Fulfilling Metro Parks plan means $198 million more for Tacomans

Measure heads to vote April 22, while Tacomans continue to pay off 2005’s $84.3 million bond

Staff writerApril 6, 2014 

More than eight years ago Tacomans approved a bond issue to pay for improvements to dozens of parks, the zoo and natural areas throughout the region.

This month, Metro Parks Tacoma is asking voters to double down on that support.

While the work from 2005’s $84.3 million bond issue is largely complete, that money was just the first request of several that officials say they need to keep parks up to date and ensure everyone has a quality neighborhood park nearby.

Voters approved the 2005 measure by almost a 2-1 margin. The last of the debt will be paid off by taxpayers in 2030, said Brett Freshwaters, chief financial officer for Metro Parks.

Metro Parks extended the reach of the bond projects by combining those funds with another $46 million received through matching grants and donations.

“There are many projects that are grant-fundable,” said Metro Parks spokeswoman Nancy Johnson. “We were able to turn an average project into the community’s ideal project.”

Now the Metro Parks board is asking voters for $198 million in an April 22 election. The money would be split roughly into thirds: for the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, regional attractions and trails, and neighborhood parks scattered throughout the district.

Much of it will be used to build the work started by the 2005 bond, which paid for planning documents and community outreach. From dozens of meetings and exercises with park users, Metro Parks identified close to $500 million of projects for the next 20 years, said deputy executive director Steve Knauer.

“With that $84 million we were very clear to the community that it was going to solve maybe 30 percent of our capital needs at the time,” Knauer said in a recent interview.

Metro Parks directors say they are confident voters will approve another bond to continue the agency’s more than centurylong history of preservation, education and outdoor recreation. A 2013 telephone survey by Metro Parks shows a 78 percent approval rating for the agency. The survey did not talk about a bond issue.

But Curtis Mehlhaff, the only person to speak against the $198 million bond issue in two park district meetings earlier this year, said the amount is too much, too soon. Taxpayers are still paying off the last bond, he said.

“There’s a big difference between this bond issue and the bond issue eight years ago,” Mehlhaff said. “There are no specifications in this bond on what they are going to spend it on or how much.”

Metro Parks has cost estimates for most of the 70-plus projects proposed in the bond issue, Johnson said. But the agency isn’t advertising the specific costs as widely as it did in 2005.

“We know we can deliver everything in that bond,” she said. Matching money from state or federal grants, and community donations, will help pay for even more improvements, such as regional trail projects.

Johnson said that in 2005, Metro Parks posted specific dollar amounts it expected to spend on each of more than 60 projects. But she said that transparency strategy backfired when the agency spent less or more money than listed to complete the project as promised. For example, the difference could have been because of changing costs in construction, she said.

“Instead of the public saying ‘They delivered everything our park needed to a high quality standard that we were expecting,’ there was a turf war. ‘That’s our money,’” Johnson said.

Zach Powers, who volunteers as a coach and is a member of the Metro Parks Culture and Heritage Advisory Council, said the 2005 bond proved that voters can trust the parks district to get the most out of taxpayers’ investment.

“I feel Metro Parks proved to us after the last bond that they are smart with their money,” Powers said. “I don’t know that you can live in Tacoma and live farther than a half-mile from a park.”

If the bond issue passes, owners would pay an additional $58 per year for each $100,000 in property value. Freshwaters said this series of bonds would be retired in 2042. Property owners currently pay about $40 per year per $100,000 value for the 2005 bond.


Almost 80 years ago, a private operator opened the first aquarium at Point Defiance. Row upon row of fish tanks contained animals taken from the sea that most people would never have the chance to see up close.

The aquarium experience at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium has changed dramatically since then. Metro Parks took over the aquarium in the late 1930s. Then, in 1963, it built the North Pacific Aquarium on its current location.

Today, visitors can get nose-to-nose with fish, sharks and mollusks that call Puget Sound and the north Pacific Ocean home. But salt water has taken its toll on the exhibits in those 51 years. In-ground pipes are corroded by salt water. And the aquarium is likely leaking in areas the staff cannot access.

Other exhibits are also due for an update. The zoo will never receive another polar bear unless it makes changes to the habitat. While the habitat is sufficient to continue to care for the zoo’s existing three neutered male bears, without a serious upgrade of the polar bear habitat in the Arctic Tundra exhibit, international zoo accreditation standards prevent the zoo from ever receiving another one.

In all, replacement of the North Pacific Aquarium and updates to habitats for the walruses, sea otters, seals and puffins in the Rocky Shores exhibit could cost more than $65 million. The costs are educated guesses, based on the costs of similar projects around the country, said the zoo’s deputy director, John Houck, because it would cost a few more million dollars to get a specific plan from experts.

“The worst thing we can do is be silent and close (the aquarium) and say ‘We think that might have been too much money,’” said Gary Geddes, director of zoological and environmental education at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. “The community is very proud and loves that aquarium. If we get this opportunity through the community, we aspire to build something they will continue to love and respect.”

Geddes said the salt water needs to be removed from the North Pacific Aquarium within five years, or the aquarium will not be able to be reused for even a freshwater exhibit.

On a recent visit to the North Pacific Aquarium, Houck pointed out areas behind the exhibits where salt water had reacted with the steel rebar embedded in the concrete. Rebar expands when it reacts with salt water, and that expansion cracks and shatters the concrete around it. All other saltwater exhibits face similar issues.

If the bond issue passes, a new aquarium would be built and the old building could be converted into a freshwater South American rainforest exhibit, Geddes said. Money for that exhibit could come from the zoo’s philanthropic arm, the Point Defiance Zoological Society.

“We need to get the salt water out of there within five years, certainly,” said Jack Wilson, executive director for Metro Parks Tacoma. “If we don’t close the main tank, we won’t be able to repurpose the building.”

The new aquarium would expand on the Pacific Rim theme. New exhibits would include warm-water ocean species such as hammerhead sharks and sea turtles.

The Rocky Shores exhibit, which gets crowded as visitors stand shoulder-to-shoulder, would have more viewing area for watching the animals. Seawater filters would also be replaced and upgraded.

The work would also mean changes for the zoo’s three neutered male polar bears. A revised polar bear exhibit would include a breeding den. This and other modifications would mean the zoo could receive an updated accreditation, and Point Defiance Zoo could receive new bears and eventually breed them.

The polar bear and Rocky Shores exhibit updates would allow the zoo to include information about the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions on the Arctic and Earth’s climate as a whole, Geddes said.

“Zoos do in fact manage gene pools as reservoirs,” Houck said. “The science of reintroduction back to the wild is predicated on having a wild to reintroduce the animals back into.”


Roughly two-thirds of the bond proceeds would be spent outside the zoo on improvements and renovations spread around the Metro Parks district. About one-third would be dedicated to work at the system’s largest parks and most popular attractions, including waterfront areas and historical landmarks.

Those projects include:

  • Restoration of four Works Progress Administration shelters from the 1930s at Point Defiance Park, Lincoln Park and Wapato Park.
  • Creation of a new master plan for Fort Nisqually and implementation of the first phase of that plan.
  • Upgrades to Seymour Botanical Conservatory at Wright Park to improve access for disabled residents.

Point Defiance Park would see the lion’s share of this money, about $41 million. Included in the long list of projects are replacing century-old water and sewer pipes throughout the park, updated disability access throughout the park, improvements to the garden and bowl area, and pedestrian and parking safety improvements.

Also targeted for bond money is 373-acre Swan Creek Park on Tacoma’s East Side, Metro Parks’ second-largest natural area in the city after Point Defiance Park.

The last bond included $1 million in improvements to Swan Creek Park, including a community garden, gathering area and salmon stream restoration. This bond issue would dedicate an additional $3 million to complete more projects from the park’s master plan, including interpretive signs, a seasonal restroom and parking space.

Northwest Trek Wildlife Park would also see about $3 million to build a hands-on area aimed at children, called Kids Trek, and upgrades to the animal facility.

Another $13 million would be used to improve six waterfront parks: Point Defiance Marina, Ruston Way Parks, Peninsula at Point Defiance, Titlow Park, Dash Point Park and Thea Foss Waterway parks. Improvements to waterfront parks include restoration of deteriorating decks and gangways, trail expansions, disability access and new playground equipment.

Johnson said other agencies also have plans to improve some of these waterfront parks. Metro Parks would add matching funds to attract grants from conservation and recreation organizations.

“In many cases, we believe the partner money we can offer could help jumpstart their efforts and help those entities to leverage additional grant funds to advance their vision,” Johnson said in an email.


If the ballot measure passes, Metro Parks would add the agency’s first outdoor artificial field turf to at least three multi-sport fields — more if matching grant money can be found, Johnson said. The fields would allow people to play field sports year-round. Metro Parks helped install artificial turf on two baseball infields at Browns Point Athletic Complex with the 2005 bond, Johnson said.

The first three fields would include the South End Recreation and Adventure complex, Heidelberg Davis Park on 19th Street and another somewhere on the East Side, Johnson said. The fields would be used for multiple sports, including baseball or softball, she said.

Adding an artificial surface would allow sports teams to use the fields year-round and it could also entice regional or national tournaments, said Joe Brady, natural resources manager for Parks.

The parks bond issue also includes $10.4 million for larger community parks: Wapato, Norpoint, Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin and Stewart Heights Park and Pool. Development plans have been created for many of these parks, and additional money would pay to move those plans along. Projects include trails, a spray park, disabled access improvements and playgrounds.

Community centers also would receive a boost: $11 million to pay for improvements to the Center at Norpoint, the People’s Center and the Tacoma Nature Center. Of that money, $6 million is also reserved as seed money for a future community center on the East Side.

More than two dozen smaller parks throughout Tacoma also are slated for safety and security upgrades for their playgrounds, swimming pools or shelters, totaling $14 million. The priority for that money is work that improves safety and accessibility, and projects that allow Metro Parks to bring in money from outside groups.

That pot of money, called a small capital projects fund, will allow the parks district to be prepared for the unexpected. For example, the South Park spray park was vandalized last year. Fortunately, staff members were able to repair the damage within the existing budget.

While the money could be used to upgrade an irrigation system or resolve a safety problem, it would not be used for ongoing maintenance, such as mowing or cleaning, Johnson said.

“(The money) enables us to respond and make sure the playgrounds and spraygrounds are 100 percent operational and in the condition (expected for) them to be in,” she said.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542

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