The response on Twitter came quickly and predictably.
“Too bad the East Side has to choose between resources instead of accumulating them,” someone tweeted, taking far fewer than the 140 characters allotted to sum up the emotions of many.
The inspiration for that observation was the future of the Portland Avenue Community Center and the park that surrounds it.
The green space, a simple sanctuary of sorts in a part of town with far too few of them, dates back to the 1930s. The modest community center, meanwhile, opened in 1988.
Both now could be lost to progress.
Proceeds from the potential sale of the center and park figure into the financial alchemy necessary to build the $30 million East Side Community Center. That facility is scheduled to open in 2018 about two miles away on the campus of First Creek Middle School.
Many people, including this columnist, have championed that building, and rightfully so.
But the “this for that” approach is now raising a question for an area of Tacoma with a long history of neglect and disinvestment, a question that taps into long-held feelings of distrust and resentment for many East Side residents:
Why should we have to lose something, yet again, in exchange for something else, even if what we’re getting is better?
The answer, simply put, is they shouldn’t have to. With some effort and creativity, we can find a better way.
First, some background.
Like so many neighborhood issues, this one involved plenty of complexities and well-meaning moving parts. To hear decision makers describe it, most pertained to detailed budget calculations and “strategic plans” written in thick documents.
The true definition of surplus is you don’t really need either of those, because they’re being replaced, and so it becomes surplus. The rub is we’re going to replace the pool, and it’s going to be way better. We’re going to replace the community center, and it’s going to be way better. But it is that green space that’s a little bit more sensitive.
Metro Parks Tacoma Director of Recreation and Community Services Dave Lewis
Nearly from the beginning, the math to make the new East Side Community Center work has called for roughly $3 million from the sale of surplus properties.
Specifically, the Portland Avenue Community Center and park, and Metro Parks’ piece of the East Side Pool, have been identified as possible sources for this money, according to Dave Lewis, Metro Parks Tacoma Director of Recreation and Community Services.
But those assets are more than entries in an account ledger.
The park features large play fields where the Tacoma Rugby Club held more than 30 practices and games last year; a covered picnic area for families; and playground equipment for kids that draws visitors on a daily basis.
The community center offers tae kwon do, diabetic foot care, sewing classes and meals for seniors, among other worthy programs.
Listen to area residents like 34-year-old Stephanie Smith, a mother of two, and you hear about a park and community center that are invaluable and one of her neighborhood’s “few options” for recreation.
Smith said that for many of her neighbors, reliable transportation can be a challenge, and even a distance of two miles could serve as a significant deterrent to using the new facility at First Creek.
There’s no question that, as a whole, the East Side will benefit from the new East Side Community Center.
But what’s equally true is that part of this potential tradeoff feels unfortunately familiar.
This is an area of the city where demographics are diverse, poverty is prevalent and a number of important community assets have been lost through the years, including the Boys & Girls Club on East 64th Street and the Swan Creek Library.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that there’s still time to do something different.
Construction of the East Side Community Center will begin regardless of whether the $3 million from the sale of surplus properties is in hand, so there’s time to be thoughtful and come up with alternatives.
Lewis said any potential sale of the Portland Avenue Community Center and park is far from imminent. And a sale of the property, or any part of it, would require a unanimous vote of the Metro Parks board of commissioners.
He also pointed out that Metro Parks is gearing up for a summer full of outreach efforts and promises that the community’s needs will be taken into full account in any decision.
Commissioner Erik Hanberg told me he is extremely reluctant to sell off the Portland Avenue center and park without an ability to “show the community that they were getting a better park and field services in the same district.”
But Lewis acknowledged that Metro Parks maintaining two community centers in the same district is unlikely, given the agency’s strategic plan and the costs of operation, programming and upkeep.
More likely, he said, is that Metro Parks would condense community-center operations at the new East Side Community Center and sell part of the land at the current Portland Avenue location, while maintaining a yet-to-be-determined amount of green space and park amenities.
Here are a few alternatives to that:
Perhaps the same partners who helped raise so much money for the fancy new East Side Community Center could find it in their hearts to help preserve a less shiny, but still important, one?
Perhaps there are other surplus properties that could be sold to help fund the new center?
Perhaps the price of operating the Portland Avenue Community Center and park — roughly $315,000 a year, minus revenue earned from things like rentals and classes, according to Lewis — can be taken on by another entity entirely?
To my mind, I would only consider voting to surplus Portland Avenue park if I could with great confidence show the community that they were getting a better park and field services in the same district.
Metro Parks Commissioner Erik Hanberg
It seems worth trying.
Because, over the years, the East Side has been asked to give up enough.
To be clear, Metro Parks is not the bad guy in all this.
The agency isn’t at fault for the East Side’s long history of neglect and disinvestment, and delivering a state-of-the-art community center to a neighborhood that needs and deserves it is helping to solve that problem.
Still, if providing the East Side with more services and programming is something that’s important to all of Tacoma, there should be a way to get that done, and without taking something away in the process.
Maybe Metro Parks can seize this opportunity to do even more to help reverse the historical trend.
It’s important for many reasons, not the least of which is it could benefit people like Stephanie Smith and her kids.
“The best possible outcome is the park stays exactly how it is. Everything,” Smith told me. “We have to maintain what we have, because our district is so under-served. Taking away what we have is not moving forward.
“It’s stepping backwards.”