Imagine Tacoma – Tollefson in Wonderland (IV)

With the TNT reporting Sunday that the City of Tacoma, in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce, are going to spend $30,000 on tables and chairs for Tollefson Plaza in the ‘hope’ that such amenities will be cause for individuals to pause and actually populate the forlorn urban space, Imagine Tacoma revisits the rabbit hole – once again:

Fill it in: The only reasonable use of this ‘left-over’ space of land that is dissected by the bLINK light rail is to fill it in with a mixed-use building that could incorporate a roof-top plaza directly accessible from the Convention Center over the rail line. The City could sell it to a qualified developer for a $1.00 and move-on (cause even turning it into a parking lot won’t work because of the funky geometry).

Green-it up: With the City professing to be on the cutting edge of sustainability, having a large concrete heat-sink at the center of town is somewhat problematic – so if not filling it with a building (with a green roof of course) – fill it in with plantings.

Create a defined edge along Pacific Avenue: If not Cadillac Ranch – then at least something.

Arranging Deck Chairs on the Tollefson: Since the powers that be are either closing their eyes to a situation they do not wish to acknowledge, or they are still not aware of the caliber of disaster with the current configuration, I offer this: If the concept it to make improvements to an urban space that is fatally flawed by its poor perimeter conditions, the bLINK dissection, the lack of surrounding density, and its odd geometry – then here for your imagination are 12 Steps to take before allocating funds on the fleeting notion of tables and chairs:

  1. Add parallel parking along Pacific Avenue (it at least provides some sort of buffer and transition at the edge of the space).
  2. Add Street Trees along Pacific (I know – Indian artifacts are presumed to be located in this small area where street trees should go – and more likely an asbestos steam pipe is located there as well – but just deal with it).
  3. All-weather green surface (reduce the heat sink footprint).
  4. Improve Crosswalk Connections (paint the #&@!ing lines).
  5. Water Feature you can see and hear (go to Olympic Sculpture Park and provide something similar because an invisible and silent water feature is just a waste of effort).
  6. Welcome Figure: Relocate the foundation for the proposed sculpture figure so it is at the front of the Plaza – not located behind the bLINK tracks visually imprisoned by the overhead lines.
  7. Landscape Water Feature: Fill it in with lawn (gives more places to sit on grass and probably best views into the plaza).
  8. Landscape along the bLINK lines.
  9. Upper Lawn: Build a retaining wall that will allow the upper lawn area at 17th/Commerce to be relatively flat. This will allow seeing over the bLINK to the main plaza and create an upper lawn area that is a bit removed from the noise and congestion (bocce ball potential).
  10. Create a public seating area outside of the Carlton Building (to watch bocce ball potential).
  11. Add Covered Ornamental Pavilion to the South Façade of the Marriott (a bit of Seymour Conservatory on the Plaza).
  12. Landscape Pacific Side of Plaza Steps (cause who is going to hell is going to sit here and look at Pacific Avenue?).

But maybe given the de Chirico aspects of the existing aesthetic, Tollefson Plaza is best turned into an urban columbarium – creating revenue with each internment and providing a compelling reason to frequent the austere space (and float flowers down the water feature).

Previously on Exit133

Another Tollefson based Imagine Tacoma

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Jim C

I’ve always thought of Tollefson Plaza as some sort of strange, theory-laden critique of the idea of state-defined public spaces: by the act of its creation and designation as a public “plaza” it is both extant and non-existent (since no one ever uses it) at the same time.  Maybe we should just embrace its unintentional iconoclasm and rename it the Tollefson “Anti-Plaza”.

February 24, 2009 at 10:24 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Mofo from the Hood

Man, I’d like to meet the salesman who sold this town another vacant lot.

(This is gonna be the subject of my next novel after I finish “Idealism in Tacoma.”

February 24, 2009 at 11:56 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Erik B.

Nice work David.

I think first the City of Tacoma needs to first admit that Tollefson Plaza has been a failure in any measurable sense.

The sooner the better.

Then perhaps we can work toward a solution rather than in 20 or 30 years.

Currently, Tollefson Plaza is injurious to downtown Tacoma because it is creating a large dead zone between north and south downtown killing off potential life the area has. 

The Plaza currently plays a big role in bifurcating the city to downtown’s great detriment in creating a large dead zone.

Tollefson Plaza is now actually worse than a parking lot as it is serving zero uses.

Its time to face the fact that a significant mistake was made by the city in planning and designing Tollefson Plaza.  That happens.

The sooner the city deals with the issue head on, the sooner some humans may be attracted to the area.

February 25, 2009 at 12:17 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Love it David.  One of your best in a while <span class=“caps”>IMO</span>.  Kudos!

February 25, 2009 at 12:18 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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RR Anderson

perhaps tollefson is just a symptom of a greater disease…  nobody is talking about the elephant in the room.  You can see the elephant in Erik B photo (above)…  the tacoma convention center.  The Tacoma Convention Center: An answer to a question nobody asked.

February 25, 2009 at 12:23 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Claudia Riedener

Thanks David!

Filling in the space with a building is the most practical solution. At least there can be store fronts and outdoor dining opportunities. The most expensive water based trash container in the NW would be better off as turf, or anything green and alive.  The lack of trees is absolutely dumb, just as pathetic as the grounds of the glass museum.  One could hope for the city to take up some of David’s ideas. More likely, we will hire another consultant from far far away to let us know we need some chairs.

Oh, and btw, the pink concrete is just awful.

February 25, 2009 at 12:54 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Mofo from the Hood

@3: “Currently, Tollefson Plaza is injurious to downtown Tacoma because it is creating a large dead zone between north and south downtown killing off potential life the area has.”

That statement reminds me of 1962 black & white film footage about desperate German people running to scale the barbwire topped concrete Berlin Wall; and as some make it to the top and frantically try to push through razor sharp coil to reach the West, they’re gunned down by watchtower guards.

February 25, 2009 at 1:18 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Jim C

To re-phrase my first post: maybe the plaza is really Sarcastic Brutalism, designed to mock those who believe that state-defined public spaces matter.  As much as I kid, I do believe they matter myself and also appreciate what you contribute to this site, David.

I’ve only lived in Tacoma since 2006, so the Convention Center and Tollefson Plaza have always been a part of the Tacoma I’ve known.  When I first arrived I definitely noticed that the area around the Center and Plaza was disorienting to a newcomer on foot; it was easy to lose the sense of where you were which is ridiculous since it is essentially a grid next to the water like the rest of the city.

For a refresher on my personal history with Brutalist architecture and public spaces, see the Hanley Federal Building Plaza, which was around the corner from where I used to live before Tacoma, in Syracuse, NY.

February 25, 2009 at 4:43 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Make one of the walls a wide fountain so kids and families can play in it in the summer.

February 25, 2009 at 3:04 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Erik B-

How do you add pictures to the comments?!

February 25, 2009 at 7:39 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Jesse@9 – there already IS a wide fountain and when events occur children (and adults) have been known to play in it.

February 25, 2009 at 8:08 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Fountain?  Naw, 50 meter <span class=“caps”>LAP</span> <span class=“caps”>POOL</span>!

February 25, 2009 at 8:10 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Erik B.

How do you add pictures to the comments

1) Locate your image of the empty concrete pad known as Tollefson Plaza.

2) Right click your mouse on the dead zone Tollefson image.  Click on properties to locate the web address of the image.

3) Then simply place the web address of this urban design failure between exclamation marks like this:

It is that easy.

February 25, 2009 at 9:39 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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February 25, 2009 at 9:45 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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@11: Lol.  There IS a fountain!  Wow.  Shows you how much I’ve hung out there!

February 26, 2009 at 12:48 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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RR Anderson

add a colon followed immediately by a url and you can link your image to an address!

February 26, 2009 at 2:31 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Hillarious RR!  But, you know, I bet people would came from far and wide to see that statue!  Strange but true.

February 26, 2009 at 2:56 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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How easy would it be for a few people in “official” looking orange vests to rent a couple concrete saw (pay with cash!) and show up on a Sunday to start cutting. I’m thinking in just a few hours you could cut enough squares along Pacific to plant a dozen young oak trees. It’s a start, right?

February 26, 2009 at 7:18 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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I admit that this space has some serious flaws, but when the weather is decent I sit on the concrete slabs and eat my lunch. That’s right- I use it! Of couse it could be enhanced to entice more people to use it besides just me. But if you sit right next to the water feature (so you can hear it), and ignore the Pac Ave traffic, then it’s really not so bad. Plus, you never have to worry about someone taking your favorite lunch spot since it’s always deserted.

February 28, 2009 at 12:50 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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David Boe

Ah – the best idea came in my in-box today – enjoy (or not):

I hadn’t seen your Tollefson IV column until just now. Like other commenters, I also did not know there was a water feature at the plaza, but it’s large and uninteresting and off to one side – it doesn’t use the space, either.

It’s true that the plaza is lifeless, and the surroundings don’t provide a reason for people to come to Tollefson, but why do we think that people are the only life downtown?  Why is it so important to make people eat lunch there?  People sit where there is shelter.  Better to punch a hole in the plaza and plant a Douglas fir: biologically absurd, and therefore intriguing?  The tree will break up more and more pavement as it grows.  Cracks to let grass and sidewalk weeds grow – and keep some of the stormwater from draining off.  Maintain most of the paving because it is downtown and why not.  If there are cracks in Tollefson’s armor, it could become something organic – or rather, partly organic, as befits an urban place.  And if there is life in the plaza – not lush or overwhelming life, but scrappy life between the cracks – it will enhance downtown whether people hang out there or not.

That sounds like a Portland kind of thing more than a Tacoma kind of thing.  But if Tacoma could visualize and accept something like the encroachment of natural processes, but with those processes managed and confined to small parts of the space, it could be cool.

March 5, 2009 at 10:02 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Puget Sound Revels is planning on bringing life and celebration to Tollefson Square for <span class=“caps”>MAY</span> <span class=“caps”>DAY</span>!

Come dance the May Pole! Enjoy and participate in Fun family activities that will include singing, dancing, art and drama.

Read more about this event and the Spring Sing at Kings Books here:


Hopefully PS Revels can get their own thread about this event here at Exit133.  Or maybe Revels booster, Mr. Boe will mention it in an another inspired “Imagine Tacoma” Entry.

March 9, 2009 at 3:41 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Agreed. The single largest thing downtown needs is people. Everything revolves around this. What we call Tollfeson Plaza really should be a building. It could even be something as radical as housing above a libary and bakery.

David: Why bLINK?

March 9, 2009 at 5:52 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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