Five Mile Drive in Point Defiance, Tacoma closes to cars

A beloved landmark at Point Defiance Park in Tacoma has fallen victim to Mother Nature and the effects of climate change.

On Friday, May 20, the outer ring of Five Mile Drive will be closed from vehicular traffic, according to a note from Metro Parks CEO Sean Sylvia sent to Elizabeth Pauley, the city manager of Tacoma.

There are no plans to reopen the road to vehicular traffic, according to the memo, which was submitted to The News Tribune late last week.

The decision to permanently close the outer ring of Five Mile Drive was made after a geotechnical assessment earlier this year identified “continuous erosion and slope instability affecting bluffing,” particularly near known vantage points, notes the May 13th note.

Pedestrian and bicycle access — which Metro Parks has determined does not pose “the same level of threat to deception as continued vehicle use” — will remain unchanged, at least for the time being, according to the memo.

A public announcement of the shutdown will be made Tuesday, according to Sylvia, who confirmed Metro Parks’ decision.

Sylvia told the News Tribune that climate change is an important factor in conditions at Point Defiance Park.

“We have observed what appears to be an acceleration of bluff erosion, and the road is now very close to the edge in some areas, especially the viewpoints,” Sylvia’s note reads in part. “Our decision to permanently close the drive to vehicles is a direct response to the apparent erosion acceleration affected by the multiple forces of nature, including torrential rainfall at the top of the peninsula and stronger waves cutting its slope from below.”

The memo states, “We respect the force of nature and step back from the edge of the earth to protect the public and will not attempt to engineer checks on the deterministic force of natural forces.”

Deceit at the viewpoint of Gig Harbor at Point Defiance Park in 2007. Photo_ The News Tribune.JPG
Significant erosion on the bluffs at Gig Harbor Viewpoint may require moving Five Mile Drive away into Point Defiance Park. It is one of many potential changes contained in the first proposed update of the park’s master plan since 1911, Monday, December 10, 2007 in Tacoma. (Drew Perrin/The News Tribune) Drew Perrin TNT

What does that mean for Tacoma

According to Marty Stamp, Metro Parks’ chief planning officer, the outer ring of Five Mile Drive is already closed to buses and other heavy vehicles.

The agency received the geotechnical assessment in January, and staff have spent the past several months responding and reviewing its findings, Stump said.

Erosion at Point Defiance Park is nothing new. Stump said the latest risk assessment is similar to previous reports and major planning efforts — dating back more than a decade — which concluded that erosion on the bluffs at Point Defiance Park is likely to pose a threat to the outer ring road at some point in the future. News Tribune.

While Stump said there was no “imminent danger” of landslides at Point Defiance Park, he said the latest assessment was enough for Metro Parks to decide now it was time to take “immediate action.”

“The erosion of those banks has now gone so close to their edge of the road that Metro Parks feels it is time to stop vehicular traffic on this road, out of great caution. We need to protect the park, visitors and patrons first and foremost,” Stump said.

“We attribute that to changes in the climate and weather patterns we have here,” he added.

Stump acknowledged that the park district’s decision to permanently close the outer ring of vehicles has the potential to cause anger and disappointment in the community.

He said maintaining a certain level of vehicle access at Point Defiance is important, because that’s how many people — including those with disabilities or those with mobility issues — enter the park.

Stump noted that Metro Parks is in the early stages of evaluating alternative vehicle routes, including potential use of public transportation and electric trams. In the future, he said, this could include rebuilding a road out of bluff, although such a project would likely be difficult and result in significant loss of trees and forest area.

Another option being explored is the development of a detour service route that already exists in the park, which would allow vehicle access away from bluffs, Stump said.

“At least from our perspective, I would say that amounts to a preferred option, given everything we know today,” Stump said. “But we need to distill that with some additional analysis – such as cost (and) environmental impact considerations.”

Either project will depend on the availability of funding and the successful completion of the licensing process.

Opening a new road in Point Defiance Park could take “a year and a half to two years, at best, and possibly longer if we run into other issues,” Stump said.

He promised that the audience would have a great opportunity to influence along the way.

It will take some time, but we are committed to making progress on this. “We’re not going to sit on this,” Stump said.

Corrosion Challenge Point .JPG
An aerial view of erosion at Point Defiance Park in Tacoma. metro parks tacoma

future challenge point

The permanent closure of Five Mile Drive marks the end of an era in Tacoma.

For decades, the scenic trail has been a favorite of Tacoma and Pierce County residents trying to impress someone from out of town, escape the hustle and bustle of the city, or simply spend time fending off hungry raccoons that rarely seem to be deterred by signs urging visitors not to feed them .

According to Point Defiance’s Historic Property Management Plan, Five Mile Drive was originally laid out and designated in 1913, “as a route around the entire park beginning at the entrance to Pearl Street and ending at Pearl Street, with paving work beginning later.”

The archive notes that “the introduction of Five Mile Drive improved circulation throughout the park and opened remote parts of the park to vehicular traffic, including ‘buses’ cruising vehicles used in other parks at the time.”

The closure of Tacoma’s most popular scenic drive provides a stark example of the visual impact of climate change.

It also provides an opportunity for Tacoma to rethink and rediscover Point Defiance Park, whether ready or not.

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Five Mile Drive was closed to vehicular traffic but remained open to pedestrians and cyclists.

Recently, the outer ring was only open to vehicular traffic from Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

In the absence of vehicles, Stump said, new opportunities will arrive at Point Defiance.

He said keeping as many people as possible remain accessible to Metro Parks – including exploring public transit options – but a “car-less” future isn’t necessarily a bad thing, he said.

“We want a part of that park to always be available to you if you drive a car,” Stump said.

“This road where it is today is an unsustainable situation. We need to find a solution, and it will take time to do that.”

This story was originally published May 17, 2022 9:55 am.

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Matt Driscoll is a columnist for The News Tribune and opinion editor for the newspaper. A McClatchy President’s Award recipient, Driscoll is passionate about Tacoma and strives to tell stories that might not otherwise be told.

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