New ice rink at Point Ruston continues cold war between developer and town

People skate at the Frozen Fountain Ice Skating Rink, which was moved to Point Ruston this year.
People skate at the Frozen Fountain Ice Skating Rink, which was moved to Point Ruston this year. joshua.bessex@gateline.com

It looks off-kilter. Cattywompus.

Tacoma’s seasonal ice rink was supposed to be centered on the Grand Plaza at Point Ruston, the retail and residential development along Commencement Bay.

Instead it’s off to the side.

The story of why depends on who you ask — Ruston or the developer of Point Ruston.

For six years, the temporary ice rink, known as Polar Plaza, was in downtown Tacoma’s Tollefson Plaza. When the city abandoned that location, the new home for the the renamed Frozen Fountain Ice Skating Rink became Point Ruston.

The development’s Grand Plaza exists in two cities, Ruston on one side and Tacoma on the other, and the rink was supposed to straddle the line. Two cities, meaning two permits for the temporary project.

In the end, the rink was situated on the Tacoma side.

Ruston City Councilman Lyle Hardin said the council liked the idea of an ice rink, but Point Ruston should have filed a building permit and followed the proper process for placing the rink and its tent in Ruston.

“We are not going to put public safety at risk,” he said.

Point Ruston’s project manager Loren Cohen said a building permit was overkill, preferring the quicker special event permit process that Tacoma employs.

“The ideal layout would’ve been directly across the center of the plaza, not at the cockamamie 45-degree angle,” Cohen said.

Sound familiar? The back-and-forth over the rink’s permitting is another example of tensions between Ruston and Point Ruston’s developer.

They’ve tussled for years over the small city’s hardline approach to permitting and development compared to neighboring Tacoma. The disagreement even devolved into an effort to annex Ruston into Tacoma’s boundaries two years ago, which ultimately failed.

When Tacoma went looking for a new home for the rink the city’s economic development office called Cohen and asked Point Ruston to host, he said.

“I said 48 hours later, ‘OK, let’s do this,’ ” Cohen said.

There wasn’t much time to lose. It was already late October, and the holiday season was fast approaching.

Cohen said he had no problems getting permits from the city of Tacoma, which approved his request and waived the fee in two days.

Hardin said Ruston can take three or four weeks to respond to a building permit request, and Cohen wanted to open the rink by Nov. 10.

“This isn’t Point Ruston’s first rodeo with us,” Hardin said. “Cohen’s strategy is it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.”

Though the rink is a temporary structure, Hardin said the city was concerned about safety and wanted to see the plans first before approving anything.

It wanted to know such things as what material was the tent made out of? Was it fire retardant? How many exits would the tent have? Would it be restrained so it didn’t collapse during a severe windstorm?

If someone was hurt at the rink, Hardin said, they could sue the city for approving the permit.

As for Tacoma, the Fire Department inspected the setup before allowing skaters inside, said Lt. Vernon Porter.

“It was anchored down very securely, better than most tents,” he said. “If you were to get a 50-to-70-mph wind, that tent would be fine. We asked them to move some benches because it was blocking the exit.”

Since the rink is not permanent, Porter said the city didn’t require a building permit.

“Ninety percent of the time those tents are put up by professional companies,” Porter said. “They are liable if something were to happen.”

Before the rink opened, Cohen wasn’t sure how it would do. But less than two weeks after it opened, the rink had 2,000 skaters in its adjusted configuration.

“We are fully committed to making sure this is a seasonal activity for the city,” Cohen said. “It’s worked so well now I don’t see any reason we’d go back to our original plan.”

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports