Endless Possibilities

A systematic public-outreach effort pinpoints what visitors want for a sprawling county park

By Amy Head
Photos/Renderings: SCJ Alliance

A determined mom pushes a double stroller while her ponytail sways from side to side. Meanwhile, a cross-country team from the local high school gets in an afternoon run. Golfers—sunburned and sore—rib each other over a round well-played, while an elderly couple walks hand in hand, enjoying a view that never gets old.

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Any given moment at Washington’s Chambers Creek Regional Park boasts visitors from all walks of life, and planners at the parks department and local consulting firm SCJ Alliance are working to keep that diverse “visitorship” happy, engaged, and growing.

A One-Of-A-Kind Site
“Chambers Creek is so much more than a golf course,” SCJ Planning Manager Dan Penrose explains, referring to Chambers Bay Golf Course, the site of the 2015 U.S. Open. “The golf course is beautiful, well-run, and complete. The rest of the 930-acre park is raw, well-loved, and ready for enhancement.”

The sheer size of the park and its waterfront location along Puget Sound make it a high priority for the community. Fully engaging them in the planning process was critical.

“It was critical,” Penrose says, “but it was also fun. The park is so big that we could incorporate almost everything the public asked—no matter how diverse!”

The planning team built upon the park’s beauty and usability through a 2017 master plan update. During the process, SCJ, Pierce County Parks and Recreation, park users, residents, and others came together at a series of open houses to envision a park to be developed and treasured for years to come.

“Park planning takes strategy, imagination, and a love of listening,” Penrose says. “The Chambers Creek plan very much reflects the interests of county residents after a dynamic and successful public-outreach process.”

A Diverse Audience
Hans Shepherd, a planner who coordinated the public meetings and an online survey, explains, “Planning for a regional park is different than planning for a smaller, local one. We started with a needs assessment, looking for what was already available in the area and what the community was looking for on a regional scale. A playground slide, for example, can be found anywhere, but the potential boat access at Chambers Creek is distinctive.”

The regional park sits at the mouth of Chambers Creek on a former gravel mine and is adjacent to the county’s regional wastewater-treatment plant.

“We needed to hear from more than just park users,” Shepherd says. “Several other groups gave input about what they wanted to preserve.”

Environmentalists were particularly interested in what changes would be made to the area where Chambers Creek meets Puget Sound. Another group was interested from a purely historical perspective and wanted to keep the large concrete structures that remain from the previous long-running mining operation.

As for park users themselves, they were most interested in maintaining views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, expanding the trail system, and improving access to the beaches.

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A Creative, Widespread Outreach Operation
“Reaching these distinct groups took a planning process all its own,” Shepherd says.

It started with the project website, created to update visitors on the progress the planning team was making and to eventually house an online survey.

Once the website was up and running, emails were sent to people who had been involved in park programs and had expressed an interest in staying informed.

Next, local media were contacted.

“Chambers Creek is a significant parcel of community property,” Penrose says. “Getting local media to cover the planning process—and all of the park’s possibilities—was easy.”

After that, the team contacted local interest groups and outdoor recreation groups and invited them to share the website through their social media pages.

Shepherd says, “By the time we rolled out the survey, people were already aware of what was going on with the project, and they were excited to give their input.”

Then the team expanded its reach even further—or should I say—even closer.

“We grabbed a couple tablets and went into the park ourselves, asking person-to-person for their opinions,” Shepherd explains. “All of our public meetings were held in the park, and we visited on days when we knew we could reach a lot of people.” At the county’s annual Kite Festival, the team set up mobile outreach stations, talking to people while they enjoyed the park.

A Dynamic Plan
Penrose says, “It’s an exceptional area for park design because it’s surrounded by water on three sides. So, in addition to typical park features, we could propose things like a boat launch for kayaks and canoes and an observation lookout over the Sound.”

Two concepts were presented for the undeveloped area of the park. They highlighted both active uses, like a parkour climbing area and sand volleyball courts, and more passive ones, like a 2.5-mile network of trails, an off-leash dog park, and a native plant garden.

In the end, the planning team reviewed more than 1,400 responses to the online survey.

“It’s encouraging to have so many residents involved and invested in seeing the park succeed,” Penrose says.

The plan, which includes existing, adopted, and new uses for the park, was presented to the county council and two local city councils and formally adopted last year. Some of the new uses include active recreation areas, Chambers Creek Estuary Pier, community and landscape artwork, a non-motorized boat launch, off-leash dog areas, and plenty of open space.

The County Executive’s office is also currently negotiating a ground lease with a development company to construct a resort hotel, golf-course support amenities, a clubhouse, event space and restaurant, and other facilities on a section of the park that will bring even more visitors.

“Crafting this plan was a lot of fun,” Penrose says. “Enjoying it will be even better.”

Amy Head, PE, LEED AP BD+C, is a principal for SCJ Alliance in Washington. For more information, visit http://www.scjalliance.com/.