This is not a story from 1932, 1949, 1981, 2007 or 2014, although variations of the following sentence appeared in this newspaper’s pages in each of those years:
Until repairs can be completed at Stadium Bowl, the iconic North End sports venue with a widely praised Commencement Bay view will remain closed.
The vulnerabilities of the same geography that make the Tacoma stadium a landmark — atop an ancient gulch amid a long-settled neighborhood in an earthquake-prone region — have struck again with flooding problems after a century of life regularly punctuated by structure-crippling plagues.
They began with New Year’s Day sewer-pipe washout in 1932 and continued over the decades with an earthquake, a mudslide and sinkholes. Now the stadium, which has been closed for reconstruction so often that it has hosted five dedication ceremonies, can add climate change to the list, some officials say.
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City and schools officials are working on designs to keep the bowl dry enough to operate through what climate experts predict will be years of intensifying rains.
“Our system isn’t prepared for that in that location,” said Michael Slevin, the city’s environmental services director.
City Hall is awaiting Tacoma Public Schools’ official claim for damages from the inrush of water that caused the facility’s current shutdown. In October, as in 2014, an intense burst of rain dumped enough water in the area that drains across the stadium — a hillside of varying slope reaching almost beyond Stadium High School’s attendance zone — overwhelmed what city storm sewers could pipe away.
The cascading waters washed out much of the material beneath the concrete stairs leading down into the stadium and left sediment on the field that reduces how well its turf surface absorbs impact.
Add to the episodic flooding a series of bucket-sized sinkholes on the field, discovered in August and attributed to the maze of decaying irrigation and drainage pipelines under the carpet.
Though not directly related, both remain ongoing issues for Tacoma Public Schools, which hopes to reopen the stadium in February after construction crews dig and patch the circa-1910 stadium.
“It’s unfortunate for the kids that the bowl’s closed,” said Stephen Murakami, the school district’s chief operating officer, “but it’s also good timing in that it’s winter, and so the ground’s firming up. The use is going down, and so we can get in there and do the necessary repairs.”
This year’s troubles began with the sinkholes, and Murakami said that issue has mostly been solved. Ground-penetrating radar examined what Murakami called the “latticework of existing pipes and pea gravel trenches” beneath the field and found what needed to be dug out and repaired.
The maintenance plan from here involves driving heavy construction equipment — the machinery used to groom the turf — across the field to expose any cave-ins in waiting.
“We’re going to get our grooming machines run on those fields at a higher level of frequency,” he said, “to make sure that if there’s a soft spot, the machine finds it, not the students.”
The flooding is being treated with more extensive work to attempt to shunt waters into drainage and away from the brim of the bowl. During the recent heavy rains, orange and white sandbags lay piled on North Second and Third streets to divert as much water as possible into the street-level catch basins.
The city is paying to install more catch basins, because clogs from autumn leaves and fast-moving water often lead to water flowing by faster than the stormwater system can capture it.
“The catch basins fill right up, and the water shoots right over,” Murakami said.
It happened in October’s flood, as school board member Debbie Winskill watched. She lives near Stadium Bowl and went out to assess the damage with a family member while the rain was still pouring.
“We cleared a drain, and it just started whirlpooling down the drain,” she said.
While the new catch basins — at an average cost of $7,000 to $10,000 each — will help, Slevin and Murakami said discussions are ongoing about long-term fixes to account for the changing magnitude of rainfalls.
Asked what might eventually need to be installed, Murakami spoke of “sidewalks and gutters that you see in Arizona — six- and eight-foot-wide, full-curb-height drainage basins” that are used to keep flash floods at bay.
As Tuesday’s burst of rain pelted him on the Stadium Bowl field, the school district’s maintenance manager, Tom Chalk, pointed up at a slide of dirt and rocks that erosion had carried out from beneath the concrete stairs leading in. Sandbags are keeping the slides from cutting deeper into the fill under the building now, he said.
City and schools officials spoke of preserving Stadium Bowl, which has survived long enough to receive praise from President Theodore Roosevelt and ESPN, as a matter of civic cultural importance.
“Stadium has become a priority because it’s an icon,” Chalk said. “It’s a Northwest icon. It’s an American icon.”
And an expensive one. The bills to keep it usable over the decades reach far even before bids come in on the latest round of required repairs.
The construction bill in 1910 was $160,000, the inflation-adjusted equivalent of almost $4 million today. Partial renovation in 1960 cost $60,000, or about $500,000 in 2015 dollars. A federal grant for $2 million in 1977 was followed by another $740,000 in a 1984 settlement of a lawsuit against the city over the 1981 mudslide.
Inflation-adjusted to 2015 dollars, that amounts to $14.3 million across the years to build and maintain a public high-school stadium.
“I told my wife, ‘The public’s going to get tired of spending money on that bowl,’ ” Marv Shain, Stadium High’s principal for 15 years, now retired, said by phone. “But they have to fix it. I understand that, but I would think we’ve spent hundreds of thousands on that baby by now. …
“We’ve fixed it so many times,” Shain continued. “You’d think, if we were smart enough to get men to the moon, we ought to be able to fix that. What do you think?”