Aberdeen city officials made a pitch to the Port of Grays Harbor Tuesday to help the city build a new park at the mouth of the Wishkah River behind the planned expansion of Walmart.
Aberdeen Mayor Bill Simpson, Community Development Director Lisa Scott and Parks Director Karl Harris laid out the new park proposal at the regular Port Commission meeting, noting the property to be used was once sold by the city to the Port for $15,000.
“We are asking at this point in time … for you to deed that back to us again so we can make these improvements to make a better waterfront,” Simpson said.
Scott said the idea for the park began about six months ago as part of an update to the city’s comprehensive plan. Preliminary design renderings from Alan Gozart of Harbor Architects were handed out to Port commissioners.
“One of the No. 1 things we heard time and time again was that people wanted more waterfront development – they wanted more waterfront access,” Scott said. “This gave us the perfect opportunity with Walmart coming in and adding onto the store, creating a new landscaping and parking area.”
With Walmart’s current expansion plans, Scott said, it left little opportunity for any future upland development.
“We figured this would be a great opportunity to capitalize on the improvements that Walmart is putting in allowing public access to a facility that the Port has had since 1965 when it purchased that property from the city of Aberdeen,” Scott said.
Walmart in May was given approval to move forward with its expansion by the state Shorelines Hearing Board after an appeal by the group Friends of Grays Harbor. Walmart had to agree to improve access to the waterfront trail and the general landscape to move ahead with expansion. The proposed building will grow from an existing area of 121,053 square feet to 156,995 square feet, complete with a new front area.
The design work for the proposed park has been done by Gozart. One feature is a canoe/kayak launching area near the compass rose where the Lady Washington was originally launched.
“There are so many multiple ideas about what could happen on this dock area,” Scott said.
The dock area, where the warehouse once stood during construction of the Lady Washington was built, provides a “perfect opportunity for open gathering spaces for music” or other vendors and allows for access to the waterfront, Scott said. The city is requesting some sort of deal with the Port to get access back to the property so it can move forward with an effort to fund the park plan.
As part of its expansion, Scott said, Walmart must make improvements to the waterfront trail and add picnic areas, grassy hills and parking to encourage people to use that section of the waterfront.
Harris said adding the Port property would allow for a better connection to the waterfront trail and the property otherwise would be isolated in an island upon itself. The site would include a kayak and canoe launch area and dock, catering to non-motorized craft.
“That is something we have heard over and over from the public that they would like to have a dedicated kayak/canoe launch, and that location is perfect and ideal for that type of situation,” Harris said. “It is slack water, protected from the wind – it’s a really good location for a kayak launch.”
Port Commission President Chuck Caldwell asked if the city had funding in mind.
“This would be something that we would need to go after,” Harris replied, and the city did not provide a cost estimate for the overall project.
Port Commissioner Jack Thompson also wanted to know where the parking would go, and Scott said Walmart is required to provide some spaces under the permitting process.
Gozart told commissioners his idea incorporates shipping containers that are modified to be used for vendors at the park, which will serve as a “bookend to Morrison Riverfront Park, connected by a public trail.”
Scott said the city has discussed its park proposal with Walmart developer, PacLand, and intends to work with what the company already has planned for making open-space improvements along the river.
If successful securing grant funding, Scott said, the timeline is to start work on the park some time next year. Because the city doesn’t own the property, she noted, it is prevented from applying for grants for the site. The idea would be for the Port to sign over the property to the city while the city also seeks a reassignment of the site’s waterfront lease from the state Department of Natural Resources.
“We’re not looking for a decision today, ” Scott said.
“Anything is open,” Harris said when asked if there were other options to consider beyond an outright transfer of title. One of the options, he suggested, could be a very long-term lease.
At Monday’s meeting, Port commissioners also were asked for help with improvements to the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge. Refuge Manager Jean Takekawa said the plans include a new observation platform associated with the refuge kiosks, and another viewing platform about halfway out the trail through the refuge on Port property, where the view currently is blocked by vegetation.
At the end of the trail, Takekawa said, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, also would like to build an extension over time, no longer than 250 feet to improve the viewing of shorebirds and other wildlife.
“Now in order to make that possible, we have to be able to continue to provide access for the public to reach the beginning of the Sandpiper trail,” Takekawa said in her appeal to the commissioners. “This has always been provided by the Port under a letter of agreement.”
The refuge, adjacent to the Port’s Bowerman Airport, would like the Port to set back security fencing it is required to install to allow for continued public access to the trail.
Takekawa said the refuge even is willing to purchase the strip of land to keep access available.
“This has been a really important relationship, between the refuge and the Port,” she said. “What the Port has done by continuing to provide that access for almost 15 years has provided tremendous benefit for the community.”
A new visitor’s center for the refuge also is called for in the plans, and Takekawa said that would likely be off Paulson Road.