Summer in the city: Three major construction projects at Point Defiance Park kicking off

A construction crew arworks on an American Disabilities Act ramp in June that will eventually lead to the new 250,000-gallon aquarium at the Point Defiance Zoo scheduled to open in 2018.
A construction crew arworks on an American Disabilities Act ramp in June that will eventually lead to the new 250,000-gallon aquarium at the Point Defiance Zoo scheduled to open in 2018. dmontesino@thenewstribune.com

Destination Point Defiance is showing flickers of life.

Trees are being removed from a steep bluff on the peninsula above 11 acres of what will become recreation space at the Tacoma park. Fencing surrounds an area where a new aquarium will be built. Contaminated dirt is being moved near the Pearl Street entrance.

Planning for growth within Point Defiance Park began in 2005 and is just now coming to fruition.

“It’s no longer a plan, it’s no longer a vision, it’s going to be a reality,” said Jack C. Wilson, executive director of Metro Parks Tacoma.

Construction will begin this month on three major projects:

▪ A 35,000-square-foot aquarium at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

▪ An Environmental Learning Center on zoo grounds that will offer classroom space to the Tacoma School District’s Science and Math Institute.

▪ A waterfront project that includes a pedestrian bridge connecting the park to Ruston Way, expanded park space on the peninsula and a roundabout at the Pearl Street entrance.

Ideas were bandied about more than a decade ago when park officials realized they hadn’t approved a master plan since 1911.

The 760-acre park was obviously popular — with 3.1 million annual visitors, it’s the most visited site in the region — and officials wanted to look at how to improve the park so that it kept its status as a crown jewel for the next century.

Public meetings, brainstorming sessions and bond measures resulted in several projects and improvements happening this summer with a combined $124 million price tag.

“For most visitors, it’s not going to be a radical new experience; it’s going to make the experience better,” said Erik Hanberg, park board president. “The fundamental experience of Point Defiance is not going to change.”


Of the projects starting this summer, the Pacific Seas Aquarium often steals the show because it’s the largest capital project Metro Parks has ever undertaken.

The four-tiered structure will replace the North Pacific Aquarium, which at 53 is the oldest building on zoo grounds and has been heavily corroded by saltwater.

Built between the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater and the Rocky Shores exhibit, the new aquarium will feature a mix of native Puget Sound species and several from the waters of Baja California.

Some of the tanks will be four times bigger than the current ones — the largest will be Baja Bay with 250,000 gallons of warm water. It has been dubbed the marquee attraction.

The tank’s windows will stretch 32 feet and be 8 feet tall to create the impression of being in a water tunnel.

Three new species will be introduced: hammerhead sharks, green sea turtles and spotted eagle rays.

Neil Allen, curator of aquatic animals, said it’s been a process to find the creatures because government permits do not allow aquariums to acquire animals unless they are unable to be re-released into the wild.

SeaWorld has rescued too many hammerhead shark pups and will provide some to Point Defiance. Sea turtles have been found at rehabilitation centers around the country.

Some exhibits will remain the same, some will be new, and some will be revamped.

The Marine Discovery Center will become the Tidal Touch Zone, where visitors will be able to handle anemones, sea slugs and sea stars.

Northwest Waters will highlight Pacific Northwest marine life such as sharks, flounder and rockfish in a 75,000-gallon tank with a 10-foot-high window.

In all, there will be 13 exhibits, including Tidal Surge with a moving wave-action feature; Under the Narrows with wolf eels, lingcod and spotted ratfish; and tanks for giant spider crabs, kelp forests, giant Pacific octopus and jellyfish.

The aquarium also will host an aquatic animal care center where newly arrived or bred creatures will be held before going on display.

A sea lab will host classes and camps.

Karen Povey, education curator, said her team is working on digital displays with conservation messages ranging from overfishing to sustainable seafood to how plastic bags harm marine life.

“We want to talk about things that our community can actually help change,” she said.

The theme of the aquarium will be, “We share the ocean and the responsibility for protecting it.”

The original estimate for the project was $48 million, but it has grown to $51.6 million because of construction costs, said Gary Geddes, director of zoological and environmental education.

About $41.5 million will come from a $198 million Metro Parks bond measure approved in 2014. Part will come out of the zoo’s reserve fund, and the Point Defiance Zoo Society is looking for ways to bring in another $3 million to $4 million.

A groundbreaking ceremony is set for Monday, with the Pacific Seas Aquarium set to open in 2018.

The North Pacific Aquarium eventually will be repurposed as a South American Rain Forest after its tank is drained and the marine animals moved to their new home.

That project has not yet been funded.


Since the Science and Math Institute opened in 2009, it has made its home in 13 portable classrooms and an outdoor in Point Defiance.

Now, SAMI will have a permanent home inside the zoo.

The park serves as a living laboratory for the 475 students who collect water samples at Owen Beach and study biology alongside zookeepers.

But a 30,000-square-foot Environmental Learning Center near the Kids’ Zone will give them something of a home base.

It will have eight workshops, two of which will be labs, gathering spaces and collaborative spaces for zoo staff members and the public.

The $12.3 million project is funded by a $500 million Tacoma School District bond approved by voters in 2013. Metro Parks contributed the land just north of the main zoo entrance gate.

Liz Minks, a SAMI co-director, said she is excited to have students learn at such a central park location.

“You develop a culture with proximity,” she said. “If your desk is next to somebody, you start to understand a person and develop trust. I’m excited our staff is going to have a closer relationship with the zoo staff and have more opportunities for the kids.”

The collaborative options will continue to increase, Minks said, citing a Wildlife Toybox class as an example.

Students worked with a physics teacher and zoo biologist to build enrichment items for various zoo animals such as a toy made of fire hoses for gibbons and a tin drum for birds.

“If we have the students learning alongside the experts, our students have a really rich learning opportunity,” Minks said.

Construction is set to begin this month and wrap up next year.


All kinds of improvements are being made to a section of Point Defiance Park often referred to as the Triangle Area.

The Pearl Street entrance will become a roundabout by early next year, a ferry traffic lane is being installed to improve traffic flow, and boat trailer parking will be expanded.

In addition, a new pedestrian bridge will connect Point Defiance to Ruston Way, and 11 more acres will be opened up as recreation space.

A 55,000-square-foot stormwater treatment facility with six cascading pools already has been built to help channel runoff from properties as far south as North 30th Street.

Contaminated soil in the area is being removed, and trucks soon will be taking 150,000 cubic yards of dirt onto the peninsula and piling it 10 feet high.

Above the Tacoma Yacht Club, trees and brush are being removed from a bluff that has a history of landslides. The work isn’t affecting park visitors, but boaters will notice when launch parking is fenced off in August.

At that point, another 150,000 cubic yards of dirt will be moved out of the park. An estimated 8,300 truck and trailer loads will be taken down Pearl Street to deposit the soil elsewhere.

The new 11-acre recreation area on the peninsula will have freshly planted grass, pathways, waterfront views and an art piece showing the transformation of the site from an Asarco site to a public park.

About 750 trees eventually will be planted in that area, including Pacific madrone, shore pine, Western white pine, canyon live oak and Oregon oak.

The new park space will be named later.

Park officials seem most excited about the 50-foot-high bridge that will connect Point Defiance Park to Ruston Way for pedestrians and bicyclists.

“It’s a leap forward to getting people into the park in a way other than cars,” Hanberg said. “It’s the thing that’s going to really open up Tacoma’s eyes into what they have there.”

The bridge will span 20 feet and boast views of Puget Sound, Vashon Island and Mount Rainier.

This set of projects will cost $60 million with money coming from Metro Parks, an Asarco settlement, state Department of Ecology, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state Department of Transportation and Recreation Conservation Office grants.


Although construction will be a noticeable part of the park experience this year, officials hope it won’t deter people from visiting.

“It’s not going to last forever,” said Michael Thompson, spokesman for Metro Parks. “One of our key messages is the park is open.”

Once these three projects are completed, more will be undertaken as part of Destination Point Defiance.

The Japanese Garden in front of the pagoda will be reconstructed to become more traditional.

Viewpoints along Five Mile Drive will be improved and moved farther away from unstable slopes.

A study is underway to figure out where additional parking should be placed and come up with ways to improve circulation for cars, bikes and pedestrians.

“At the end of the day, this planning is going to serve the community well,” Wilson said.

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653

Pacific Seas Aquarium

Opening date: summer 2018

Cost: $51.6 million

Environmental Learning Center

Opening date: September 2017

Cost: $12.3 million

Waterfront projects

Pearl Street roundabout

Opening date: spring 2017

Park on peninsula

Opening date: late 2017

Boat trailer parking

Opening date: summer 2017

Connector bridge

Opening date: fall 2017

Total cost: $60 million