Spokane’s core family-oriented role model
CWith everything from a giant radio flyer slide, to a children’s museum, the core of Spokane, Wash., is much more fun than downtown Calgary, says columnist Richard White. Our city has to work on its corporate mindset, he says.
My wife and I were recently in lovely downtown Spokane, Wash., staying at the Red Lion Hotel at the Park next to Riverfront Park, the former home of Expo ’74.
While wandering the area, we quickly noticed how much more fun Spokane’s downtown is on a Saturday morning compared to Calgary’s. Here’s some of the things we discovered as a way of incubating ideas on how Calgary can add more fun to our downtown.
Wandering from the Red Lion’s (a fun name for a hotel) gardens to the nearby pedestrian bridge, we immediately entered Riverfront Park.
Within a few minutes, we were intrigued by the sound of carousel music, then by the sight of a ferris wheel and finally the sight of the 1909 Looff Carousel itself, which is housed in a building for year-round use. Lucky for us, there was a private function, so the area was animated with music, movement and people.
While Calgary’s Sheraton and Prince’s Island have some of these elements — especially in the summer when the wading pool is open — our city doesn’t have the same playfulness.
In Spokane, not only do they have the carousel and ferris wheel in their downtown park, they also have a wonderful summer Rotary Fountain sculpture that kids love to play in and adults use as a meeting place year-round.
Boo Radley’s, a quirky store across the street from the carousel named after a character from the Harper Lee novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, oozes fun for young and old alike.
Upon walking in, we are surrounded by posters of clowns, along with plastic lion and unicorn heads. I loved the display case, which contained ray guns made out of old drills.
Continuing the Harper Lee theme, next door was a unique gift/coffee shop called Atticus. The saying on the large mural — “Shoot all the blue jays you want but . . . it is a sin to kill a mockingbird” — immediately told us this place was full of fun. And it didn’t disappoint.
Around the corner was an Apple computer store. Even at 10 a.m., the place was packed with smiling people — the place bubbled with fun.
I am not sure what it is about Apple products and fun, but they seem to go together. I can’t believe downtown Calgary doesn’t have an Apple store yet. Later in the day, we came upon the bright pink Bruttles Gourmet Candy Shoppe, which had the look and feel of an old-time candy shop.
After seeing its made-on-site candy, chocolates and fudge, and tasting soft peanut brittle (its invention), I was literally smiling like a kid in a candy store.
Soon after, we found Annie’s Bookstore — every downtown needs a bookstore like Annie’s — with its fun children’s area and separate room for gamer geeks to hang out. Calgary used to have a signature downtown bookstore; remember McNally Robinson on Stephen Avenue?
Our Spidey senses told us the Riverfront Park and fun retail didn’t completely explain the Saturday morning downtown animation in Spokane.
Walking along Main Street, we soon figured out why. The children’s museum was located on Main Street as part of Riverfront Square (think Stephen Avenue and The Core).
The entrance right off Main Street was nondescript; you could easily miss it. However, once you find it, there is a fun, quirky design element — it has two doors, one for big people and one for little people (or big people with a sense of play). How fun!
Inside, the place was hopping and it was only 10:30 a.m. It is not a big space, but it has seven or eight regularly changing activity centres at any given time.
By the buzz, it was obvious everyone was having a blast. We were told that on a typical Saturday in the fall, the centre has 750 to 1,000 visitors.
It even has a “drop and shop” program several times per year, such as during Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day where adults can drop off their kids ($15 each for three hours) while the parents go play elsewhere.
Parkade not to be missed
Outside again, we noticed the signs to the Riverfront Square parkade were colourful and fun, not your usual minimal, colourless signs that you can’t find
even when you know they’re there.
One of the tallest structures in downtown Spokane, the Parkade sign — which is above the city’s 10-storey above-ground parkade built for Expo 74 — is now a mid-century modern architectural icon.
There are also several older neon signs that signify the entrance to parkades built much earlier. I loved the ironic neon “Every Green Parking” sign, which probably dates back to the ’30s.
Downtown sign use has to be fun, especially in the neon era when almost all signs were big, bold and flashy. I long for the return of the neon craze.
Mobius Science Centre
Across the street from the Children’s Museum and Riverfront Square sits the new Mobius Science Centre, which opened just a year ago.
It’s a shame its entrance isn’t very inviting and there is no attempt to connect it with the Children’s Museum or to say “science is fun.”
However, once inside, there are strong elements of fun — from a paper airplane challenge to a basketball jump competition. At the entrance are live snakes, frogs, turtles and tarantulas, with a quote on the floor that “kissing will not produce princes. Handling will not cause warts.”
Again, the centre is not huge — it has maybe 15 or so activity areas — but judging by the squealing, jumping and laughing, there were plenty of children and adults having fun while learning.
When was the last time you saw hundreds of kids running around Calgary’s downtown having fun? If downtown is truly the heart of the city, shouldn’t it be attractive to everyone, not just the corporate crusaders?
Perhaps Calgary made a mistake taking its science centre out of downtown. Riding the bus or train, including walking through the Plus-15 Walkway to get to the science centre, used to be part of the adventure of going downtown for our visiting nieces and nephews.
Big red wagon and building blocks
Wandering back to the Red Lion Hotel through Riverfront Park again, we came upon more families milling about the big (and I mean big) Radio Flyer red wagon slide.
Standing four metres tall, four metres wide and eight metres long and weighing 26 tons, the wagon is so big that moms and dads can and do climb unabashedly up into it and slide down with their kids.
Next to the wagon are a dozen or so concrete cubes painted like children’s blocks for climbing and sitting.
Even when there are no kids around, I highly suspect the scene generates more than a few smiles from passersby.
Making a downtown an urban playground should be more than just fun things for adults — things like boutiques, restaurants, pubs, lounges and bars. I love to hang out in our downtown during the International Children’s Festival; too bad we couldn’t make our downtown more child friendly year-round.
Or can we?
Of course, one of the most fun things to do in downtown Spokane is to ride the gondola over the roaring Spokane Falls. It drops you 61 metres into a river gorge over the falls and under the Monroe Street Bridge, offering outstanding views of the falls and historic architecture of the downtown.
If you are lucky, you can open the windows and take a close-up picture of a rainbow. In Calgary, you can float down the Bow River and maybe even catch a rainbow trout, but it is tough to beat the fun factor of Spokane’s SkyRide ($10 US for 15 minutes), ranked this year by Conde Nast Traveler as one of the top gondola rides in the world.
Red Lion at the Park hotel
Earlier that morning at the Red Lion at the Park, we were surprised at the sheer number of families having breakfast. Later, as we were leaving for downtown, we discovered why.
The hotel has an outdoor pool area with a waterslide, waterfall, hot tub and huge patio — very resort-like — as well as an indoor pool and hot tub we noticed earlier.
However, it wasn’t until we returned after our day of flaneuring (window shopping) downtown that we found the children’s outdoor playground.
I am not aware of any downtown hotel in Calgary, or anywhere else, for that matter, with this big of a commitment to family fun. RICHARD WHITE HAS WRITTEN ABOUT ART, ARCHITECTURE AND URBAN CULTURE FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS. HE IS CURRENTLY THE URBAN STRATEGIST AT GROUND 3 LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE. HE CAN BE REACHED AT [email protected] FOLLOW HIM AT TWITTER.COM/EVERYDAYTOURIST. VISIT HIS
WEBSITE AT EVERYDAYTOURIST.COM
I have said it before and I will say it again: “Downtown Calgary is too corporate!”
Why do our downtown office buildings have to be so lifeless and visually minimal? Why can’t they have more colour and ornamentation? Why can’t their entrances and lobbies be more inviting and visually interesting?
Maybe Suncor Energy Centre could have one of the monster oilsand trucks on the plaza in front of their building — wouldn’t that make a fun statement? Let the kids climb up and play on it. Maybe make it into a giant slide?
To be fair, there are some fun things in our downtown, but that will be the subject of another column.
Spokane’s radio flyer slide is so big, parents can slide down with their children.
Spokane, Wash., has the Rotary Fountain, a water feature kids love to play in.
Themed stores include Atticus, modelled after To Kill a Mockingbird.