It is impossible to overestimate the potential for what has become known as the Prairie Line Trail.
It takes some vision, imagination even, to look at the rusting tracks overgrown with weeds and see something other than a rather scary vestige of industrial Tacoma. Except where the trail passes through the University of Washington Tacoma, the adjacent buildings and seemingly abandoned lots do not say “public space.”
But then, that’s what the UWT looked like before the state began transforming it into an urban university (that will graduate a record 1,200 students this year). And it is because the old rail line was abandoned and because the BNSF Railway clung to it that it is available for this new use.
“The greatest legacy of the railroad is that it preserved this open space through the city,” said Mauricio Villarreal, the project architect from PLACE Studio of Portland.
Sooner than anyone would have guessed, the mile-long stretch will become a linear park with a wide path for walkers and bikers. Work on the UWT segment — 80-feet wide from South 21st Street to Pacific Avenue — begins this summer. And Tacoma is completing design and engineering for its two segments north and south of campus — one between Pacific Avenue and South 15th Street with connections to the Foss Waterway and the other from South 21st Street to South 26th Street (see latest renderings at http://bit.ly/newprairieline).
The width of Tacoma’s segments range from 20-feet to the full 80-feet. But the city and members of a committee of residents who have been offering feedback and advice now seem to agree that getting the remaining width is vital. And most have now rejected a suggestion that the best use for a triangle of land between the Tacoma Art Museum and the United Way building would be for a high rise or surface parking. Thankfully the land is shown on proposed designs as the “Art Park” not the car park.
Which leads to my concern with the design and the city’s near-term approach to the development of the Prairie Line Trail. In order to maintain access and parking for a handful of businesses on the eastern (or lower) side of the right of way, the design for three southern segments provides not just for walkers and bicyclists, but for both moving and parked vehicles.
The stretch from South 25th to South 26th that is dubbed “Overlook Street” is a bit less galling. That stub will not be part of any trail system for some time, so the city proposes a narrow path within the existing rails. A gravel apron would be the only transition between an existing alley and parking against existing buildings.
But the segment called “Water Street” between South 23rd and South 25th streets — one area where the city finagled the entire 80-feet right of way from BNSF — shows nearly one-third of rare south downtown open space devoted to vehicles. The plan gives eight feet to a parking lane, 15.5 feet for what is euphemistically called a “drive aisle” and four feet for a buffer between cars and the trail.
The same configuration is shown from South 21st Street to South 23rd Street. While the city does not yet own the land where the road and parking lane would be, it still envisions a road once it acquires the land.
The city is concerned about the businesses that abut the trail. But they have been using railroad right of way all this time — land that once brought rail spurs to loading docks. The city acquired the trail from the railroad in a trade of land and other considerations for a trail and for open space, not more roads.
At the very least, the city should do as little as possible to accommodate cars and trucks and let the status quo prevail for now. While finding dollars for the actual trail development will be a challenge, none should be spent paving and curbing a roadway on land that most people hope will shift to more pastoral uses sooner, not later. Once this “drive aisle” becomes a well-known shortcut along the hillside, getting rid of it will be that much more difficult.Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657