The future looks bright for Tacoma’s waterfront

A message from Park Commissioner Erik Hanberg

Tacoma wouldn’t be Tacoma without its waterfront.

This is something past leaders of Metro Parks Tacoma recognized years ago. Our newly posted online vintage Metro Parks postcard catalog appears to validate that notion. One fascinating 1910 image shows Point Defiance Park visitors, probably at Owen Beach, scrambling over a tangle of logs and lumber that doubtless had floated in from one of the many mills that hugged the waterfront between Point Defiance Park and Old Town.

For decades starting in the late 19th century, the Ruston Way shoreline was studded with lumber and shingle mills, which together with those on the Tideflats earned Tacoma the moniker “Lumber Capital of the World.”

Commencement Bay’s deep water was ideal for transport, and not just for logs and lumber. Much of the valuable ore that ASARCO smelted into copper arrived by ship.

Those past enterprises are no longer central to Tacoma’s economy. But the waterfront remains a key element of the city’s appeal. And because it’s Metro Parks’ goal to lead efforts to sustain a healthy, vibrant community, we’re more involved now than ever in the future of the waterfront as a destination everyone can enjoy.

Right now, the complicated waterfront project on the east end of Point Defiance Park is the most visible evidence of our commitment. We’re cleaning up and transforming 40 acres of land contaminated by the former ASARCO smelter. The waterfront project features the Wilson Way bridge, which will allow pedestrians and cyclists to enter or exit the park using Ruston Way. Also in the works: Dune Peninsula at Point Defiance Park. Big enough to accommodate public gatherings, it is 11 acres of newly landscaped park property on the breakwater peninsula surrounding the Tacoma Yacht Club boat basin.

That’s not all we’re doing on the waterfront. Close to Old Town is Dickman Mill Park, the site of the last operating lumber mill on the Ruston Way waterfront. The mill burned down in 1979, several years after it closed.

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Thanks to a pledge from Cambia Health Solutions, the parent company of Regence BlueShield, Metro Parks plans to pay homage to the city’s lumbering history by expanding Dickman Mill Park and restoring the Dickman Mill’s original head saw. Head saws got that name because they made the initial cuts that turned raw logs into lumber. This one is a historic artifact listed on state and local landmarks registries. Plans are preliminary, but the goal is to use the saw as the focal point of an interpretive display that shows how the mill could cut lumber as long as 65 feet.

Fast approaching is Metro Parks’ partnership with the City of Tacoma in a waterfront planning project called Envision Our Waterfront. Our focus is on Ruston Way, which over the past 40 years has become more and more of a magnet for recreation. We want to make sure the area is open to everyone. One already obvious challenge is ongoing infrastructure maintenance. That means the parks, the roadway, the sea wall and storm drains: aging systems in need of upgrades.

Envision Our Waterfront is a yearlong effort, and we’re encouraging residents to get involved. Check out the website to monitor progress and learn how you can influence the plan. Staff are doing a lot of work behind the scenes right now. Get ready for a public rollout this spring.

I hope this doesn’t leave you with the impression that Metro Parks is so busy with waterfront efforts that we’re not tuned in to other needs.

With the help of multiple partners, we’re building the $31 million Eastside Community Center, a 55,000 square-foot facility set to open later this year. We’re just about done with major upgrades at Wapato Park and we’re about to launch update plans for Titlow and Swan Creek parks. In fact, thanks to the 2014 capital bond passed by voters, we’re making improvements throughout the park district.

Want to know more? Keep watching this space as other commissioners on the five-member Metro Parks board provide future Park Board Notes.

Erik Hanberg has served on the Metro Parks Tacoma Board of Commissioners since January 2010 and was re-elected in November 2017. He is one of five commissioners and has served in the roles of clerk and president. He and his wife have two children and can regularly be found playing with them at one of Tacoma’s great parks.