Narrows Marina, home of deadly boat ramp, plans redesign of access route

A locking gate was installed in May at the boat ramp at Narrows Marina. The property owner is now planning bigger changes around the site that he says will improve safety after multiple deaths at the ramp.
A locking gate was installed in May at the boat ramp at Narrows Marina. The property owner is now planning bigger changes around the site that he says will improve safety after multiple deaths at the ramp. Staff photographer

The Tacoma City Council has set in motion plans for redesigning the access route to the Narrows Marina, where a dead-end boat ramp has claimed at least seven lives in nearly two decades.

Without discussion, the council approved a proposal Tuesday to give the marina land-use rights for 24 feet of right-of-way along South 19th Street.

The street segment on the Tacoma-University Place border runs west of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks. It’s the route that victims traveled before plunging into the water at the marina’s boat launch.

Scott Wagner, Narrows Marina co-owner and manager, told The News Tribune that the decision allows the marina to redesign the street as part of a larger revitalization of the property. He said it will improve safety for pedestrians and motorists.

The council’s decision followed a May 27 hearing examiner recommendation that supported the change in property rights.

“The plan is intended to create a more welcoming, better functioning, and safer environment for pedestrians and vehicles entering the site,” the recommendation states.

The proposal was approved despite opposition from nearby residents. Nearly 100 people signed a petition stating the change would invite development that would hurt their views and lifestyle and cause more traffic.

Despite acknowledging the “understandable and legitimate” nature of those concerns, the hearing examiner said vacating the land would provide a public benefit. The recommendation states future developments would be addressed separately once specific projects are planned.

The marina’s plans are taking shape four months after a seventh person died after accidentally driving into the water at the boat ramp. Wagner then installed a gate blocking the boat launch and restricting public access to the ramp.

A News Tribune investigation last year found that at least eight cars had plunged into the water there in the previous 17 years. Four of 11 people in the cars were killed. Another person was left permanently disabled.

After The News Tribune’s story was published in May 2014, readers tipped off a reporter about two other deaths at the marina. Subsequent records requests revealed one was a drunken driver, the other, a suicide.

Many sources interviewed by The News Tribune — including surviving victims, police and state officials — have cited the marina’s layout as one possible reason for the fatal accidents.

Sources have said a lack of adequate lights and signs, combined with darkness, high tides and poor visibility because of weather, can create a “mirage” that tricks drivers. One survivor said she believed the water ahead was wet pavement that wrapped around the back of the buildings.

Wagner said safety improvements are among the most important components of his marina revitalization plan.

He said the project will preserve historic buildings on site, slow the speed of vehicles and add sidewalks for better pedestrian access. The area for years has attracted much foot traffic, especially since the Boathouse 19 restaurant and Narrows Brewing taproom opened in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

“People drive too fast,” Wagner said, noting that the property was originally constructed as an industrial site.

The revitalization also will change landscaping to add vegetation that was previously removed. Wagner said he already has planted some trees.

“We’re trying to come up with something that looks inviting,” he said.

Among the changes, “clearer directional markers” will be added to improve the flow of vehicles accessing on-site parking and other facilities.

Wagner said he doesn’t have specifics yet on how marina signs would be modified.

The idea to redesign street access has been discussed for about six years, he said, but formal planning began about nine months ago. There are about 12 permits pending related to the project, he said.

The boat launch will continue to be used exclusively by marina tenants who store their boats on site and pay a monthly fee. Wagner said it’s possible the general public could use the ramp again once the improvements are done.

“It’s certainly possible that in the future the policies could change,” he said. “I don’t have a plan to change them right now.”

Maria Baker said she’s in wait-and-see mode and won’t get too excited about possible changes at the marina.

Baker’s 21-year-old daughter, Michaela, died driving into the water at the boat ramp in May 2011. Since then, the distraught mother has been a vocal advocate for more lights, signs and any other changes that would prevent fatal accidents at the Narrows Marina.

“Anything they can do for the safety of the people in the community is huge,” Baker said Thursday. “I’m in support if it’s done right. I’m not in support if it’s done with cut corners.”

As for the restricted boat ramp access, Baker believes it’s only a matter of time before the launch reopens to the public.

She said that would be dangerous if other fixes aren’t made.

“I would like the public to be able to have a nice place to launch their boats,” she said, “but it’s not worth lives if it’s not managed properly.”

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