Neighborhood volunteers put some muscle into McKinley beautification project

They could have slept in Saturday morning.

Instead, 12-year-old friends Adreanna Toliver and Madison Hutt were out bright and early helping to make their corner of the world a better place.

The two First Creek Middle School students joined more than 50 volunteers organized by the Pierce Conservation District and others to reclaim a patch of paved-over earth in Tacoma’s McKinley Hill business district.

Their mission was to remove an estimated 2,000 square feet of asphalt from a triangular planting strip along McKinley Avenue that had been paved over years earlier. In the fall, the site will be planted with new trees and shrubs.

“We are doing this for a couple of reasons,” said Melissa Buckingham, project manager for the conservation district.

One goal is to provide more green space in the urban environment and to beautify the business district. Another is to improve water quality. Planting the strip with vegetation will allow rainwater to seep into the soil instead of picking up pollutants from pavement before running into storm sewers and then into Puget Sound.

The McKinley project is the third of its kind, known as “depave” projects, spearheaded by the conservation district. The first depave was at Sixth and Sprague avenues in Tacoma, and the second was in Puyallup.

Pavement removal on McKinley began with professional contractors who prepared the asphalt by cutting it into 2-by-2-foot sections. Volunteers lifted the sections, broke them into smaller pieces and loaded them into a dumpster.

Other parking strip pavement near the site where volunteers worked Saturday is also being removed, but contractors will complete that work because the surface is concrete, which is heavier and more difficult to remove, Buckingham said. In the end, about 8,000 square feet of excess pavement along McKinley Avenue, between Division and East 35th streets, will be replaced by greenery.

Three contractors are donating services to the project: BN Builders, Rino and Nu Tech. Grant funding from the Russell Family Foundation and Toyota TogetherGreen by Audubon will pay for the new plants. The city of Tacoma is donating soil and bark and will recycle the removed asphalt.

Saturday’s work team included volunteers from the Dometop Neighborhood Alliance and the business district neighborhood.

Helen Wilson, a landscape designer who has lived in the neighborhood for 21 years, was part of the volunteer work crew Saturday.

“I’m thrilled about the depave movement,” she said. “Cities are the last frontier when it comes to environmental restoration.”

She said she urges her clients to get rid of lawns and cultivate native plants and trees instead.

Saturday’s project was scheduled to last five hours, but the army of volunteers completed it in two.

“Having over 50 volunteers shows people care,” said Lynnette Scheidt of the Dometop group, who was there with others from her family. “McKinley Hill has come a long way in the last five years.”

She said neighbors have learned that “unless they step up and take ownership of the area, nothing was going to happen on its own.”

Volunteer Brenda Toliver, a member of the Tacoma Christian Center that’s part of the business district, said she was happy to contribute. And she said the work was therapeutic. Breaking up slabs of asphalt is a great way to relieve tension, she said.

After the project was completed, volunteers gathered for a pizza lunch.

Adreanna and Madison proudly showed off their battle scars from the work party. Both girls had a few Band-Aid-covered scratches from close encounters with jagged asphalt pieces. Adreanna wondered whether she would wake up with sore muscles Sunday.

But both girls said it was worth it.

“It was a lot of hard work,” said Madison. “But it’s good to give back to the community. It will make Tacoma look better.”

Adreanna agreed, then added: “I’m hot, tired and ready to get in my pool.”