Community Environment Government Health & Wellness

Feasibility studies recommend contiguous recreation, senior, aquatics centers

Posted on March 21st, 2024 By:

PenMet Parks commissioners moved forward Tuesday on one major project and heard findings to help determine whether to advance two more in April.

During its regular meeting, the board accepted the Tacoma DeMolay Sandspit Nature Preserve master plan and sent it to final design. At a preceding study session, consultants provided final drafts of feasibility studies for aquatics and senior centers. Commissioners could approve them next month.

Paul Curtis and Dan Podoll of ARC Architects present the final draft of feasibility studies for aquatics and senior centers.

Paul Curtis and Dan Podoll of ARC Architects present the final draft of feasibility studies for aquatics and senior centers.  Photo by Ed Friedrich

PenMet signed ARC Architects of Seattle to an $85,000 contract in September 2022 to conduct the feasibility studies. In February 2023, it approved 16-member steering committees for each to provide public input. They met four times, along with open community meetings the same days. The studies looked at demand, siting, layout, activities and cost.

From freestanding to abutting

The consultants analyzed six sites and forwarded two — the community recreation center and Peninsula Gardens properties — as feasible. The CRC was deemed more desirable because of accessibility, shared infrastructure, interaction with CRC participants and connection to the Cushman Trail.

The original plan was to house the aquatics and senior centers in their own freestanding buildings, both north of the CRC.

“That said, the (seniors) steering committee had second thoughts,” ARC Senior Architect Dan Podoll told the commissioners. “They said, ‘Wait a minute. Maybe we should rethink this and be a little more holistic in how we approach it.’ Everyone decided that’s not the direction they wanted to go.”

$46.3 million for aquatics

The consultants now recommend attaching the senior center to the north side of the CRC. The aquatics center would abut the north side of the senior center. That siting would maximize shared operations and provide a central plaza as a hub for all facilities, though seniors would have to walk farther for parking.

“Families can come to all the facilities, stay longer and make it a destination,” Podoll said.

Building the 37,000-square-foot aquatics center would cost an estimated $31 million. Adding site area improvements and soft costs would boost the total to $46.3 million. The CRC, PenMet’s largest undertaking to date, sports a $34.6 million price tag.

The aquatics center would feature a 25-yard competition pool, diving well, recreation pool with lazy river, reception area, community meeting rooms, fitness room, party rooms, locker and changing rooms, and café/juice bar.

$5.5 million for seniors

The 6,900-square-foot senior center would cost an estimated $5.5 million. It would include an entry lobby; class, meeting and arts space; dining/multipurpose area beside a kitchen; and a medicine/healing room.

PenMet held a short reception before the study session to recognize the steering committee members. There was no opportunity for them to address the plan. Board members also said little because the presentation ran long.

The Greater Gig Harbor Foundation, which operates the current senior center out of Peninsula Lutheran Church, continues to pursue its own dedicated senior space. It has drawn up preliminary site and building plans for a property at the corner of Point Fosdick Drive and 36th Street. Funding comes next.

It wasn’t within ARC’s scope to determine the feasibility of two Gig Harbor senior centers, Podoll said, but market analysis showed there’s potential to support both.

“I would hope if we move into another level of design we would coordinate on that,” he said. “Everybody should be talking at this point.”

Sandspit master plan accepted

During the regular meeting that followed the study session, PenMet’s board accepted the Tacoma DeMolay Sandspit Nature Preserve master plan by a 5-0 vote over objections from a Fox Island faction.

In February 2023, the board adopted a total project budget of $1.9 million to develop the plan. In June, PenMet contracted with Baumwelt of Tacoma for $341,000 to conduct public outreach, develop the plan and final design, provide construction support and undertake project closeout. The parks district allocated $1.2 million to complete the highest priorities the plan identified.

Baumwelt presented the plan during a study session on Feb. 20. A stakeholder group and residents helped the consultants determine priorities that would allow low-impact public access while protecting plants and animals. Two community open houses were held.

Consultants estimated the total cost at $2.75 million, requiring two phases of work. The first phase would enlarge parking from 23 spaces to 39 in the upper crushed-rock lot with two handicapped spots near a drop-off turnout at the entrance gate. The drop-off area is in Pierce County right-of-way and it hasn’t been determined what will be allowed.

ADA access

Stairs will lead down from the lot to the middle of the park, where an upper lawn will include picnic tables and a restroom. Two walkways drop down to the beach. A direct, shorter route requires navigating stairs. An ADA-conforming paved path switches back and forth for 600 feet to reach the same destination.

Designers determined replacing the existing green blockhouse made more sense than trying to restore it. But that won’t occur until Phase 2, which isn’t funded. The type of structure will be determined later.

The second phase will also add a smaller lawn and another restroom near the beach. A gathering area off the side of the lawn will be roughed in for Phase 1, but not fully built out due to permitting and shoreline restoration factors. The parking lot will be paved.

A group of Fox Island residents met Monday to discuss a possible injunction to prevent PenMet from signing any further contracts until it obtains assurances from involved parties such as the DeMolay, Puyallup Tribe, state Office of Recreation and Conservation and the county that its plans are authorized, said Craig McLaughlin. McLaughlin expressed those concerns during the public comment period Tuesday.

PenMet commissioners, from left, Billy Sehmel, Laurel Kingsbury, Missy Hill, Kurt Grimmer and Steve Nixon listen at Tuesday's board meeting. Steel beams for the new community recreation center are in the background.

PenMet commissioners, from left, Billy Sehmel, Laurel Kingsbury, Missy Hill, Kurt Grimmer and Steve Nixon listen at Tuesday’s board meeting. Steel beams for the new community recreation center are in the background. Photo by Ed Friedrich

“I’m not against what you’re trying to do, I’m concerned about the process,” he said, emphasizing that the public input and approval from involved parties should have occurred before funds were committed. “It’s mystifying why you would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars without talking to these people.”

Leave it as it is

Three others spoke against the plan. It was difficult to hear exactly what they said, but to paraphrase:

Phillip Craven said the park doesn’t need to be developed. It should be left a nature preserve, as its name suggests. He fears it’ll be overrun. A friend counted 64 people on the sandspit recently.

“That’s too much already,” he said.

Peggy Power said she hasn’t observed PenMet being a good steward of the property. Power asked the district to slow down and take into account increased traffic and tree removal.

Commissioners responded that Tacoma DeMolay developed the site long before PenMet bought it in 2010. The district is just making improvements.

Some of those address obligations of a state Recreation and Conservation Office grant used to buy the property to provide saltwater access. Compliance reports cited the park for ineligible structures and poor accessibility because the path to the beach is steep.

PenMet Park's Tacoma DeMolay Sandspit Nature Preserve.

An ADA-accessible paved path would lead down to the beach.

Commissioners Billy Sehmel and Missy Hill joined Megan Blunk at the park Monday. Blunk fully enjoyed the area’s parks until a motorcycle accident left her in a wheelchair at age 18, she said during the public comment period. She burned her hands on the tires on the way down Monday. Getting back up was a dangerous workout.

“I’m thankful that they care about this for us,” she said. “I know what it’s like to have those experiences and lose them. I never want kids who have never had them to have to go without.”

Let everyone enjoy beach

Sara Jennings’ twin daughters have cerebral palsy. They’ve outgrown her ability to carry them to the water.

“They miss out on experiences because things are not accessible,” she said. “Beaches are a favorite experience for my girls. We live close to Fox Island and I have enjoyed it, but it’s not possible now. Having access for them to get down there would be huge.”

Kingsbury reiterated that PenMet is not developing but improving the property.

“We’re putting in a walkway that’s a life-fulfilling need for citizens in our community. It’s a well-thought-out master plan,” she said, noting the chaotic, gravel parking lot will be paved and given direction. “Everyone will get a nice picnic shelter that will be an ADA improvement to the park we already have.”

Concrete block building at Fox Island sandspit park

A master plan recommends replacing the old green concrete block “bunkhouse.” Photo by Ed Friedrich

Sehmel, who lives on Fox Island, wrote an email to residents expressing his personal thoughts and opinions. He read it at the meeting. He can’t understand why the people who were disappointed about PenMet’s lack of investment in island parks are now upset that it’s doing what they asked.

Addresses purchase requirements

“The pathway doesn’t meet ADA standards yet, making it difficult for some members of our community to enjoy the water,” he said. “This project will fulfill that state requirement. In 2015 and 2023, the state emphasized the importance of equitable public access for those with mobility issues and fixing up or removing buildings that aren’t up to code. Plus, there are other aspects of the original purchase agreement that PenMet committed to, like improving the property. The current project, which is still in the design phase, addresses these requirements.”

Once the master plan is in place, PenMet will begin the final design and permitting process following county and state guidelines, including notifying interested parties, he said.

Commissioner Steve Nixon echoed that the master plan improves parking, accessibility and adds amenities to an already developed site.

“I believe the Tacoma DeMolay Sandspit Nature Preserve helps to support public saltwater access, which I continue to hear is a priority for our community,” he said. “I also believe the improvements to the site are responsive to constituent requests and complaints in my eight years serving on the board. … These improvements, including the shoreline restoration (being pursued separately by Pierce Conservation District), are necessary to enhance the site and provide for safer access while maintaining the character of the site.”