Monday, July 22, 2013

Spokane and a Fine Urban Park

A few years ago, my wife and I spent a weekend in Spokane, Washington.  The reason for the trip was the high school graduation of the daughter of one of my wife’s oldest friends.  But I used the opportunity to snoop around downtown Spokane.

To my delight, I found a park that would be an asset to any city.  Spokane hosted the 1974 World Expo on a site between the historical downtown and the Spokane River.  Many of the improvements from that endeavor remain in place as Riverfront Park.  But it wasn’t only the remnants of Expo ’74 that made Riverfront Park special, it was the setting along the river and the drama that the river brings to the park.

Nor was the park the only outstanding public amenity.  Spokane also offers walking paths along both banks of the river.  The paths connect much of the community to Gonzaga University and the downtown.  Collectively, the paths are known as the Riverwalk.
Luckily, my wife had booked a hotel along the Riverwalk.  We were in town less than two days, but I found time to take three outings along the Riverwalk, all of them enjoyable and insightful.
For our first outing, we took the Riverwalk to Riverfront Park and then veered toward downtown.  While my wife did pre-graduation chores, I watched the community play on quirky park sculptures and cavort in the fountain at the park entrance, celebrating a warm and glorious Saturday after a snowy winter.
I rejoined my wife for a quick tour of downtown and its fine early 20th century architecture.

That evening, I returned to Riverfront Park, this time wandering into the heart of the park.  There are two focal points. The U.S. Pavilion at Expo was a large tent-like structure with steel cables and a canvas cover. The canvas was no match for Spokane winters and is long gone, but the center column and cables remain, marking an amusement area.

But it’s a clocktower that provides a more elegant, traditional statement of place, providing a connection back to European plazas.  As I continued my evening stroll, I found the clocktower a frequent presence, presenting different aspects as I viewed it from different angles.

There is a change in texture and color about halfway up the tower, similar to the Washington Monument.  I expect there’s an interesting story to explain the color break, but our time in Spokane was too short to ask many questions.

From the clocktower, I wandered toward the feature that truly made the park special.  However, I’ll defer that story until my next post.

But before closing today, I should write something about Riverfront Park versus the size of Spokane.  Some people have argued that Petaluma and other North Bay cities need their own versions of New York City’s Central Park.  I’ve generally disagreed, suggesting that the cities are too small to support parks of that scope.

Riverfront Park somewhat undermines my argument.  It’s an impressive place for a city the size of Spokane.  But I still don’t believe there’s good application to Petaluma or other North Bay cities.

At over 200,000 people, Spokane at is far bigger than Petaluma and most North Bay cities.  The only North Bay equivalent to Spokane is Santa Rosa and, for at least two reasons, I’m not convinced that even Santa Rosa can support a Riverfront Park equivalent.

As one point, Riverfront Park benefits from the planning and improvements that went into Expo ’74.  Given the costs of mounting a World Expo, I can’t seriously argue that a North Bay city follow that path, even if a result were to be a great urban park.

Second, and even more significant to me, I don’t know the extent to which Riverfront Park claims resources that could be directed to other uses in Spokane.

During the remainder of our Spokane weekend, we noted many districts in which public investment would be helpful.  Without digging into the municipal budget, I don’t know the extent to which the maintenance costs for Riverfront Park preclude those investments, but I’m dubious that Riverfront Park, no matter how glorious, is the best on-going investment for Spokane.

So, as much as I enjoyed Riverfront Park, I don’t believe that it’s a burden I’d wish to impose on a North Bay city.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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