Callaghan: State capital budget could have final piece of Tacoma Prairie Line puzzle

Staff columnistMarch 5, 2014 

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It’s just one line in a 74-page bill but it is enough to thrill the people who have been working on a dream called The Prairie Line Trail.

In the House capital budget, in a section containing state funds for local and community projects, are the words “Prairie Line Children’s Art Park” and the numbers “$302,000.”

That line broke the news of a deal that might complete the transition of an abandoned stretch of rail right of way into a unique urban park and trail.

When I say a stretch of track, I really mean the stretch of track. The Prairie Line is the name given to the Northern Pacific tracks built by Chinese laborers that brought the nation’s second transcontinental railroad to saltwater in 1873 with Tacoma as its terminus.

In fits and starts, the city of Tacoma and the University of Washington Tacoma have wrestled this land from BNSF, the railroad that absorbed the NP along with many others. Through trades and deals and purchase, the two entities will control much of the diagonal, mile-long length of right of way between South 25th Street and South 15th Street.

The UWT purchased the entire 80 feet through its south downtown campus. Spokesman Mike Wark said the university opened bids Friday to construct a linear park and trail on the property. It expects to announce a winner by next week.

Through a trade of other parcels and considerations — including the closure of A Street as it passes beneath Interstate 705 and crosses BNSF tracks — the city will soon own 20 feet of the right of way north and south of campus. In some sections south of campus, it will receive the entire 80-foot width.

(Although BNSF lawyers have still not signed the final documents, Tacoma’s assistant economic development director Martha Anderson said she has been told it is imminent).

And the city has a grant through the Puget Sound Regional Council of $1.92 million to construct the trail between Pacific Avenue and South 15th Street. This is the second grant of federal money from the regional council and both times the project was ranked No. 1 by council members.

“It’s a story that people get excited about,” said Elliott Barnett, the city’s lead on the project.

So what would the $302,000 buy, that is, if the House appropriation pushed by Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, can remain in a final House-Senate version of the capital budget? It would be enough to complete a purchase by United Way of the remaining 60 feet of the right of way width next to its Pacific Avenue headquarters.

This is the land that could transform a narrow pathway into a much-larger patch of urban open space. This is the land that, if sold and developed, could destroy the sweep of the final course of the Prairie Line. This is the land that holds the remaining tracks and the earth that carried the first trains to tidewater. And this is the land that BNSF has been reluctant to part with.

Just three years ago, United Way had a tentative deal with BNSF to purchase the 60-foot trapezoid next to the parking lot used by the charity’s tenants, including the Children’s Museum. United Way’s short-term plan was to pave the historic land for parking. But it had dreams of combining its existing parking lot with the rail right of way and partnering with a developer on an office tower.

The reaction was not positive. Preservationists, led by architectural historian Michael Sullivan and then-Pierce County Councilman Tim Farrell, protested that it would be wrong to pave over such vital historic turf, land Sullivan calls Tacoma’s first real estate.

United Way backed down. Recently, however, the agency was approached by its neighbors — the Children’s Museum and the Tacoma Art Museum — about joining in the creation of a children’s art park on the land.

“We felt, being good neighbors, that if we could secure the land and coordinate with the city, that would be good for everyone,” said Pete Grignon, chief financial officer for United Way. He said he approached BNSF to see if the railroad would be willing to revive the 2011 arrangement and was told it would be.

Having United Way involved — not as an office developer but as a partner in preserving the trail and completing a one-of-a-kind linear park — is pivotal. It is the final piece in making the project all a reality.

Said Sullivan: “That’s a heck of an exciting thing.”

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657

peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com

@CallaghanPeter

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