Special Reports

What next?

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Our kingdom for a slag heap? A reclaimed peninsula of land jutting off the Asarco property could one day feature a beach and promenades connecting to Point Defiance Park.

The grassy bowl still invites picnickers. Owen Beach beckons beachcombers and kids. The forest shelters wildlife and soothes human visitors.

But besides the obvious pleasures that lure parkgoers, Point Defiance Park shows warning signs of neglect.

Buildings deteriorate, parking overflows, an aging water system can’t muster enough pressure to fight a large forest fire. The park’s list of needs includes $76.2 million in basic repairs and improvements. There is no way to pay for most of them.

There’s also no clear vision for a property whose only official master plan dates to 1911. A lack of foresight, political indecision and chronic funding problems have tarnished the park.

“The facility is showing its age, and there are more and more challenges that we face every day,” says Jack Wilson, executive director of Metro Parks.

We love Point Defiance. We take it for granted. We shouldn’t.

As the park enters its second century, it faces real problems, but also promising opportunities. The Point Defiance centennial celebration has renewed the community’s awareness and appreciation. The redeveloping Asarco smelter site next door presents a chance to add to the park and link it with the Ruston Way waterfront. The park district begins a master planning process this fall that will ponder how to preserve Point Defiance and make it better.

Considering the park’s next century during a year devoted to its centennial will require supporters to think in a new way about their beloved Point.

“We need to plan for the future and stay true to the vision of the past,” says Metro Parks project manager Curtis Hancock.

Here are some of the pressing questions about the park’s future.

Why bother with a new plan?

In some ways, the 702-acre park is Tacoma’s civic blanky: It might be patched here and there and frayed around the edges, but it’s just as comforting now as it was when the city was young.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Humpty Dumpty, who's been vandalized several times over the years as he sat on his pearch at Never Never Land, gets put back together again by artist Eileen Snyder. Metro Parks officials are considering a safer location for his display.

Many park fans can’t imagine any changes at all.

“You don’t want to mess with a park that works, and that park really works,” says Ken Heany, who spent 20 years as director of maintenance and operations at Point Defiance.

Scores of South Sound residents said much the same thing during informal surveys conducted by Metro Parks over the past two years.

“It’s not broke; don’t fix (it),” one resident wrote on a questionnaire during the 2003 Freedom Fair.

Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma agrees: “It’s such a treasure the way it is. I don’t want to see any major changes.”

The community’s unconditional love of the park is among its greatest assets, but it could prove a drawback if it keeps people from seeing pressing needs or big opportunities.

For all that’s changed, the park remains much the same as it was when portions of the 1911 Hare & Hare master plan were implemented. The last big wave of money and projects dates to the Depression era.

In recent years, only the zoo has changed dramatically, reinventing itself when voters gave it $35 million in 1999. At the time, the deteriorating facility was on the brink of closure.

Officials tried over the years – most recently in an abandoned 1980 master plan – to direct the park’s future, proposing infrastructure upgrades, shuttle buses and a new entrance, among other things. But controversy and a lack of civic will left those ideas in file cabinets.

Economics, more than visionary decision making, altered the landscape in many cases. Landmarks like the Nereides swimming pool and Funland faded away when they were no longer profitable.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Everyone wants a bite of Point Defiance Park - crowds, like this one at the Taste of Tacoma (as seen through a food vendor's sculpture) often throng the lawns for events.

The sad fate of Never Never Land provides a recent example of what might befall other parts of the park without care and planning. The children’s play area, opened as a commercial tourist attraction in 1964 near Fort Nisqually, gradually deteriorated from neglect and vandalism. Last year, with little discussion and no announcement, the park district removed signs at the site and moved ahead with mothballing what equipment was left.

Supporters – some of whom had not seen the playground since its heyday – rallied to save it. While they stopped the demolition, the area still sits underused, without a plan or development money.

At this point, doing nothing is not an option. Even maintaining the park the way it is will require money and planning.

If the park’s visitors haven’t loved it to death, they have greatly strained its resources, parks officials say.

“On the surface, Point Defiance works,” says Doug Fraser, Metro Parks design and construction manager. “It isn’t a matter of going in and redesigning or rebuilding the whole park from scratch.”

Still, Fraser and others say, there is much to do.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Serenity still abounds - even in the typically busy bowl area - as University of Puget Sound student Nicole Liuzzi, 19, discovers during a drawing class this spring. In the fall, Metro Parks will invite the public to offer ideas for the park.

A recent list of the Point’s basic capital needs bears a price tag of $76.2 million.

And even by Fraser’s account, it’s mostly boring but necessary stuff.

But plans also include draping Point Defiance with some new jewels for the 21st century: a link to Ruston Way across the Asarco property; a new waterfront peninsula section near the yacht club; the possibility of added commercial features at the entrance; perhaps a grand entry off Pearl Street.

The challenge is convincing the public that any work needs to be done and then finding the money to pay for it, Fraser says.

What are the park’s most pressing needs?

Some of the problems are urgent, but not always obvious to parkgoers.

A prime example: the possibility of a fire in the irreplaceable old-growth forest. Just weeks ago, a relatively small brush fire proved difficult to extinguish.

“We’re very aware that that is a very large area of natural vegetation, and we would hate for something to get away from us,” says Tacoma Fire spokeswoman Jolene Davis. Firefighters train and plan for just such an event.

If a wildfire ever got out of control, it could be trouble. A 1980 study pointed out the need for a better water-supply network and recommended an upgrade. But no changes were made.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Increasing the number of attractions at the Point's "traingle area" near the entrance - currently home to TNT Family Go-Karts - could bring in more money.

And under the heading “What’s Wrong or Threatening” in the park, the minutes of a 2003 meeting about Point Defiance carried this ominous message: “Major fire? Save the zoo and human life. Not enough water pressure to put out entire forest fire.”

The water flow, a healthy 160 pounds per square inch at the zoo, is down to a 10 PSI trickle at Fort Nisqually, a 2004 report says.

“People don’t see the problem,” Fraser says. “They can get a drink of water and the toilets flush at Fort Nisqually.”

Replacing the park’s water system, including new hydrants and drainage along Five Mile Drive, is estimated to cost $7.5 million, Metro Parks spokeswoman Susan Hulbert says.

Other challenges the park faces:

 • Too many cars and not enough parking. Clashes between cars and pedestrians, cars and bicycles, cars and deer, cars and trees are common on narrow roads established in the Model T era.

 • Erosion of bluffs near roads and trails threatens human safety, engineers concluded in a 2004 geological study.

 • The Taste of Tacoma and other large events overwhelm the park’s resources and kill other business.

 • Invasive plants such as English ivy, blackberries and Scotch broom choke a rare piece of native forest.

 • A lack of security leaves the park vulnerable to speeding drivers, vandals and rowdy visitors.

The list is longer, and the problems aren’t new. Many of today’s concerns were also recognized in the 1980 plan that went nowhere.

“We need to step back and take a good look at the Point,” says Wilson, Metro Parks’ executive director. “Point Defiance is deserving and requiring of an influx of new resources.”

How can the park change for the better?

Even if some believe the Point is perfect as is, other parkgoers and officials have no shortage of dreams.

Sixty-five-year-old Ben Peters imagines trolley cars full of passengers rumbling in as they did in the park’s early years.

Seventeen-year-old Maria Canfield, who’s been going to the Point since she was a baby, says the park could use a swimming pool and more sport courts.

Metro Parks administrator Gary Geddes envisions a modern aquarium on the waterfront, connected to the zoo by a boardwalk.

Environmental activists want officials to be more deliberate about conservation and more proactive about visitor education. Mountain bikers just want their own trail.

Some of the wishes for the park are contradictory. About a third of respondents to a 2003 survey said they wanted more special events. But another 13 percent said the park should “reduce overcrowding.”

Other grand ideas will be limited by the reality that most of the region’s largest city park is dedicated to undeveloped forest land and will remain so.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Zoo officials would love to replace the 42-year-old North Pacific Aquarium, but work on it and the 23-year-old Rocky Shores exhibit could cost $40 million. A waterfront aquarium is also a possibility.

But changes on the fringes of the park will allow a new connection to the waterfront and open the possibility of redeveloping its southeast corner.

Twenty years and $180 million in cleanup dollars after its closure, the reclaimed Asarco smelter property represents the largest chunk of desirable waterfront on Commencement Bay.

And it sits between Point Defiance Park and the Ruston Way waterfront.

With the cleanup largely done, 35 acres are ready for development, says Tom Aldrich, Asarco vice president of environmental affairs. The remainder of the 67-acre site is set aside for open space.

The specifics must still be decided. But conceptual plans assume that the redevelopment will link the Ruston Way waterfront walkway with Point Defiance’s attractions.

Also reclaimed is the peninsula area, a slag heap – with a million-dollar view – that juts out like a misshapen thumb into Commencement Bay. A conceptual drawing shows two grassy hillocks, with a beach, a tide pool, an entry plaza and promenades connecting the slice of land to the Asarco property and to the rest of Point Defiance Park.

Meanwhile, the changes outside the park are putting more attention on the former Funland site near the entrance. It’s now home to the TNT Family Go-Karts franchise, overflow parking and maintenance shops. Parks officials think the area could be redeveloped, perhaps in conjunction with a new park entrance.

The opportunity to mold some of the Asarco property into park land and the community excitement about Point Defiance’s centennial present a rare opportunity to make changes, Wilson says.

Residents will have a chance to give their ideas for the park during a series of public meetings this fall. Those represent the beginning of a master planning process that parks officials believe will culminate with a vision – and a blueprint.

“We really want to open it up,” Wilson says of the coming forums. “We need to get with the best and the brightest in this community – and maybe beyond – and talk about what this (park) could be.”

How will we pay to maintain and improve the park?

The park relies mostly on tax dollars to finance maintenance and upgrades.

Property tax collections can’t keep up with growing costs, and convincing voters to raise taxes is never easy.

It’s difficult to provide one annual figure for park operations. But Fraser, the design and construction manager, estimates the 2005 park maintenance cost at roughly $2 million to $2.3 million.

Whatever the cost, Point Defiance competes with 88 parks and major facilities across the city for money.

Metro Parks has passed only one bond issue for systemwide capital improvements in the past 20 years. A $60 million proposal failed last fall for lack of the required 60 percent supermajority. Parks officials are going to voters again in November with a revised $84.3 million proposal, including $5.5 million for Point Defiance.

The money would pay for utilities upgrades parkwide, restroom renovations, bluff stabilization, a children’s play area and renovations to the Lodge, the Pagoda and picnic areas.

But it leaves roughly $71 million of that “to do” list unfunded.

Those needs and ongoing costs leave parks officials looking at other moneymakers.

You probably won’t motor along the Texaco Five Mile Drive any time soon. Nor are you likely to walk the REI trail, visit the Amazon.com Zoo or sniff the flowers in the Miracle-Gro Rose Garden.

But the park could accommodate more commercial enterprises, particularly in the southeast sector, parks director Wilson says. He doesn’t know exactly what those might be, but he envisions something that would draw people and complement the park’s other activities.

Already, several concessions provide indirect support to the park. Proceeds from Anthony’s Home Port restaurant, the kayak rental concession and the go-karts go into Metro Parks’ general fund. Other operations are a drain. Although the outdated Boathouse brought in $742,2846 during 2004, it operated at a loss, spokeswoman Hulbert said.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
On some days, traffic for the Vashon Island ferry can stretch past the ticket booth. Caroline Isaac, 5, inspected the situation from the care of her grandparents Al and Kathy Isaac.

Tacoma’s free parks system provides recreation for many low-income residents, and politicians are reluctant to charge entrance or parking fees.

But such measures could infuse an anemic park budget with cash.

In Vancouver, B.C., parking fees bring in $2 million of Stanley Park’s $6 million annual budget, says Jim Lowden, director of the Stanley District for the city’s parks board. But the fees made him so unpopular, Lowden says, laughing, that he couldn’t go to a party for two years after it was instituted. In the summer, the fees run around $2 an hour or $6 a day, but free shuttles also are available.

Whose park is it, anyway?

Point Defiance Park belongs to the City of Tacoma. Metro Parks operates and cares for it. But the people claim the park for their own – and will figure prominently in its future.

Many groups care for portions of the park. Clubs and species societies look after the gardens. Runners, hikers, bicyclists, scuba divers and others care for the pieces of the park with meaning to them.

The Tacoma Garden Club, which established the serene Northwest Native Plant Garden in 1962 and has cared for it since, conceived of the recent Point Defiance Flower & Garden Show. “We thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity to have people appreciate the park and its gardens more,’” says show co-chairwoman Kathryn Van Wagenen.

The three-day show drew 9,500 people and netted $27,322 for a list of charities, including the gardens, director Debi Schmid says. Plus, there’s enough money left to grow a 2006 show, which already is in the works.

The flower show demonstrated how well a partnership between committed volunteers and Metro Parks can work, Van Wagenen and Metro Parks’ Hulbert say.

But the Point lacks an umbrella group of friends to help coordinate activities, organize parkwide work parties and raise funds to augment the budget. When officials asked park users about such a group in that 2003 informal survey, 71 percent of the 246 people questioned said it was a good idea.

Bliss Moore, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Tatoosh group, agrees.

“We’re all sort of doing little independent pieces, and it’s not a coordinated effort,” says Moore, who lives on the edge of the park.

“It would be nice to have some larger group to help coordinate that effort,” he adds. “I guess the devil’s in the details of how that might work.”

Examples of such successful groups dot the nation, from Central Park to Golden Gate Park. These groups are crucial to maintaining quality recreational spaces in today’s cities, says Philadelphia Parks Alliance executive director Lauren Bornfriend.

“There needs to be a serious focus on how revenue is generated for parks” and friends groups can help, she says.

No city “can have a truly great park system” without such groups to concentrate on “everything from cleanliness, safety and quality to programming, signage and fund-raising,” Peter Harnik wrote in “The Excellent City Park System: What Makes it Great and How to Get There.” The study was published by The Trust for Public Land in 2003, a national nonprofit conservation group.

In Tacoma, resident Tracy Hemming thinks Point Defiance is “probably the nicest park I’ve ever been in. It would be nice if we could get more of the community down here to take of it and have a little more ownership of the park.”

Hemming volunteered during Parks Appreciation Day in April. Van Wagenen, meanwhile, believes the volunteerism that bloomed at the garden show just might supply the “seed to grow in the direction” of a friends group.

At 17, Maria Canfield is ready to help.

She and other members of the Wilson High School Environmental Club try to organize trash pickup details in the park, “but nobody knows quite what do,” she says.

“There are a lot of people who are willing to do stuff to help,” says Maria’s mom, Marcia. “But they don’t have a clue where to start.”

Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659