On Ruston Way lately I feel a little Brando. You remember: Marlon, “On The Waterfront” in Hoboken, torn between a better future and loyalty to the past. He coulda been a contender – like the west side of Commencement Bay and the big-time dream of a Dome-to-Defiance esplanade, weighed down by history.
Hear the bell? There’s one more round. We keep moving our feet, we can step toward the dream.
Attractive urban waterfronts use a few key principles: parsing, anchors and flow.
“Parsing” means deciding which parts of the waterfront are for industry and which are for urban amenities. A de facto agreement between the Port of Tacoma and the city designates the east side of the Foss industrial, the west side urban. This is an important achievement.
“Anchors” are major attractions, like big-name stores in malls. Parks and restaurants aren’t enough; a vibrant waterfront needs anchors roughly every half mile. We already have a fistful: the LeMay-America’s Car Museum, the Museum of Glass, Point Defiance Park and, coming soon, Point Ruston and the renewed Foss Waterway Seaport. It’s an enviable collection.
“Flow” means the route is easy to traverse in both directions, on and off. People can’t feel trapped or dead-ended. Flow is our one big problem, manifested by two sites. The first is a grain elevator, leased by Cargill Inc. from the port. The lease expires around 2025. Let’s defer this one; a lot will change in 12 years.
Sperry Dock is the opportunity now. It’s owned by out-of-state investors and managed by a Burien company. The federal government leases Sperry for two ships in the “ready reserve force” (RFF). Sperry’s owners obey the law, create jobs and pay $5,000 in annual property taxes for their two acres of waterfront.
Sperry renegotiates its contract with the government in 2013. Should we support a renewed contract or encourage a use more compatible with the vision of an urban waterfront?
The RFF ships are planned redundancy. When the military needs marine transportation, it turns to the Navy; if the Navy can’t help, the call goes to the Merchant Marine, a fleet of almost 500 vessels. And if there’s still a need, the RFF is used. But must these two ships dock on Ruston Way?
The investors respond in two ways.
• They say the ships help protect Joint Base Lewis-McChord from the threat of closure. But in 2008, JBLM reported that the ships are not part of its “power projection platform” – that is, they’re not part of JBLM’s core strategy. And even if the ships were necessary, Ruston Way isn’t an essential location. Across the bay or in San Diego is close enough.
• Sperry employs about 20 people, including some Tacomans. These jobs probably pay well. If Sperry is repurposed, we’ll need good new jobs to replace those lost. But this is nothing new; jobs are lost and created constantly.
If we accept the loss of the ships, who might buy the site? Continued moorage is unlikely. The current dock is “grandfathered” in; the shoreline ecosystem is fragile, and other large ships would be prohibited. However, there’s potential to make money selling environmental cleanup credits.
But the two acres could host an “anchor” attraction – like a Native American cultural center. It could be an immense educational and entertainment experience. (A shuttle to casinos? Fine with me.) Or a saltwater science center (without casino shuttle).
Metro Parks is thinking about its next bond issue, and bond campaigns need flagship projects. Tacoma School District’s Science and Math Institute could use such a center and create synergy with Urban Waters and the University of Washington Tacoma.
Sure there are problems with these ideas: crossing the tracks, a busy roadway, money. But dozens of American cities have solved the same problems; we know how. Next year, with the expiration of Sperry’s federal contract, we have an historic opportunity to bring the waterfront dream to life.
To paraphrase someone – coulda been Brando – when circumstances open a door to the future, we should walk through. The door is open; we just have to move our feet.Ken Miller of Tacoma is one of six reader columnists whose work appears on this page. In 2005-2006 he was a consultant to Walk the Waterfront, a nonprofit dedicated to achieving Tacoma’s waterfront vision. He has no ongoing relationship with the organization.