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A Conservation District to Preserve Lack of Density?
A conservation district for the West Slope Neighborhood is among the issues being reviewed for the 2015 Annual Amendment to Tacoma's Comprehensive Plan and Land Use Code. We wrote about this last spring when residents took the idea to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Since then the application has been approved by the Planning Commission for further review. Over the coming months City staff will continue the review process, including a public outreach process and technical analysis.
The Westslope Neighborhood Coalition requested a conservation district to protect the character and views in the neighborhood of single-family residences.
The purpose of the proposal is to preserve and protect the distinctive character of the area and to protect the neighborhood from unnecessary demolition, inappropriate new construction, and inappropriate additions.
The West Slope Neighborhood consists of four plats originally laid out in 1941, with about 280 homes built primarily in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. The homes are predominantly two stories (one full story plus a daylight basement), accessed at grade from the upper street, with lots laid out to maximize views. The original developer established covenants restricting design and construction of homes within the plats. Difficulties enforcing these covenants have led neighbors to court to settle disputes, and the neighborhood coalition to pursue becoming an officially recognized district.
Different from a historic district, a conservation district would require City approval of new construction, demolitions, and additions to existing buildings. Guidelines could be established for things like site planning, building height and design, subdivision of lots, trees and vegetation, etc. As a conservation district, rather than a historic district, review would not be required for smaller changes like windows or siding.
It's an interesting time to think about protecting a low-density development pattern - the proposal appears on the list of possible amendments alongside other planning conversations focused on increasing density and accomodating future growth. Depending on your perspective, it could be viewed as either antithetical to those plans, or an appropriately-timed move to protect a neighborhood that could otherwise see significant alterations as pressure for greater density grows.
Along with protecting neighborhood character and views there's the question of whether the midcentury development is something we as a city want to protect. We will continue to see low-density development in other parts of the county, but that kind of development on a neighborhood-wide scale in Tacoma is less likely. And the low-slung, midcentury architecture, though not what we may be used to thinking of as historic, is characteristic of an era that is now half a century in the past.
Tacoma isn't alone in considering these questions. Cities around the U.S. and Canada have declared conservation districts to protect midcentury neighborhoods, and Seattle has been looking at neighborhood conservation districts as a tool for protecting neighborhood character.
If we're going to encourage density and infill development, do we also want to think about corresponding protections for lack of density?
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