The tiny downtown park at Pacific Avenue and South 21st Street was little noticed by its owner before it spent four months as a campsite for the local Occupy Wall Street offshoot.
Now the park’s owner, the Washington State Department of Transportation, is worried about liability and looking for buyers.
“I would say the whole Occupy Tacoma thing just sort of called it to our attention,” WSDOT spokesman Steve Pierce said. “We’re certainly not in the park business.”
There’s no asking price for the property, but the state has feelers out to the City of Tacoma, the University of Washington Tacoma and the Washington State Historical Society, which runs the history museum next door.
The city has no plans to buy the park, a spokesman said Wednesday. Nor does Metro Parks Tacoma, according to an agency spokeswoman.
In the meantime, the public is barred indefinitely from Don Pugnetti Park. A fence blocks access.
Someone could hurt themselves at the park and the state could be held liable, Pierce said. While that’s been true for years, he said Occupy Tacoma put a spotlight on the concern.
Demonstrators pitched about three dozen tents at the park, part of the nationwide protests against income inequality, until WSDOT told them in February to clear out.
They complied without incident, and staff and inmate work crews spent a couple of days cleaning up, Pierce said.
Normally, the state doesn’t have to pay to maintain the park. A private company takes care of maintenance as part of a deal that allows the company to operate a nearby parking lot, he said.
Until about five years ago, the city maintained the park, according to city spokesman Rob McNair-Huff.
The park isn’t the most ideally placed recreation spot, enclosed as it is by two major streets and a freeway.
“That’s not a place where people typically want to go and hang out,” said David Schroedel of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber.
Schroedel manages the Business Improvement Area, which provides security and other services to downtown property owners. Owners who talk to him aren’t sure about the park’s purpose, Schroedel said.
WSDOT bought the land as part of the Interstate 705 project and may have used it as a staging area, Pierce said.
It was dedicated as a park in 1987 and named for Pugnetti, a News Tribune editor who had campaigned for the connection between downtown and Interstate 5 and who had died the previous year.
Then came the restoration of Union Station and the development of the museums and the university.
“Look at that area now,” said Jerry Pugnetti, Don’s son. “It’s in the heart of the city, and whether (the park) is well used or not, it’s a wonderful greenbelt that serves as an entree to the city of Tacoma.”
Jerry Pugnetti, who now lives in Olympia, where he works as chief policy advisor to State Auditor Brian Sonntag, said the property should remain a park.
It contains a memorial to Don Pugnetti; Pierce said he didn’t know if any steps were being taken to preserve it. That will wait on a decision about the park’s future.
News Tribune staff writer Lewis Kamb contributed to this report.