Spokane’s core fam­ily-ori­ented role model

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Front Page - RICHARD WHITE

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.

Play­ful place

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.

Fun re­tail

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?

Chil­dren’s mu­seum

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

Gon­dola ride

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


Last word

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.

Pho­tos: Richard White/For the Cal­gary Her­ald

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.

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