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July 14, 2022
In the heart of downtown Spokane, thundering waterfalls mark where the Spokane Valley meets the great gorge of the Spokane River. The site is a sacred gathering space and historic fishing grounds of the Spokane Tribe. It became the city’s birthplace as the power of the falls drew settlement and spurred industry and freight yards. Eventually, hydroelectric power dammed the river while commerce and industry polluted the water in the name of progress.
In time, Spokane recognized the riverfront as an opportunity hiding in plain sight. A forward-looking vision to honor the river and falls reclaimed the industrial site for the home of the 1974 World’s Fair (Expo ’74), the first world’s fair with an environmental focus. After the fair, the grounds became Riverfront Park, permanently transitioning the 100-acre site from industrial landscape to cherished park.
As the new century arrived and the park approached 50 years old, riverfront was showing its age as venues, programming, and infrastructure declined. Aware of the need for change and investment, Spokane’s citizens passed a $64 million bond in 2014 for park improvements, bolstered by over $10 million in added funding as support for the project grew. Landscape architecture firm Berger Partnership developed a master plan for the full park, with implementation realized through phased construction completed in 2021. The reimagined riverfront heals the landscape from its industrial past in ways not possible or imagined in 1974, while enhancing access and experiences that reconnect the community to their river.
Harnessing the river for industry left a legacy of environmental damage and contamination, which shaped the park’s redesign, planting, soil management, and stormwater treatment. The design removed upland fill and hardscape, creating shorelines of riparian plantings while embracing the realities of the site’s dam and hydroelectric facility.
Addressing historic soil contamination from the railyards and industry that once occupied the site, all surfaces drain to lined stormwater gardens, eliminating percolation through underlying contaminants that would leach into the river. The project mitigated tons of “dirty dirt” onsite, shaping it as valued topography, covered with a protective barrier, and capped with 2 feet of clean soil and plantings.
The river defines Riverfront Park, yet the park’s hard edges kept visitors from fully experiencing the river. The redesign includes new features to bring people closer to the water. Planting and boardwalks replace paved shorelines while large local boulders invite scrambling to the water’s edge. Terraced stone seating cascades waterward, and a new bridge features steel-grated cantilevers for people to “float” above the river’s surface while enjoying iconic views.
Located at an important intersection of downtown and emerging neighborhoods, the park is an integral stitch in the city’s fabric. The Howard Street Promenade spans north to south as a bike- and pedestrian-exclusive link, crossing three river channels on unique bridge experiences, each enhanced to strengthen the connection to the river. The promenade has become one of the city’s great cultural gathering places, Spokane’s paseo, and a place to meet and be seen. Interwoven paths and amenities provide endless routes and experiences, all universally accessible. The design also completes a missing link in the 63-mile Centennial Trail.
At the park’s north bank, new park space replaced a gravel parking lot, recapturing the area as a complement to the downtown-adjacent south bank. A new portal featuring the beloved Expo ‘74 Butterfly welcomes the surrounding community and connects directly to Spokane’s arena, sportsplex (The Podium), and new soccer stadium, forming a contiguous public campus.
The park’s south bank serves as a gateway and destination, with attractions including the historic 1909 Looff Carrousel, rehoused in a building designed as a glass drum, which allows riders to fully enjoy proximity to the river and views of the native planting along the restored, naturalistic riverbank. Nearby, a new site design reimagined the beloved interactive Rotary Fountain.
Havermale Island is home to the iconic Expo ‘74 pavilion, which has long defined Spokane’s skyline. Historically, the pavilion was intriguing from afar but underwhelming upon arrival, filled with closed and outdated novelty attractions. Renovating the pavilion erred on subtraction over addition, unburdening it of all structures but the historic net, tension ring, and mast. The remaining space is transformed into a terrarium of terraces, paths, and catwalks with venue space for up to 5,000 spectators. Its cables feature programmable “light blades” that generate a magical nighttime light show.
The pavilion features a universally accessible elevated experience, a series of grated catwalks rising over the landscape into the volume of the cable net with views to the river and downtown skyline. Many great cities have icons, but all too often it is a private pay-to-play experience. The pavilion is proudly a public place, where all are welcome at no charge to bask in its glow.
The community shaped the reimagined park through extensive outreach. Engagement with the Spokane Tribe forged a richer and more genuine relationship between the city and tribe continuing beyond this project. The tribe helped shape both process and outcome, including renaming the island of Snx? Mene? (sin-hoo-men-huh), which means Salmon People. The island is a basalt stone outcropping between two falls, and one of the most desirable destinations in Riverfront Park, now recognized as a place of storytelling and culture.
The impact of the project has surpassed all expectations. Since its reopening, the community has embraced the park as “the” civic destination for passive gathering and life events including weddings, proms, and more. Weekly pop-up events with artisans and food truck rodeos are held along the promenade, and the pavilion hosts a concert series and weekly markets throughout the year. The park once again is home to the biggest community festivals, including the return of Hoopfest, back from its COVID-19 hiatus.
Beyond physical change, the project has helped reshape and become emblematic of the city’s psyche. Proud of its history, culture, character, and honoring its river, Spokane is a city on the rise.
Guy Michaelson is a principal with Berger Partnership.