Vacant Tacoma Public Schools property breeds problems, neighbors say

Representatives from Tacoma Schools, Metro Parks and the City of Tacoma walk through Charlotte’s Blueberry Park in southeast Tacoma with neighbor Courtney Gutz on Oct. 19. The parties are collaborating to better manage school district land adjacent to the park.
Representatives from Tacoma Schools, Metro Parks and the City of Tacoma walk through Charlotte’s Blueberry Park in southeast Tacoma with neighbor Courtney Gutz on Oct. 19. The parties are collaborating to better manage school district land adjacent to the park. Staff photographer

The bushes at Charlotte’s Blueberry Park in Tacoma have given up their seasonal fruit, and the foliage is turning a brilliant orange on this fall afternoon.

There’s a man walking his dog through the park at 7402 E. D St., and a senior citizen negotiates a paved path using his walker. A group of teens rushes by looking like they’re on their way to some other destination, and a middle-aged couple cuddles on a park bench.

Not far away, in a wooded vacant property owned by Tacoma Public Schools, the remains of a homeless camp are scattered in a small clearing. The site is strewn with wet clothing, rags, cardboard, plastic bottles, a headless child’s doll and other trash.

It’s one of the things that worries neighbors such as Courtney Gutz, a Puyallup junior high teacher who moved to the Blueberry Park area with her husband to raise a family. She said Metro Parks Tacoma and community volunteers do a good job keeping up the park, which offers free you-pick berries to the public each summer. And she said the Tacoma Police Department has been responsive to neighbors’ calls for help with illegal activity.

But Gutz said the school district has neglected its property adjacent to the park for too long. The result, she and others said, is a haven for the homeless, and for criminals. It’s not unusual for neighbors to find condoms, needles abandoned by drug users or stolen goods dropped by thieves who use the woods as cover.

“Blueberry Park has walking trails and none of the blueberry bushes are more than 7 feet high,” Gutz said. “But the school district property has no lighting, and it’s not maintained.”

“The property is an eyesore for people in the neighborhood,” added Darren Pen of the nonprofit group Safe Streets. “This is not a safe place to hang out.”

Gutz has taken her complaints to any government agency that will listen: the city, Metro Parks and, most recently, the Tacoma School Board.

A recent sweep by school patrol officers found none of the homeless camps occupied, according to a memo from district Chief Operating Officer Stephen Murakami. A clean-up crew hired by the district was scheduled to remove trash and debris last Thursday and Friday.

The memo describes the cleanup as a first step. Murakami’s memo said the district plans to join with the city and Metro Parks to “start a conversation around a sustainable solution” that might involve some kind of community use, the memo states.

“Short-term, it needs to be cleaned up,” Gutz said. But she’s anxious to see a long-term plan to keep the site safe.

She said she’s sympathetic towards the people who need help. Outreach workers have offered services to people camped on the property, said Anthony Blankenship, who works for the city’s Community Based Services team.

“We have been here with the Police Department to let them know they can’t stay here,” he said. But many are hard to reach, especially those who are drug users, he added.

“We want to do something for them, but at the same time we want to do something for our neighborhood,” Gutz said.

City Councilman Joe Lonergan has met with neighbors about the issue. He said one of the problems on the school property is that it hasn’t been actively managed in the past. But he sees hope in the evolving partnership between the school district, the park district and the city.

The history of both the park and the surrounding school district property are intertwined, and neighbors have played an active role in its use over the years.

Parts of a parcel that included just over 50 acres had been farmed since 1929. The Berg family, who ran Berg’s Blueberry Farm from 1952-68, were the last private owners. In 1968, the Tacoma School District bought the acreage with the intent of building a high school there.

But that proposal met with neighborhood opposition. In 1994, the district traded more than 20 acres to Metro Parks in exchange for a portion of Manitou Park, upon which Manitou Park Elementary School was constructed.

Neighbors organized once more, in an effort to preserve the blueberry bushes that had been left untended for years. They helped clear the park acreage of overgrown vines and unwanted vegetation, and cut back blueberry bushes to get them producing again.

Much of the work and the drive to create Blueberry Park was led by Charlotte Valbert, who died in 2010 at age 82. Her name was added to the park that year.

Tacoma Public Schools doesn’t have a long-range plan for its remaining property, district spokesman Dan Voelpel said. Only one corner is suitable for building. The rest is covered in wetlands.

Lonergan said the wetlands pose problems in managing the property, even if it remains vacant. One way to make the property safer is to use a design concept that mandates no vegetation taller than 3 feet or lower then 7 feet. That leaves no cover for potential troublemakers to hide.

Lonergan said removing the in-between growth might be difficult under wetlands regulations, but he’s hopeful something can be done. He believes trimming back problem vegetation will ultimately produce less environmental harm than what’s being done by the squatters and criminals.

In 2002, Voelpel said, the district looked again at the property as a possible location for an elementary school.

Voelpel said demographic projections indicate that the school-age population in the area will grow over the next 10 years. That means the property might once again come into play as a school site.

As an educator, Gutz understands that school districts must plan for the future. But she wants Tacoma’s school leaders to also pay attention to what’s going on in the present.

“If they are going to hold on to the property, there has got to be something that can be done in the meantime,” she said. “I’m hopeful that there is going to be a long-term solution to this. I need to see something permanent.”

Community meeting

The City of Tacoma will host a community meeting to discuss how to to create a safer, more attractive neighborhood near Charlotte’s Blueberry Park.

The meeting, sponsored by the city’s Community Based Services team, is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Nov. 17 at Grace Missionary Baptist Church, 7615 E. A St.