Changes Coming to Tacoma’s Parks

Story and photos by Henry Stewart-Wood

Two of Tacoma’s largest parks, Swan Creek and Owen Beach are undergoing large-scale construction projects intended to make the parks more accessible and usable. 

The improvements at Swan Creek include a dog park, picnic area, skate park, a new parking lot, and several trails. Construction is expected to be completed by December 2021. 

At Owen Beach, the improvements consist of a new ADA-compliant pavilion and restroom, a kid’s playground, and a non-motorized boat launch. The lawn areas and parking lot will be moved back to avoid potential flooding caused by climate change. Owen Beach is expected to re-open in the Summer of 2022. 

You probably already know all of that, though.  

I’ve known about both of the projects for a while, I didn’t think much of either of them. A new skatepark at Swan Creek? Cool. Updating Owen Beach to increase accessibility and mitigate potential damage from climate change? Also cool in my book. 

I didn’t think either of these projects would be controversial. So I was surprised when I logged onto Facebook a few weeks ago and saw several friends sharing a petition to stop the improvements at Owen Beach. 

The petition calls on the city to stop the improvements at Owen Beach because it is one of the last bastions of nature in the city. The petition says the modern design of the buildings will make it feel like another Point Ruston. 

The author of the petition notes that increased accessibility is a good thing, and the park does need new bathrooms, but completely remodeling a natural landscape will ruin the park’s appeal of being close to nature. 

While I sympathized with the author of the petition, and those who shared it, I thought protesting park improvements was kind of silly, especially because the current field and parking lot might be underwater in 50 years. I didn’t get it at first. 

That was my mindset when I went to Owen Beach the other day to shoot some photos of the construction. 

Starting at the Boat House, I walked down the promenade towards the park. At the very end a chain-link fence blocked off access to the park. On the other side of the fence, a bulldozer and excavator were parked next to the lawn. Driftwood was strewn about the lawn, torn up by the excavator’s tracks. Excavator implements sat where you would typically expect to see a family having a picnic. 

The parking lot was completely empty, something you usually only see at 2 a.m. The scene at Owen Beach, although it was pretty much what I anticipated, was jarring. It made me start to rethink my position.

It’s hard to explain how important Point Defiance and Owen Beach were during my childhood and adolescent life. As a kid, my parents would take my brother and me, along with our dogs, to Owen Beach to run around and look for crabs and sea-stars. As a teenager, my friends and I would go to Owen Beach and engage in activities that were maybe less wholesome, albeit just as fun as the activities I engaged in as a kid. 

I think my experience at Point Defiance is typical for anyone who grew up here. 

Owen Beach’s rundown bathroom, the lawn that was always flooded, the snack bar that was always closed, and the beat-up picnic tables are all present in my memories of the park. The facilities have always been kinda shitty, but that never mattered because a few hundred feet in any direction you could enter a different world. 

Walking around the perimeter of the fence, the lack of people was eerie. It was a beautiful, sunny day and the park was empty. Seeing the construction in person completely shifted my view on the issue. 

I still think the petition is kind of silly, but not because of the message. I just think petitions aren’t very effective. I think the petition to stop construction at Owen Beach is emblematic of a larger trend we’re witnessing in Tacoma. 

As a kid growing up here, it seemed that Tacoma was unchanging. Up until the last few years, businesses on Pacific and Sixth Ave came and went but the buildings stayed the same. That began to change several years ago. By the time I left Tacoma in 2018 to attend WWU it felt like every time I came home for a weekend a new eyesore of a development was under construction in some corner of Tacoma. 

It’s interesting to me that the construction at Swan Creek hasn’t faced the same public scrutiny the construction at Owen Beach has. Maybe it’s simply due to the popularity of Owen Beach. 

A lot of my memories of Swan Creek are from middle school. I went to Bryant Montessori and we routinely went to Swan Creek for field studies to learn about the local flora and fauna. I had heard rumors about the numbing quality of banana slugs when licked, so on one field study, I decided to conduct a field experiment. Turns out the rumors are true, my tongue was numb for a while. It was a different time back then though. Don’t lick Banana Slugs—respect nature. Either way, it’s a memory of Swan Creek I hold near and dear. 

When I went to shoot some photos of the construction at Swan Creek it wasn’t nearly as jarring, compared to Owen Beach. The construction at Swan Creek didn’t seem to phase any park-goers. People were out jogging, walking their dogs, and biking while an excavator moved concrete blocks across the field and workers set the foundation for the picnic area. 

I can’t speak to the changes coming to Swan Creek the same way I can about Owen Beach, I never spent enough time there. I’m curious to hear how folks who live in the neighborhood feel about the changes. I don’t really have a message to drive home by sharing my personal thoughts on this issue, but I think these are important conversations to have with each other, outside of council meetings and public suggestion forums.

The fact is, the city I grew up in and love is changing, whether I like it or not. The landscape is changing and the people are changing. The change is uncomfortable and I’m powerless to stop it. I think I share this feeling with a lot of longtime Tacomans. 

The changes at Owen Beach feel a lot like the changes everywhere else in Tacoma. Tearing down an old, yet charming building and replacing it with a giant modern complex. And while most Tacomans probably don’t have fond memories from the corner of 6th and Alder, most Tacomans likely have fond memories from Owen Beach. It makes sense that people would resist any changes to Owen Beach, just like they did when the go-kart track and batting cages were removed from Point Defiance. 

Despite this feeling of loss, I take comfort in knowing that people who previously couldn’t enjoy the park due to accessibility issues, will be able to when the improvements are done. I think this can serve as a reminder for us to keep our eyes open for the next proposal the city comes up with. Things will continue to change no matter what, ensuring the changes are what the people of Tacoma actually want, is up to us.

  1. Excellent point. The raw beauty of Owens beach will never be outdone.
    It’s sad well soon see a California or east coast design in our neighborhood.
    The ability to drive, walk and take in the true beauty of 5 mile and Owens beach will be gone. It’s beautiful just the way it was and the change only lines the pockets of others.

  2. Your article is spot on in my mind. Change is inevitable and difficult to accept at first but necessary in the end.

  3. I also have fond memories of Owen beach. Wilson hs marine biology field trip on a rainy spring day, hot summer evening picnics with my family, taking my own children down for a day of exploring. Even though I’ll miss the old beach, i won’t miss the creepy bathroom or the old picnic tables. I’m looking forward to the new improvements, although i dont think such a large pavilion is necessary.

  4. I cannot believe this is being allowed. We were never allowed to touch within 100 feet of a water way. Now they can just tear it all up? Not to mention all the creatures that live on the beach. This is really sad. They all scream about climate change, but can destroy all our natural waterfront. So sad. And very hipocritical.

  5. Great article. We went to take pictures at Owens beach the last day it was open because of so many family memories there. I love that you’re writing and sharing those thoughts. I too miss the quieter days in Tacoma.
    Another change that most Tacoman’s aren’t even aware of is on the port, (or tide flats as we always called them.) A huge tank was built by puget sound energy without the proper permitting and despite the concerns of the Puyallup people. They are planning on starting up operations in May, before a trial being held against it will even be decided. This tank will hold an obscene amount of highly volatile liquid natural gas from a fracked site in Canada. In order to keep that tank from exploding, it will need to be super cooled at all times. I wonder if the tide flats, in the path of a lahar from Mt. Rainier, will have some magic way to keep super cooling during a volcano? Your old art teacher wants you to write a story on this. You make me proud!

  6. Good article with humor and insight. My native Tacoma husband can relate. Preservation for our kids and grandkids is an important perspective we have being mid 60’s in age now.

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