The thought of trading one important community asset for another on Tacoma’s East Side didn’t sit well with me.
I wasn’t alone.
“We have to maintain what we have, because our district is so under-served. Taking away what we have is not moving forward,” Stephanie Smith, who lives blocks away from the Portland Avenue Community Center, said last May when the specter of losing that center to something described as progress seemed like a done deal.
“It’s stepping backwards.”
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Thanks to a recent pivot by the parks department, there’s new reason for cautious optimism. The department has signaled a desire to find a local partner to lease or purchase the Portland Avenue Community Center and maintain important programming at the facility.
It’s great news because Smith had a point.
People from the neighborhood balked — and did so loudly — when Metro Parks trotted out tentative plans to sell off the Portland Avenue Community Center and the park that surrounds it to help pay for construction of the new East Side Community Center up the road.
Credit where credit’s due. While nothing’s final, Metro Parks undertook the tough and likely somewhat humbling task of listening to the community. That’s important.
Then it came back with a plan that should be far better deal for all parties involved, which is even more noteworthy, because it showed the agency took the message to heart.
“It became clear that the park is essential to the neighborhood,” said Dave Lewis, Metro Parks Tacoma director of recreation and community services. “Clearly (the original plan) was not favorable to the community. We heard loud and clear that you can’t sell this park.”
That realization, Lewis says, was cemented after at least two community meetings where citizens from the neighborhood were given a chance to sound off and weigh in. At the first gathering, Lewis says 108 people showed up.
“It was way more than we expected,” he said.
The notion was further driven home by the elected Metro Parks Board of Commissioners,which made it crystal clear that selling park land is “not their favorite way of doing business,” Lewis said.
Nor should it be.
That’s when a new plan was hatched, which became official last week when Metro Parks officially launched the process of soliciting proposals.
The new approach makes sense. There other ways Metro Parks can fill in funding for the East Side Community Center, and the East Side has suffered enough losses and divestitures over the years, including the Boys & Girls Club on East 64th Street or the Swan Creek Library.
The focus now should be on adding amenities to the area, not making tradeoffs.
Here’s the idea, as it stands: Metro Parks Tacoma is looking for an organization to step up and either lease or purchase the Portland Avenue Community Center and the southern half of Portland Avenue Park, which surrounds it.
This outside agency would fund and run the community center — perhaps even expanding it — and offer a variety of programming, informed by a list the community has helped develop during the months-long outreach process.
These priorities include simple things like providing meeting rooms and parking lots to more specialized undertakings, like offering youth development programs, meals, programming for seniors and, possibly, medical services.
According to Lewis, Metro Parks is “leaving it open-ended to anything else … as long as (the new partner) can check those boxes.” The hope is that a finalist will emerge by late April, allowing a few weeks for public vetting before a deal is finalized.
The parks agency, meanwhile, will continue to maintain the northern half of the park, including the picnic area, playground and restrooms — meaning there would be no loss of green space in a neighborhood with too little of it to begin with.
In other words, things stay essentially the same for those who depend on the Portland Avenue Park and Community Center and perhaps even get a little better.
So, how likely is this plan to work? It’s a fair question.
On the other hand, Lewis’ confidence seemed telling.
“I can tell you I’ve had probably three of four conversations with people who say you can expect a proposal from me,” he said, while declining to go into specifics. “That gives me hope that we’re going to get a few really great proposals.”
For the sake of the East Side, let’s hope he’s right.
“Ultimately, our best-case scenario is a provider moves in (to the Portland Avenue Community Center) as we move to the East Side Community Center,” Lewis said. “We’ve taken the time to readjust our plan.
“If we’re not here providing what the community wants, then we’re probably not doing our job.”
Couldn’t have put it any better myself.