the most exciting additions coming this summer are two new interactive art pieces: “StepWell,” by Meejin Yoon, a hard-to-describe project that will provide places to sit and an elevated view from a spot near the conservation area; and the maze-like piece “The Seeking Place,” by Spokane’s Sarah Thompson Moore.

“StepWell” is the $500,000 “signature piece” commissioned by the city as part of the redevelopment. It was not an immediate hit when the initial sketches were presented, at least among the commentariat on social media. Even then, though, the promise of the piece was clear, and it was not hard to see why the proposal by Yoon, a celebrated architect and designer, was the unanimous selection of a committee of Spokane Arts board members and Park Board representatives.

As the project design has proceeded, and more detailed renderings have been made, its promise has become ever clearer – as planned, it is a work of sculpture that looks sleek and beautiful, adds visual interest to the landscape, and gives people the chance to see the city from new and unique perspectives. It will also rival the Red Wagon in size.

The second art piece scheduled to be installed this year is Moore’s “The Seeking Place.” It will feature a series of anodized aluminum posts that mimic columnar basalt, with lighting designed to cast shadows in and around the structure, according to the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Moore’s work “Convergence” was installed at the head of the South Gorge Trail in Peaceful Valley last year, and she has other public art in place around the region as well.

In addition to these two pieces – which are part of a bargain-within-a-bargain arts budget that amounts to 1% of the overall park work – there is a privately funded mural planned on the Riverfront basketball court in the North Bank area, according to Melissa Huggins, executive director of Spokane Arts. That mural is a partnership between Hooptown and Spokane Arts (and the court was funded by MultiCare).

And all of this is happening for the same property taxes we were paying for park bonds before we voted in 2014. It’s tempting to say it’s free, but that’s not quite right. The money for the park work came from bonds purchased when the city creatively refinanced existing park bonds – it was the brainchild of the Condon administration and then-chief financial officer Gavin Cooley.

At the time, homeowners paid 34 cents per $1,000 toward two existing park bonds. After the refinancing, those bonds were extended at the same rate – about a $100 a year for a $300,000 house – where they have stayed ever since.

A redesigned park is not chiefly about the wonders of civics and bond-financing, of course. It’s about improving the concrete experience of living in the city. It’s about those sunny days, with something cool around every corner.

But Spokane really loves a bargain, too. And, boy, are we getting a grand one in Riverfront Park.

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