During his presentation on preliminary designs for the city of Tacoma’s section of the Prairie Line trail, landscape architect Mauricio Villarreal stopped on one slide that demonstrated better than any other the importance of the project.
Titled “Public Open Spaces,” Slide 40 was an aerial view of the southern half of downtown, roughly from South 15th Street to South Tacoma Way, from the Foss Waterway to Tacoma Avenue South.
Marked in green were the open spaces in that part of the city. I could reproduce the slide, but I don’t really have to. The only areas overlayed in green were Pugnetti Park across from the University of Washington Tacoma, Tollefson Plaza across from the convention center and the esplanade along the Foss.
As Villarreal, a principal at Portland landscape architecture firm PLACE, said of the display, “it is very gray.”
Open space has been an afterthought in the redevelopment of downtown. Civic leaders see progress in buildings – museums, courthouses, college campuses, condos – and in transportation – light rail lines, freeways, streetscape projects after which the streets and sidewalks are prettier but still streets and sidewalks.
Other than the esplanade, the proposed open space on the Foss is on leftover acreage. Tollefson is on the land not needed for the hotel and the convention center and was designed when the budget was mostly exhausted. Even the small Pugnetti Park offered by the Department of Transportation as mitigation for Interstate 705 was threatened with closure when the state tired of owning it.
Parking lots? Yeah, we’ve got those. Vacant lots? Lots. But actual urban parks that can serve as gathering spaces and respites for downtown workers, residents and visitors are rare.
Which makes the opportunity presented by the Prairie Line so important. How the city responds to it could make the difference between a workable, livable downtown or another decade or three of plodding improvement.
“The Prairie Line” is what the Northern Pacific Railroad called the end of the route that crossed the prairie near Tenino on the way to Tacoma. It was the quickest way down, but still barely quick enough for the second transcontinental railroad to reach tidewater by the end-of-1873 deadline set by Congress.
The latest successor to the Northern Pacific, BNSF, stopped using the line in 2003 and agreed to abandon it for a price when Sound Transit’s Link needed to cross at South 17th Street and Pacific Avenue. The University of Washington Tacoma purchased the entire 80-foot-wide right of way through its campus and will begin work this summer on a remarkable trail and park. And finally, BNSF has agreed to trade a 20-foot section of the 80-foot right of way to the city for use as a trail.
When that deal finally closes, Tacoma and the UWT will together have ownership of a trail reaching from South 25th Street to the Foss. It is not civic boosterism or hyperbole to compare it to the High Line trail that reused an elevated freight trestle in New York City for a linear park that is transforming a neglected section of lower Manhattan.
The potential is so robust that this project was ranked the No. 1 bike and pedestrian project by the Puget Sound Regional Council. The council has already awarded a $465,000 grant for design and engineering and will likely look kindly on future requests for construction grants.
For its part, the City of Tacoma and its elected leaders need to put full weight behind wrestling the rest of the right of way from BNSF, especially the lowest section between the Tacoma Art Museum and the Children’s Museum. While the suggested design shown last week presumes the narrower trail, it also imagines what could be accomplished with the entire 80 feet.
The planners and architects from PLACE and the city staff assigned to the project seem genuinely interested in ideas from the public. PLACE especially knows from its experience designing the UWT segment that people in Tacoma feel very strongly about the trail, their city and its history.
Take a look at what is being talked about here: http://bit.ly/prairielinetrail, and let them know what you think.Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657