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Tacoma’s new waterfront park boasts stunning views

By Craig Sailor, The News Tribune
Published: April 13, 2024, 5:59am

TACOMA — When redevelopment began along the western side of the Thea Foss Waterway in the early 2000s, the shoreline looked liked a gap-toothed smile. There were more vacant lots than buildings.

Over the years, those missing pieces have been slowly filled with museums and housing. And on Friday, the once-polluted waterway received its newest addition.

Melanie Jan LaPlant Dressel Park is a sparkling new playground geared toward children ages 5 to 12 but boasts a stunning vista for adults. Long before it opened, it became known simply as Melanie’s Park.

The park, at 1147 Dock St., is named after the former CEO of Columbia Bank and community philanthropist. This week, Dressel’s family took a tour of the grounds and play equipment. Her son, Robert Dressel Jr., said the park represents the two most important aspects of his late mother’s life: family and community.

“She could have sat up there and looked down and see the kids play,” he said, with a nod toward Columbia Bank’s headquarters, which overlooks the park. In 2021, Columbia Bank merged with Umpqua Bank.

Although the nearly 1-acre park is geared toward children, it’s much more than a playground. Art and history are woven into the site.

Adults who may not want to slide down a twisty metal tube or ascend the 36-foot-tall climbing tower will find that the serpentine walk to a 50-foot-long bridge rewards them with a stunning vista of the waterfront.

The 11-foot-tall bridge has simultaneous views of downtown Tacoma, a busy train yard, the Murray Morgan Bridge, Mount Rainier, a marina and, soon, the Port Maritime Center.

A building with an indoor space that can be rented out for birthday parties and other functions anchors one corner of the park.

Between the park and the water is a sort of esplanade to nowhere. All developments, private or public, are required to build sections of the Foss Waterway esplanade as part of their projects. But because vacant lots are on either side of Melanie’s Park, it’s not connected to the rest of the popular walkway.

Play time

“There is nowhere really on the waterfront to just play,” Metro Parks project manager Kristi Evans said. That changed Friday.

The high point of the park is its climbing tower. Children can enter at ground level or bridge level and can leave through the metal tube slide. On the opposite side of the hill that centers the park, a “log jam” offers well-sanded timber for kids to climb on, under and around.

The waterside of the hill features concrete stadium-style seating, reminiscent of a similar but larger feature at Dune Peninsula.

An open-air slide and a grassy slope give kids even more ways to enjoy the effects of gravity.

Park history

Designs for what would become Melanie’s Park were presented in early 2016. That same year, the Foss Waterway Development Authority began raising money toward the park’s $4.6 million design and construction costs. Half of the funding, $2.2 million, came from a bond voters approved in 2014. The other half came from $1.2 million in private donations, $750,000 from the city of Tacoma, $490,000 from a Washington commerce grant and $50,000 from Pierce County.

The park site has a long history, according to Metro Parks historian Claire Keller-Scholz. Tribal artists created designs that have been stamped in the pavement using bright colors. One of the Puyallup Tribe’s ancestral settlements was located nearby on the site of today’s Tollefson Plaza. The tribe used the shore for fishing camps.

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The park’s hill hearkens backs to the days when fuel piles lined the shore and fed industry. The log jam is a nod to the region’s timber industry. The former Consumer Central Heating Plant that once stood there is reflected in the smokestack-like climbing tower.