With three major construction projects kicking off this summer, new visions for Point Defiance Park and the Ruston Way waterfront are on the cusp of changing Tacoma from the City of Destiny to the City of Destination.
South Sounders have reason to be excited about a four-tiered aquarium at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, a permanent spot for Tacoma Public School’s Science & Math Institute and an expansion of 11 acres of recreation. A bridge will provide a much-needed link between the 760-acre park and the busy waterfront.
The projects are a result of a combined effort of public and private interest, so rather than report on self-interested fiefdoms crippling progress, we get to talk about cooperation.
Public meetings and brainstorming sessions resulted in securing $124 million for park improvements. This means several projects in Point Defiance and Ruston will come to fruition, and the wait won’t be long.
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The next chapter began last Monday with the groundbreaking ceremony for the Pacific Seas Aquarium, scheduled to open in 2018. By far the largest single capital project Metro Parks has ever undertaken, the aquarium comes with a $51.6 million price tag.
In a city beset with financial shortfalls, some may ask if upgrading a park and expanding an aquarium is financially prudent. The short answer is “Yes.”
We know because it’s been done before. The first aquarium built at Point Defiance was in 1936, a time of economic recovery from the Great Depression. The Metropolitan Parks District saw the wisdom then in an attraction that would add quality of life for residents while bringing tourists to Tacoma.
Our parents and grandparents probably didn’t bandy about phrases like: “Aquariums increase social consciousness and educate the public about the ocean’s fragile eco-systems.” But they knew life underneath our surrounding waters piques the interest of young and old alike.
Today we realize the impacts of over-commercialization and pollution. The urgency to increase public awareness is acute. The new aquarium is not a bauble, but a necessity.
The theme of Pacific Seas Aquarium will be: “We share the ocean and the responsibility for protecting it.” That goes hand in hand with the mission of the SAMI campus that will be built near the aquarium in a 30,000-square-foot Environmental Learning Center.
Metro Parks contributed the land, and a Tacoma school district bond will fund the $12.3 million cost.
But the aquarium and SAMI are just two pieces of a cohesive vision for the park and waterfront. A connecting pedestrian bridge will lead to 11 acres of green space. Not long ago, this acreage resembled a scene from “Mad Max.” The abandoned area held a smelting and refining operation for a century until it was shut down in 1985.
In 2009, the state received a $94.6 million settlement from the Asarco Company to pay for cleanup. Couple that sum with money from private developers (approximately $1.2 billion) who saw untapped potential for 60 acres to be used for apartments, offices, shops and restaurants.
Cue the cranes and bulldozers. Point Ruston was born. Today you can eat sushi or watch a movie atop what the Environmental Protection Agency once called one of the most polluted areas of the country.
Public/private efforts have combined to place faith in the “If you build it, they will come” stratagem, and rightly so. It’s not just amateur and professional marine biologists, or wide-eyed youngsters pressing their noses against aquarium glass, who will make their way here.
Yes, they will come, but the three-mile stretch along Commencement Bay will also lure business incubators, research laboratories, green-energy industries and residents to consider making this corner of the world home.
And for those of us who already do, life will soon get a little sweeter.