Spokane environmental group Friends of the Falls unveils its Conceptual Plan for the Spokane River Gorge on March 28, 2002.

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 1/27/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10019

On March 28, 2002, the Spokane environmental group Friends of the Falls unveils its Conceptual Plan for the Spokane River Gorge. The plan lays out the group's vision for the Spokane River Falls and Gorge as the natural and cultural centerpiece of the community: "Spokane's natural jewel" (Conceptual Plan). The plan is the group's most ambitious project to date, pulling together the ideas and goals of more than two-dozen community groups ranging from the Spokane Tribe to the Avista Corp. The Friends of the Falls will later spearhead a state-funded Strategic Master Plan for the Gorge in 2004. One idea in that plan, a whitewater kayak park on the river, will later become one of the group's key projects. Beginning in 2002, the group also becomes known for its annual river clean-up drives. Yet the ultimate goal of the group will continue to be a comprehensive Great Spokane River Gorge Park, as originally proposed by the famed landscape design firm, the Olmsted Brothers, in 1908.

What's Right for the River

The group was born in the spring of 1997 when Rick Hastings, a Spokane planner and architect, heard about a proposed Lincoln Street Bridge project, which would blot out views of Spokane's prime natural asset, the mammoth Lower Falls of the Spokane River.

"It didn't make much sense from a planning perspective or architectural perspective or anything we were hearing at the time about what Spokane wanted its downtown to be like," Hastings later told the Spokesman-Review. "It didn't seem like a good fit at all" (Nappi).

Hastings and about a dozen other like-minded people met informally to talk about this and other civic issues. One participant, Dr. John Moyer, a former state legislator, said, "You know, what's right for the river is going to be right for Spokane. So let's focus on the river and talk about that" (Nappi, "Spokane River Dialogues").

"Lights went on," said Hastings. "Everyone realized what an important and profound thing that was to say to set the stage" (Nappi, "Spokane River Dialogues").

A Small Group of Citizens

This loosely organized group continued to meet regularly. It soon adopted the name Friends of the Falls, reflecting its mission. The group first made a splash on the civic scene in September 1997 when it circulated petitions calling for a November vote on the Lincoln Street bridge proposal, with the aim of killing it entirely.

"We really aren't organized," the group's coordinator, Julian Powers, told reporters at the time. "We don't have a budget" (Camden, "City Leaders").

Yet they meant business. Opposition to the bridge proposal coalesced around the Friends of the Falls, which soon had membership numbering in the hundreds and was registered as a 501c-3 non-profit organization. The Lincoln Street Bridge proposal was finally abandoned in 2000 after years of grassroots opposition led by the group -- and after a permit denial by the state Department of Ecology, a denial successfully defended in court by the Friends of the Falls and its pro bono attorneys, Doug and Laurel Siddoway.

The Roar of a Downtown River

The Friends of the Falls had clearly tapped into a newfound appreciation for the river and its falls, which roar right through the middle of Spokane's downtown. The Friends were inspired by the 1908 Spokane city parks plan written by the famous Olmsted Brothers landscape design firm, which had singled out the Spokane River Gorge as "a tremendous feature of the landscape and one that is rarer in a large city than river, lake, bay or mountain" (Olmsted). Spokane's riverfront in 1908 was largely blocked off by railroad tracks, but the Olmsteds envisioned a time when Spokane would come to its senses and create a comprehensive Gorge Park encompassing the Lower Falls and the areas downstream.

The Friends of the Falls wanted to make the Gorge Park a reality. In April 2000, it began holding meetings of interested neighborhood, tribal, civic and business groups with the goal of articulating a common vision for the Gorge. This "Great Gorge Group" met over the next two years and came to a consensus for a Conceptual Plan for the Spokane River Gorge. The plan was unveiled at a ceremony at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane on March 28, 2002. Hastings, in his written introduction, said it "represents the conceptual 'common ground' that we believe honors the Falls and Gorge" ("Conceptual Plan"). The 25-page plan envisioned a Gorge Park that would simultaneously protect and provide public recreational access to the river from the Lower Falls to its confluence with Hangman Creek, also known as Latah Creek.

"The project must be much more than a 'park,'" said Hastings, then the Friends' president, during the unveiling speech. "We hope, at long last, it represents a community joining to listen to what the river tells us about ourselves. Our identity, our collective character and pride as a place both adjoining, and in harmony with, a breathtaking natural environment, can map our future as a place envied by the world" (Hastings speech).

The Conceptual Plan

The Conceptual Plan laid out the broad ideas; the next step was to draft a Strategic Master Plan. Friends of the Falls accomplished that in 2004 with help from state funding. It, too, was a collaborative process that included three public workshops and five meetings of stakeholders (local groups affected by the plan). The Great River Gorge Strategic Master Plan identified 15 "priority projects" ranging from the relatively simple -- signage, overlooks, trails -- to the more ambitious -- a whitewater park, a tribal center, a boat launch, a Spokane Gorge boulevard, and extensive restoration and development of existing public parks. It would, said the plan, revitalize not just the areas near the river, but the entire Spokane region.

It would create "a dramatic 400-acre amenity that will significantly increase property values, drive new investment opportunities and stimulate new neighborhood business opportunities tailored to these River and Gorge area experiences" (Strategic Master Plan). The plan foresaw a boost in tourism when the entire region "rediscovers the beautiful Spokane River and Gorge" (Strategic Master Plan).

"Weekend visitors will ... visit the new tribal cultural center, play on the new Spokane whitewater park and then bicycle miles of glorious trails along the Spokane River," said the plan's Executive Summary (Strategic Master Plan).

When hooked up with the existing Riverside State Park, just downriver, the plan envisioned an "eleven-mile river corridor accessible to all people ... loved and cared for by the citizens of Spokane" (Strategic Master Plan).

Funding and Implementing

The next step: Implementing the plan, which meant finding the funding. The plan called for Friends of the Falls to work with all of its community partners, along with the Spokane Park Board, the City of Spokane, and the state and other government entities to find money to create the Great Gorge Park. The group's executive directors -- first Hastings, and then, Spokane attorney, Steve Faust -- threw themselves into this daunting task. Faust, originally from Montana, had become hooked on the Spokane River's potential after he took a Friends of the Falls-sponsored float trip down the river. He was stunned, he said, that in five minutes from downtown it was possible to be in the midst of such a refuge from urban life.

"As I learned more about the historic and cultural significance of it, I just was even more impressed that, in this one focused geographical area, there is this whole microcosm of Spokane and its whole history," said Faust (Nappi).

The Whitewater Park

The Friends of the Falls then moved one of the 15 priority projects to the top of the list: the whitewater park, a man-made kayaking and canoeing course. The group considered it to be among its highest-profile projects, one that would get a lot of people -- both kayakers and spectators -- down to the river. "I've found that the best way to get people interested in the river and gorge area is to get them down there," said Hastings (Hastings interview).

For those same reasons, they considered the whitewater park to have the most significant economic potential, which made it easier for Friends of the Falls to secure funding from the state. As of early 2012, a "substantial amount of the funding" for the whitewater park had been secured, and the project was in the complex and lengthy permitting process (Hastings interview). Meanwhile, Friends of the Falls was instrumental in helping close the funding gap for the Sandifur Bridge, a pedestrian bridge over the river on the Centennial Trail, right above the proposed whitewater park, which was finished in 2004. This was a key component of another one of the priority projects -- "Centennial Trail completion through the Gorge area" (Strategic Master Plan) -- as well as serving as an ideal viewing platform for the whitewater park.

Cleaning Up and Connecting

As of early 2012, Friends of the Falls no longer has a paid executive director but relies on what Hastings called "an active and hard-working board." Both Faust and Hastings remain on the board. Meanwhile, the annual Spokane River Cleanup continues to be the most visible and remarkable project sponsored by the Friends of the Falls. Every year, between 800 and 1,000 people converge on large stretches of the river to clean up thousands of pounds of trash, including old twisted bicycles and rusted Studebaker car doors. It is, according to the Friends of the Falls, among the biggest river clean-up activities in the nation. It fits perfectly with the group's mission to connect people to the river, while also preserving it and protecting it.

Yet the group's overall mission has never wavered over the years: to create a Gorge Park, as envisioned by the Olmsteds, from the Lower Falls to the mouth of Hangman Creek. When asked how much of that mission is achievable, Hastings replied, "We hope all of it" (Nappi).

Sources: Conceptual Plan for the Spokane River Gorge, March 2002, accessed January 18, 2012 (http://www.friendsofthefalls.org/); Olmsted Brothers Report, 1908, as printed in The Report of the Board of Park Commissioners, Spokane, Washington, 1891-1913, also available online (http://www.spokanepark.org/); The Great River Gorge Strategic Master Plan, Executive Summary, 2004, Friends of the Falls website accessed January 19, 2012 (http://friendsofthefalls.org/documents/SMP-exsum.pdf); Rick Hastings, Conceptual Plan Rollout Speech, March 28, 2002, Friends of the Falls website accessed January 20, 2012 (http://www.friendsofthefalls.org/); Rick Hastings, phone interview with Jim Kershner, January 20, 2012; Rebecca Nappi, "Completing a Vision for the Gorge: Spokane River Dialogues," Spokesman-Review, May 7, 2006, p. B-8; Jim Camden, "City Leaders Take Hits on 2 Election Fronts," Spokesman-Review, September 4, 1997, p. B-1: Jim Kershner, "Olmsteds' Legacy As Close As Nearest City Park," Spokesman-Review, May 27, 2007, p. 1.

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