A park is a personal thing.
That was one of the guiding principles Metro Parks Tacoma used when it proposed park improvements across the city and asked voters in 2005 to approve an $84.3 million bond to pay for them.
The reasoning was this: Not everyone goes to the park system’s crown jewel, Point Defiance. So the bond focused on neighborhood parks, said Doug Fraser, chief planning manager for Metro Parks.
Nearly seven years later, the voters’ investment has taken visible form at small and large parks across the city.
Metro Parks officials told voters in 2005 that completing the bond projects would take six to eight years – a schedule that the parks system expects to meet.
Improvements at 43 of the 61 parks included in the bond are complete. Nine are partially finished, and seven have yet to begin.
One, Harmon Park, was closed in a land swap with the Tacoma School District that allowed Metro Parks to build the South Tacoma Activity and Recreation (STAR) Center. Another – the South End Neighborhood Center – is now managed by its owner, the City of Tacoma.
Even with all the improvements, Metro Parks officials say there is more to be done. They expect to consider another bond measure once they finish the work authorized by the 2005 bond.
“We know there’s still need,” said Nancy Johnson, Metro Parks spokeswoman.
At Wapato Park, the new off-leash dog park paid for with bond money has convinced Elizabeth Moe to stop driving 30 minutes to the dog park at Fort Steilacoom in Lakewood. Moe, 19, now brings her miniature Australian shepherd dogs – 6-year-old Jasmine and 2-year-old Basil – to Wapato in Tacoma’s South End.
“It’s a lot closer,” Moe said.
Jasmine and Basil have a big yard at home, but Moe brings them to the dog park because Jasmine likes to explore and Basil likes to socialize. The dog park has an open lower level and an upper park with trails and benches where the dogs can sniff around off-leash.
The bond also paid for Wapato’s new paved walking loop that opened last month.
Putting park improvements in every neighborhood was not just Metro Parks officials’ idea of smart policy, it also was a matter of political necessity for parks supporters.
The year before the 2005 bond passed, a smaller bond of $60 million narrowly failed. Parks officials and citizens analyzed the 2004 failure, focusing on areas of low voter support and built a new package that spread more improvements into those neighborhoods.
That meant asking voters for more money – but it worked. The $84.3 million dollar bond needed a 60 percent vote for approval. It got 62.38 percent – and for the first time since 1986, voters approved a bond that was aimed at improving park infrastructure citywide rather than just renovating Point Defiance Zoo.
It was the biggest bond the century-old parks system had ever passed. Today, the 20-year bond costs the owner of a $160,000 home about $19.20 a year in taxes. The proceeds can be spent on capital improvement projects but not on creating recreation programs.
Some projects cost millions; others number in thousands of dollars. Each one has its own unique set of hurdles.
“Size doesn’t matter. They all seem to take a good amount of time,” Fraser said.
In 2006, Neighbors’ Park on the Hilltop was the first project completed with bond money – it got new play equipment and an updated community garden. The last big-ticket item on the list is just beginning. Franklin Park, with a $1.1 million chunk of bond money and an additional $500,000 state grant, began construction late last month.
The park was scheduled for improvement last year, but Metro Parks and the community around Franklin waited for the grant so more upgrades could be made. The park will get a new sprayground to replace its wading pool and improved trails.
“We’re a little delayed with it, but in the end it doesn’t matter,” said Tricia DeOme, vice-chair of the Central Neighborhood Council.
Tim Robertson, who lives near Franklin Park, taught his eldest daughter to ride her bike along the park’s paths about 14 years ago. He would take her up to the top of a hill, and she would ride down pedaling. Franklin Park is the place where he took her training wheels off, Robertson said.
Now, roots are breaking through the concrete on the pathway behind the Life Manor assisted living facility, making it difficult to ride on, Robertson said. He’s hopeful the bond money from Metro Parks will make the park safe and usable again. He thinks the new improvements will bring more people to Franklin Park.
DeOme agrees. “You can’t tell it’s a park from the street,” she said. She hopes the changes will bring more visibility and more visitors.
Franklin wasn’t the only park to benefit from extra money found after the bond passed. Metro Parks officials raised an additional $34 million in grants, donations and additional funding to go beyond the work that was proposed.
One donor was the Greater Metro Parks Foundation, a private, nonprofit group that invests in parks. The foundation gave $618,664 to McCarver Park and $823,475 to Wright Park as part of the Zina Linnik Project, an effort to improve the two main parks that bookend the Hilltop.
Linnik, a 12-year-old who lived in the Hilltop, was abducted and killed in 2007. Wright Park’s new sprayground was dedicated in May 2011 on “Play in Peace Day,” an event that honored Linnik.
The foundation donated money to areas it believed needed a “larger family element,” said Drew Ebersole, executive director.
Julia Martin Lombardi, who runs the Hilltop Garden Explorers program that meets at McCarver, has seen a shift at the park. After the bond improvements, McCarver Park went from an “ugly, vacant lot” to an open community space. Attendance at the park has changed the neighborhood.
“If you have people outside, you improve your neighborhood,” she said.
Six projects on Metro Parks’ list have not started: Heidelberg complex, Oaktree Park, Peck Field, People’s Park, Proctor Gardens and Irving Park.
About $10 million of the original $84.3 million is left, and Fraser says that will be enough to finish the remaining work.
“We are going to be able to complete what we promised to complete,” Fraser said.
Metro Parks recently opened the bidding process for work at People’s Park and Irving Park on the Hilltop. Work could begin as soon as the end of August, Fraser said.
Heidelberg Complex and Peck Field are still waiting for improvements. In 2010, Metro Parks applied for a grant to convert two grass fields at Peck to turf, but didn’t get it, Fraser said. The two baseball complexes need upgrades to the concession areas and drainage. The bond set aside $500,000 for each complex’s project.
“(There’s) a myriad of problems and not a whole lot of money,” Fraser said.
The drainage issues are a hindrance to local high school baseball teams. Last season, the Narrows League was unable to complete all of its games due to rainouts at Heidelberg.
“When it’s dry, it’s a great field,” said John Portenier, Narrows League commissioner.
At OakTree Park in South Tacoma, Metro Parks is working with the city of Tacoma because the park is connected to the soon-to-be built extension of the Water Ditch Trail, Fraser said. Proctor Gardens will get new fencing, likely after gardening season is over, he said.
The bond has added spraygrounds to many parks. Spraygrounds are now located at Jefferson Park, McKinley Playfield, Norpoint Park, South Park, Wapato Hills Park and Wright Park. Soon, Franklin Park will have one, too.
The spraygrounds require less staffing than wading pools, because they don’t require a lifeguard. They also are more accessible to disabled swimmers because they are zero-depth entry, Metro Parks Commissioner Erik Hanberg said.
Marina Becker, parks superintendent, said spraygrounds have improved attendance at parks across town.
“It’s like a party every day (at Wright Park),” she said. Although attendance at parks is difficult to track, Becker said that the staff cleans up more trash and cleans the restrooms more often due to a higher number of visitors.
Sometimes, the plans for parks evolved after the bond’s passage. An example is the new STAR Center, which was not on the drawing board in 2005 but was built partially with bond money earmarked for the replacement of the Manitou Community Center.
The new center had its grand opening in May. The new 32,000-square-foot center has had about 2,000 visitors a week since June, said supervisor Dave Griffith. That’s compared to the 800 people a week who attended some of the same programs at South Park Community Center, which Metro Parks now leases to the Asia Pacific Cultural Center.
At each park, Metro Parks officials met with community members and neighbors to talk about what they wanted to see in their parks.
Perhaps nowhere was that process more involved than in the planning for the replacement of Titlow Pool, which was allocated $6 million in the bond. Metro Parks closed Titlow’s 50-meter competition pool and moved water recreation programs to the West End’s Kandle Park, where Pierce County’s first wave pool opened in June.
In the first month it was open, the Kandle pool had more visitors than the Titlow Pool had in an entire season, Fraser said. Last summer, Titlow brought in 16,739. From June 23 to Aug. 2 this year, Kandle Pool has had 22,716 visitors.
Not everybody’s satisfied with the result. The Titlow Alliance Group, or TAG, argues that the wave pool at Kandle is not a replacement for the competition-length pool at Titlow. The group sent a proposal to Metro Parks asking that the pool remain open and detailing swim schedules, said Bryan Murdach, the group’s spokesman. Now, demolition of the Titlow Pool has begun.
“It’s done, and it’s over with,” Murdach said. “Which is really too bad.”
Now, competitive swimmers are either swimming indoors at local schools or they are swimming at Kandle Pool, which is only 25-meters long. The loss of an outdoor competition pool is a blow to Tacoma’s heritage of swimmers, Murdach said.
“(Metro Parks has) really lost the ability to... train world-class athletes,” he said.
While Murdach mourns the loss of the outdoor pool at Titlow, he admits that Kandle Pool is a good facility for families and fun.
“I cringe when I say that, but I must,” he said.
When all the parks’ work is finished, it’s possible that Metro Parks will put another bond to voters.
Parks officials don’t want another 20 years of wear and tear to build up in their parks again. Metro Parks board President Larry Dahl said that, in his opinion, the next bond could go to voters in 2015 or 2016, depending on the economy. Possible projects have yet to be identified.
“Our parks get utilized so they wear out,” he said.
As the economy have taken a hit, the updated parks have provided a cheap day out for local residents.
“We’ve seen, especially with the recession, people falling in love with their parks again,” Hanberg said.
PARK BOND PROGRESS
This map shows state of completion of Tacoma Metro Parks improvement projects funded by a 2005 bond measure. Click on a marker to see details on each project. Green icon = completed; Orange icon = incomplete; Red icon = not started or park closed.