An overlooked park in the heart of Coeur d’Alene will be transformed into a recreational showcase over the next 14 months.
In the city’s most expensive park project ever, McEuen Field between downtown and Tubbs Hill will be remade to give visitors a greater variety of amenities and improve downtown’s link to the waterfront.
Work begins this week and is expected to be finished by November 2013. Eighty percent of the project will be financed by urban renewal tax dollars.
Major pieces of the $14.2 million makeover will be a promenade along Lake Coeur d’Alene, a grassy amphitheater, a large children’s playground and summer splash pad, and new paths, parking lots, picnic shelters and restrooms.
Through private fundraising, the city may add more features, such as a fenced dog park and a skateboard park.
“It is one of our most valuable public spaces, there’s no doubt about it,” Mayor Sandi Bloem said.
But nestled as it is among Tubbs Hill, the lake, the Coeur d’Alene Resort, downtown, the city library and City Hall, McEuen Field has not attracted the crowds one would expect in such a setting.
“Day after day after day you could go by there in nice weather and there would be no one there, or very few,” Bloem said.
City planners long have desired to make McEuen Field more of a destination, much like the high-profile City Park on the west end of downtown. In the past 15 years the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars studying ways to redevelop McEuen to appeal to a wider array of interests.
The park isn’t that inviting now, said Doug Eastwood, the city’s park director. Almost a third of it is covered in asphalt, mostly a large parking lot on the west end near the public boat launch and the Coeur d’Alene Resort. Much of the rest of the park is taken up by an American Legion baseball field and other playfields, with access inhibited by fences and ill-defined entryways.
“If you come into town and go by City Park, it’s just full of people and activities. You drive two blocks and come by McEuen, you’re lucky to see 10 or 12 people,” Eastwood said.
He hopes the redevelopment will reduce the heavy use at the flagship City Park, which is the same size as McEuen.
“Everyone is attracted to that one,” he said. “We love that so much, we will wear it out using it.”
At McEuen, parking will be moved to a new lot tucked along and under Front Avenue on the north side of the park, and to a new lot to be built this fall south of City Hall on the east end of the park.
A wide new path will be built from the east lot, wending along the base of Tubbs Hill, to a new lakefront promenade and a better connection to the trail up Tubbs Hill.
Near the library, a small playground and basketball courts will be taken out next spring as the bulk of work begins.
The new playground will be four times larger than the old one and will be fully accessible to children of all ability levels. It will include, for example, sensory components for children with autism or sensory processing disorders.
The amphitheater will accommodate concerts and plays for up to 2,500 attendees, and new picnic shelters will be able to host groups of up to 200.
On the west end, the boat launch and some parking will remain open during construction. The city had mulled moving the boat launch away from McEuen Field but did not find a new location for it.
The American Legion ball field, however, will be moved to the southwest corner of Ramsey Park, next to the Kroc Center.
It’s a new chapter for a piece of land that has had a diverse history. A lumber mill sat on the site until 1929. It then became the home of the Kootenai County Fairgrounds, complete with a horse-racing track.
During World War II the site was used as overflow housing for sailors training at the Navy’s Farragut Naval Base on Lake Pend Oreille.
The city pieced together the parkland and Tubbs Hill – 135 acres in all – in a series of purchases over five decades, and the park – known then as Mullan Field – began to take shape in the 1950s and ’60s.
In 1965, the baseball field was put in, and the city renamed the park for Mae McEuen, a member of the city’s parks and recreation commission and a supporter of youth sports.
In 1997, Coeur d’Alene Resort owner Duane Hagadone offered to bankroll the development of a new city library and memorial gardens at McEuen Field. Public opposition sank that idea.
Controversy erupted again in recent years as the city’s grand plan – and budget– for McEuen Field came into focus. Some lashed out against the City Council for wanting to spend so much in one spot. Others objected to the loss of the baseball field and the potential relocation of the boat launch.
Some critics highlighted the project in an effort earlier this year to recall Bloem and three city council members who supported the park’s redevelopment and opposed a public advisory vote on McEuen’s makeover.
While the recall fell short of the required signatures to place it before voters, the McEuen project moved forward on a series of split City Council votes.
Bloem said differences of opinion remain about what the city should do with the park and how much money should be spent doing it. But she likens it to other recent development projects that drew fire but won over the public.
“There was criticism for the library and criticism for the Kroc Center right up until people could see the end product and what it really was going to do for the community,” the mayor said.
Disagreement about McEuen will fade as well, she predicted. “I think there will be less as we move forward and people can see what will be there for them to enjoy,” she said.
“It will be really a place, not a space. It will be a place that invites all age groups and residents and visitors alike for a multitude of activities. I think it will be a really important place where community comes together.”