Peter Callaghan: Deciding path for Link is no walk in the open space plaza

Staff WriterNovember 17, 2013 

I say it’s a park.

They say it’s an open space plaza.

Let’s call the whole thing off.

No, really. When it comes to extending light rail by nuking the park/open space plaza next to the Broadway Center in downtown Tacoma, let’s call the whole thing off.

There are other ways — better ways — to extend the current Link line up the hill to the Stadium District. This particular alignment — dubbed A2a by Sound Transit planners — brings too much of what Councilman David Boe called “collateral damage.”

It not only eliminates rare open space where the Broadway Farmers Market sets up, where First Night is centered, where other festivals and fundraisers locate, it severely disrupts the Pantages Theater next door.

Broadway Center executive director David Fischer told a Tacoma City Council committee last week that the semitrailers that deliver the popular traveling shows would have no other place to load and unload. The dual tracks that would be built past the historic theater on the way to either Broadway or St. Helens Avenue also would take away the triangular plaza in front of the theater entrance.

Sound Transit staff is obligated to present all possible alignments to policymakers. They didn’t seem to favor one over the others during a briefing before the committee. But council members had nothing good to say about the use of the area known officially as Theater Square.

Both state and federal transportation law prohibit using public parks as routes for road or rail projects unless there isn’t a “feasible and prudent alternative.” But it isn’t a park, Sound Transit staff asserts. It is an “open space plaza” and therefore not covered by the ban.

Not a park? It has grass and trees and benches and fountains. It is used as a gathering place and for “passive recreation.” It is a significant feature in downtown and has been since it opened 20 years ago.

And people call it a park (mostly because it is). This year’s gay pride event held there wasn’t called “Out In The Open Space Plaza,” for example.

Odds are that a judge would agree that it looks and walks and quacks like a park. Since there are several “sensible and prudent alternatives,” this alignment would likely be blocked if someone sued (and someone would sue).

Since Sound Transit staff doesn’t seem especially enthusiastic about it — and it is far more expensive than the logical route up Stadium Way — it should go away. But when Councilman Boe suggested taking it off the table, both city and Sound Transit staff said it needed to remain at least through the public comment period and through a presentation to the entire City Council set for Dec. 17. A decision on which alignments to study further won’t be made until early 2014, and the “winner” won’t be selected until late 2014 or early 2015.

Why must this bad idea still hang around? Keeping it around just for the sake of process does damage because it delays attempts to make better use of the small park.

Fischer had been talking to Pierce Transit about taking over Theater Square in hopes of putting more events there — food trucks, outdoor concerts, festivals, fundraisers for nonprofit groups.

Part of this vision involves remodeling the park/not-a-park to include covered space for all-weather use and to provide space for up to 2,000 people to hear a concert. Downtown doesn’t have anything like that.

It is certainly sturdy enough since the Pierce Transit bus turnaround below was engineered to support Theater on the Square and a five-story building. A canopy and a few thousand people should be easy.

Fischer wants the park renewal to be part of a capital fundraising campaign for all three theaters that is currently being crafted. But conversations with Pierce Transit can’t resume as long as the park is being considered by Sound Transit as a route for Link expansion.

Save the park/open space plaza. Take Theater Square off the Link extension list.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com @CallaghanPeter

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