Usually, when people write about Tollefson Plaza they talk about all the things that aren’t happening there.
This is not one of those columns, and a new test program launched by the city last week provides a glimmer of hope that fewer will be written in the future.
Tollefson Plaza is that almost-always-empty triangle of uninhabitable concrete that’s supposed to serve as a gathering spot downtown. Located at South 17th Street and Pacific Avenue, the space was called Pacific Plaza before the city renamed it in honor of former Mayor Harold M. Tollefson almost nine years ago.
Boy, what an honor.
Saturday was one of the rare days when activity overtook Tollefson Plaza, and it served as something more than a vacant reminder of urban planning mistakes of the past. The annual Go Skate Tacoma event saw skateboarders of all ages and skill levels, my 8-year-old daughter included, fill the plaza with life.
It was a fantastic event, and organizers, including Ben Warner, deserve serious credit. Warner once skateboarded through Southeast Asia, and at University of Washington Tacoma he wrote a master thesis on the misconceptions of urban skateboarding.
Both were probably easier than getting people to spend a Saturday afternoon at Tollefson Plaza.
For all the event’s charms, however, there are obstacles at the plaza that are nearly impossible to overcome. On a day when temperatures hovered near 80 degrees, sitting on the red concrete of Tollfeson’s steps, without the slightest hint of shade, felt like watching skateboarding on the surface of the sun.
After a couple hours, we went home. But the skateboarders — not including my daughter, who put up a firm protest to our departure — stayed put. Many stayed all day.
There’s a lesson to be learned here.
Only so much can be done with Tollefson Plaza, and to the city’s credit, over the years almost every trick in the book has been tried. Temporary art installations have popped up, and food trucks have shown up — all grasps at making use of the space and hoping the momentum catches on.
A Danish architect by the name of Lars Gemzoe once offered recommendations for making Tollefson Plaza more inviting, including forging a stronger connection to the water.
Multi-phased plans, and the budgets that go along with them, have been rolled out.
During the holidays, an ice skating rink — known as Polar Plaza — is trucked in and erected. (It’s a fitting gesture, seeing as how the space is about as hospitable during the winter as the polar icecap.)
In true Tacoma spirit, we keep trying. We valiantly squeeze lemonade from lemons, holding out hope for a future that’s less barren. Maybe if we hold one more lunchtime event or make one more go at “activating the space,” the Tollefson Plaza tide will finally turn.
So far, with only a few exceptions, it’s been mostly wishful thinking.
So what’s to be done? I’m not the first person at The News Tribune to ask this vexing question. A jaunt through the archives reveals no shortage of hand-wringing and head-scratching. Former TNT columnist Dan Voelpel (who proposed an ice rink three years before it happened) once suggested a weekend-long Bing Crosby festival, or, better yet, a small-ships fest.
I don’t have anything nearly as creative, mainly because after watching this conversation play out over the years, there’s not much left to say. Until there’s a larger urban population downtown, and more hustle and bustle, making a significant and lasting change at Tollefson will prove challenging.
What we do know is that skateboarding seems to work in this space.
Over the last several years Tacoma has made a number of pro-skateboarding moves, including acknowledging it as a legitimate form of alternative transportation and not just a pastime for troublemakers.
Now we’re acknowledging the obvious when it comes to skateboarding in Tollefson Plaza: It’s one of the few activities people actually do in the space. We might as well try giving our blessing to it.
As City Councilman Marty Campbell pointed out during a study session last week: “A lot of people when they first look at Tollefson Plaza, they think it was designed as a skatepark.”
It wasn’t, but perhaps it should have been.
Campbell proposed a three-month program to remove the “No Skateboarding” signs in Tollefson and allow boarders to have at the space without fear of punishment,
On Saturday, the “No Skateboarding” sign came down, and it will stay down throughout the summer. No further changes are planned and — unfortunately — the metal brackets installed to prevent skateboarders from sliding across Tollefson’s steps will stay. But it’s progress.
In the age-old quest for activity in Tollefson Plaza, the skateboarding pilot project represents a kickflip in the right direction.