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Plan for CdA’s McEuen Field has plenty of room for contention

The City of Coeur d’Alene has been wrestling for more than a dozen years over what to do with McEuen Field – 20 acres of land stretching from City Hall to the Coeur d’Alene Resort that includes a well-used parking lot and boat launch, ball fields and an entrance to hiking trails on Tubbs Hill.

Consultants over the years have bemoaned the presence of a vast surface parking lot at the shore of a beautiful lake and have recommended removing it and the boat launch and adding green space and other amenities.

But despite years of planning, little has changed at McEuen Field.

Now a committee is proposing a new plan to remake the park, and despite deep-seated resistance to many of the major features, surveys also show a majority of the community supporting it.

The Coeur d’Alene City Council could consider the plan as early as this spring. And the city’s urban renewal agency appears ready to help with funding.

Underground parking and an ice rink

Following months of weekly meetings with a design team, a 21-person steering committee has proposed a sweeping plan that would remove some elements of McEuen Field and add others. Slated to move are the Third Street boat launch, American Legion ball fields, softball fields and most of the surface parking. Replacing them would be vast green space, walking trails, an amphitheater, a children’s play area that meets accessiblity standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, tennis and basketball courts, a skate park and even an ice skating rink on a section of the lake. In addition, a handicap-accessible trail would be cut in on Tubbs Hill’s north side, and water features would be added at its trailheads.

Parking would more than double to 1,260 spaces and would be moved mostly below ground, with additional angled parking on a newly redesigned Front Avenue and an expanded lot at City Hall to the east. It’s unclear whether the parking would still be free for the first two hours as it is in the Third Street lot.

The Tubbs Hill changes, boat launch removal and other features have drawn anger and protest at public meetings, but approval ratings – garnered through online and in-person surveys – have registered at a minimum of 52 percent. Some features, including the new Front Avenue promenade and the children’s play area, have received approval ratings as high as 87 percent.

“This is a beautiful plan. It’s amazing,” Jennifer Riggs Drake said at a meeting Thursday that drew about 500 people. “It’s absolutely necessary for our town to have this kind of vision.”

Opponents, however, say the survey was flawed because it didn’t address all the park’s features. At Thursday’s meeting, more of those attending opposed the plan than supported it. One common sentiment was that it would create a park not in keeping with Coeur d’Alene’s small-town feel.

“It’s like a five-star resort plan,” said Linda Wright. “It isn’t the flavor of the community most of us love.”

Gary Ingram advocated sprucing up the park but leaving the ball fields and boat launch alone. “Tone it down,” he said of the plan. “Scale it back.”

Some city officials say now is the time to act because the urban renewal agency, the Lake City Development Corp., created 14 years ago with remaking McEuen Field as one of its goals, will be able to provide much of the funding before its “Lake District”sunsets in 2021. The LCDC’s budget comes from tax-increment financing, in which geographical boundaries are set for a certain length of time in an area targeted for public improvements. As property values rise within that district, the LCDC receives the additional property taxes to use for public improvement projects.

The Lake District’s current annual revenue is about $3.1 million, said Tony Berns, executive director. The amount of money the agency has to offer for the McEuen Field plan is not clear; the LCDC has hired a consultant to determine how much it will have over the next decade to support various city projects.

As yet, the plan does not have an announced price tag.

Doug Eastwood, the city’s parks director, said he expects the City Council to consider the proposal sometime this spring.

Opinions vary on the council as they do within the community.

“I like to look ahead to the future. Look at the people who had the foresight to buy Tubbs Hill. Did they have any idea what that was going to become?” asked Councilman John Bruning, also a member of the steering committee. “That’s the way I look at McEuen. If we don’t do this now, it may never happen. What we’re doing is going to benefit our kids and our grandkids and the future of the city.”

Councilman Ron Edinger, however, said some improvements could be made to the park, but he disagrees with the heart of the plan. “I don’t think the Third Street boat launch should be taken away. I don’t think the ball fields should be removed and I don’t think they should be doing anything on Tubbs Hill,” he said. “It’s a big project, and it’s going to cost a lot of money. It’s one of the bigger projects that the city of Coeur d’Alene has had and it’s going to change what downtown looks like.”

Various plans floated

In 1997, consulting firm Hyett-Palma recommended adding an amphitheater, open plaza and library to McEuen Field, following a $45,000 taxpayer-funded downtown revitalization study. Portland-based Walker-Macy followed up, hired by the city for $136,000 to create a design for McEuen and other downtown parks and parking lots, news reports show. That plan called for removing the boat launch to make way for a public plaza, upgrading ball fields, and building a multiuse pavilion. The City Council approved it conceptually in March 2000.

Two years later, in July 2002, the City Council voted to conceptually approve another plan for McEuen that eliminated the ball fields but kept the boat launch. The “Committee of Nine” plan also reshaped the parking lot, sinking it below street level to provide better views, and moved boat-trailer parking, replacing it with a grassy amphitheater.

But since little funding was available and other projects were competing for attention, the city didn’t move forward, Eastwood said.

Considering the history, the new proposal for McEuen raises the question: What, if any, of this latest plan will come to fruition?

Eastwood said a couple of things are different now. First, he said, the city never has had the financing to make large-scale improvements. A commitment from LCDC to provide significant funding should help make that happen. Eastwood stresses that no additional city taxes will be levied to pay for park improvements.

Second, Eastwood said, the infrastructure of the park is wearing out and either needs to be replaced or upgraded. “It’s time to rebuild that park or put a huge infusion of money into it,” he said. “We’ve hesitated doing that because we knew this plan was coming. It’s time.”

Some advocate a public vote

Before the City Council can consider any plan, Eastwood said, solutions for any issues created by changes to McEuen Field must be found. That includes “equal or better” replacement sites for the boat launch and ball fields, he said.

The city has identified two potential boat launch sites. One is on part of North Idaho College’s “education corridor” land between the college campus and the city’s wastewater treatment plant on the Spokane River. The other is at Silver Beach, on Coeur d’Alene Lake Drive, on land the Idaho Transportation Department has offered to turn over to the city, Eastwood said.

City officials are exploring both options, he said. If the NIC site were chosen, the city would likely swap land it owns in the nearby abandoned railroad corridor for the boat launch, Eastwood said.

The city is also talking to the Coeur d’Alene School District about moving American Legion baseball to Coeur d’Alene High School, along with the lighting equipment from McEuen Field for night games. Softball fields could be replaced at city-owned land at Persons Field, he said.

The Tubbs Hill Foundation issued a response to the plan saying it opposes any effort to pave any portion of the popular nature park, something Eastwood said is not being considered. He said a planned wheelchair-accessible north-side trail likely would be surfaced with hard dirt or crushed rock.

Foundation members, however, also oppose constructing trail heads featuring artificial fountains or streams, clearing trees for a sledding hill on the hill’s north side, and construction of an observation platform on the hill.

“We believe constructed elements placed on the hill adversely impact the natural scenic state of the hill and would be, therefore, inappropriate,” the statement says.

Foundation members also have been meeting with members of the city’s disability community to understand their point of view. At Thursday’s meeting, Patrick Blum of the Disability Action Center said the plan is beautiful; he just asks that Tubbs Hill “be as accessible as possible.” But, he said, the disability community is not advocating for Tubbs Hill trails to be paved. “These notions have to be put to bed as quickly as possible.”

Many in attendance on Thursday waved signs saying the plan should be put to a vote.

“There is a process for you to have a public vote if that is what it comes to,” Coeur d’Alene Mayor Sandi Bloem said.

The steering committee and design team now will return to the table to consider the issues raised by the public. They will make any necessary adjustments and decide what happens next: more public meetings or presenting the plan to the City Council, Eastwood said.

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