Imagine Tacoma – Density or No Density?

With the posting this week about the rest of the Marcato Project Property now up for sale, the City of Tacoma continuing to wrestle with incentives to spur residential development in Downtown and the Mixed-use Centers, and the continuing bailout/nationalizing/rescuing feeding frenzy among this nation’s historic economic engines, imagine what a low-scale (but significantly dense) development pattern could emerge with the application of some physical incentives within our urban centers:

Incentive Development through the Vacating of excess Right-of-Way:
As noted in previous IT ruminations – Vertically Challenged 101– development in Downtown Tacoma is challenged by long narrow blocks. Wide alleys (40 feet instead of a typical 20 feet) combined with significantly wide streets and the resulting blocks become incredibly inefficient for development. So since the City Council is willing to give up Right-of-Way to support pet projects (Convention Center, Pacific Plaza), why not develop a ‘Complete Streets’ design for Downtown that can also look at providing additional property for new development that meet published quality standards – rather than opting to take the property off the tax roles for the next 8 to 10 years?

Standard Building Concept:
As many Cities have standard approved building plans for residential projects, why not develop an approved concept plan and quality specification that allows developers to develop the bones of buildings that can be adapted for a variety of uses – retail, office, live/work – and utilize the narrowed alleys’ for internal parking access (e.g the old Sears Store – now Franciscan Health Services – on Market Street is model for such a structure). The City of Tacoma Building Department has been progressive in developing the 5 over 2 construction system that has been responsible for the efficient design and construction of multi-story residential– so why not take it to the next step and look at creating shared site infrastructure costs that will allow for smaller developments to happen without taking the huge financial hit for required code installation (an cost of the elevator is the same if the floor is 3,000 sf or 30,000 sf)? Some standardized easements could do the trick – as is done to solve these issues when rehabilitating existing buildings – and become part of a physical incentive package.


Incentives for Going Green:
While the City of Tacoma will spend over $40m developing Urban Waters alone, why not have the new Sustainability Czar develop programs to provide incentives to incorporate green systems for all new and existing projects. Yes, I know there is a State Law that forbids the type of fraternizing that goes on in Portland and Chicago – but maybe it is time to get that law changed folks in order to provide incentives for going green (just do it).

And why imagine these type of alternate development incentives? Because this town needs residential density folks. We need to get these existing surface parking lots within buildings that can incorporate the parking but also provide retail along the street and office and residential spaces above (with densities of 60-100 units an acre). We can no longer keep waiting for Richie Sexson (or similar) to hit a grand slam homerun – we need to provide real tangible incentives to obtain Ichiro singles and doubles. If you want your grocery store, your street cars, your retail boutiques, your etc… – it is all about getting dense – and getting dense quickly and affordably.

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Sounds good. This is a bit of a tangent, but I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to present this question that’s been bugging me, and you gave me my window by mentioning streetcars and grocery store in the same breath:

Do we need a downtown grocery store if the north end of the Link is extended to Tacoma General and runs right past Stadium Thriftway?

Seems to me that all those downtown residents near the existing Link line can just hop a streetcar to the grocery store. The condo residents in “uphill downtown” have the Hilltop Safeway nearby.

November 13, 2008 at 7:55 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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David Boe

As a rule I have tried to not to ‘comment’ on my own column – but the concern with extending the bLINK up Stadium Way would be both the congestion it would have along Stadium Way, the amount of ‘umph’ required to get a full train up the hill – or to brake the same fully loaded train coming down, the total #@*(-up of Stadium High School at bus times, and the regrading of the 90 degree turn at Stadium – which would be a challenge at best (and would probably create an odd sort of warping as experienced at Pacific and S. 17th). Here is the crime on the actual route of the bLINK – if it had gone up St. Helens or Market, it could have expanded direct up to Stadium and had the incredibly wide and flat St. Helens/Division intersection to make the turn and head out to 6th Avenue – and then I could have actually called it a <span class=“caps”>LINK</span>.  But this really is another column subject (and I fear would probably not have a ‘yes we can’ overtone).

November 13, 2008 at 8:34 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Are the track dimensions the same for light rail and streetcars?  Go with streetcars.  This bLink is nothing but a streetcar line (inside a city connection neighborhoods)and streetcar lines cost 1/4 that of light rail (which connects cities, not neighborhoods).

If the track dimentions are the same, trade the light rail cars for streetcars, use the extra money you saved ST to build more streetcar rail, and use streetcars.  Again, 1/4 the cost.

Sorry Boe, I’ve seen what streetcars did for Portland first hand and it was an awesome investment.

Your ideas in this thread are good ones.  Use the hill and lot dimentions TO <span class=“caps”>OUR</span> <span class=“caps”>ADVANTAGE</span>!

November 13, 2008 at 11:14 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Hmmm, I like the idea of and intensely dense low/mid rise architecture. If the economy ever turns around, I think this could be the key to bringing more activity down town. If you build up, you are taking a lot of people, putting them into a relatively small area foot print wise, and actually moving them away from the street level (vertical). On the other hand, filling in the gaps and building up low/mid rise density would keep people closer to the street, and help to more evenly spread street activity throughout the downtown area.

November 14, 2008 at 5:54 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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John Sherman

I can’t understand why people would want to live densified into Tacoma downtown or any downtown area elsewhere?

It seems history of downtowns, land values, living, business districts, transportation, building height limits, subways, streetcar, traffic, and close proximity to all needed residential and business services are a mix and necessity for such dense housing population centers in a downtown; as a result, for its survival away and vibrant from up-town residential and other business district areas neighbors.

But, these downtown subjects have been argued, written about, and people have made many forecasts about many downtowns everywhere for many past years; but, I myself, don’t need to live downtown and maybe other people must; but it’s arguable at what cost to which specific people for that to happen?

Suggested reading is: Robert M. Fogelson, `Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950’ (Published by Yale University Press, 2001)[ISBN 0300098278, 9780300098273], 492 pages, available at

(“Downtown is the first history of what was once viewed as the heart of the American city. Urban historian Robert Fogelson gives a riveting account of how downtown—and the way Americans thought about it—changed between 1880 and 1950. Recreating battles over subways and skyscrapers, the introduction of elevated highways and parking bans, and other controversies, this book provides a new and often starling perspective on downtown’s rise and fall.”)

November 14, 2008 at 5:13 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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“Provide incentives for versatile building” (slide 2)

To me this is the key.  If we want buildings that will stand the test of time they must be able to stand through a variety of uses over that time.  This means versatile space.

While the 5 over 2 certainly begins to accomplish this, it would be great to see buildings that actually expand the flexibility of the 5 to the point where it could be reused for non-residential uses after the next market shift.  But then again I know this substantially increases the cost of construction.

Many of our best historic buildings survive due to their flexibility.  (Mecca anyone?)  It is those buildings without versatile options that are having a hard time finding their place.  (Elks?)

To this end, creating a stock set of plans encouraging all the traits the City wants seems like a great idea.  Now who will assume the liability?

November 14, 2008 at 10:59 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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michael g.

@1-3:  Isn’t Stadium Way next in line after Broadway/St. Helens for a <span class=“caps”>LID</span>?  Seems like that could help pay for the work necessary to make a <span class=“caps”>LINK</span> extension feasible.

November 14, 2008 at 11:09 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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I think the first two items—vacating unnecessary <span class=“caps”>ROW</span> and allowing standard building envelopes—are really good ideas. The only concern I have with the standard building envelopes is, will builders actually develop them? We live in an era where many businesses have very stringent layout standards. The question is how to make the building compatible for a very wide variety of uses.

Density is one of the most misunderstood applications of city planning in the US. Many people believe (incorrectly, of course) that density is a code word for poverty, squalor, noise, et cetera. Just a couple weeks ago, the Trib quoted a homeowner in Hilltop who thought his property value would automatically drop if his neighborhood was rezoned to allow higher density. I think we need to do more to convince people that higher density is not necessarily a bad thing.

That being said, I don’t think high density development should be limited to downtown areas and historically mixed use districts. A downtown containing a higher intensity of use is a uniquely American concept, but I support the European model of commerce and residential areas spread throughout a city. I think one of biggest impediments to dense development is the outdated zoning code which prevents multifamily and mixed use in 90 percent of the city’s residential areas. Also, large portions of the city are affected by a View Sensitive Overlay, which restricts building heights and forces most development to be low density.

November 15, 2008 at 12:08 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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I think this town needs a few things to create density.

1.  To annex BS “towns” like University Place, Fircrest, Parkland, and Fife (Lower Tacoma)and even possibly Lakewood.  Let’s face it, these places <span class=“caps”>ARE</span> Tacoma.  Consolidate the governments and use the excess money elsewhere.

2.  Put an Urban Growth Boundry around those places and do not allow anything beyond it. 

3.  Strict zoning creating bigger parcels the farther you get from the city.  Zoning to stop all these strip malls in virtual neighborhoods.

Tax revenue would go up, the vacant spots would be filled up, and the city could virtually decide what goes where.

November 15, 2008 at 4:11 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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“BS Towns”. I love it! I laughed really hard at that. Should we annex them, or build a wall to keep them out?

November 15, 2008 at 9:16 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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I’m not a fan of high-rise downtowns, but love the sense of the filled-in medium-height older cities of Europe. (Paris, Vienna, Heidelberg). Building heights were constrained by being built before elevators, but also through draconian urban planning (Haussmann’s Paris).

The only way to plan for high density building is to provide far more public places for nature; if the people are to support buildings filling available private spaces, provision must be made for nature in parks and green-belt boulevards (& Hundertwasser buildings?).

Dense populations make possible public transit that is cost-effective and vastly easier to use: more people to transport for shorter distances, and there’s another bus, streetcar, or rapid transit coming in ten minutes or less. No need to learn schedules, most everyone has a transit pass, and most essential local trips can be done without driving.

November 16, 2008 at 10:43 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Thorax O'Tool

Annexing smaller towns isn’t such a bad idea; it provides said cities with reduced costs due to less needed government, administrative and services (utilities, police, fire, etc) infrastructure.

Of course, what the citizens of said cities may think of annexation on the other hand…

One thing I’d love to see is a much easier, faster, cheaper permitting process. We ought to have a set group of “conditions” to meet. If the new building meets them, then voila! Rubber stamped in 12 hrs for massively cheap. Hell, even add a discount on the cost if the project increases height by 10% or whatever.

If the “conditions” include density, size, minimum heights and certain appearance qualifications, this new super-easy permitting program would help encourage developers to build what We want.

And think about it from a developer’s point of view. Let’s say you have a 15-story $30 million project that will cost $2M and several months in permitting. Wouldn’t you jump at a chance to build the same thing in a city where your permitting takes 1 day and costs maybe only $500K?

Quicker permitting and lower costs mean more profit for developers. And that’s the real reason why things aren’t as dense or tall as we like: developers don’t see enough potential profit to take the risk.

November 16, 2008 at 11:11 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Douglas Tooley

Definitely a good point about alleys, but realize that this is not without a signicant loss of parking on those non-standard Rights of Way.  I’m not saying that’s a deal killer, but it should be folded into the decision.

As to Streetcars and Light Rail, they are the same guage in Portland.  Street cars are lower powered, narrower, and not completely level floored as light rail is (they still require small wheelchair ramps).

Taking an early look at light rail in the Rainier Valley of Seattle it is definitely a different beast than the street car system we have here.

It is certainly time to discussing these issues – Tacoma needs to be making up its mind about what it wants from <span class=“caps”>LINK</span>, or bLINK, as you prefer.

November 17, 2008 at 4:50 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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@2, I just remember ST talking at one point about extending the existing Link up to Tacoma General as part of Prop 1 (can’t recall whether it was the failed one or the one that just passed). They didn’t specify which road it would go up, but I’d think Stadium Way since Commerce feeds right into it. I guess I assumed that they had figured out how to overcome the incline and sharp turn and <span class=“caps”>SHS</span> bus situation, but …

November 17, 2008 at 8:49 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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