Imagine Tacoma – Vertically Challenged 101

With the City Council’s decision this week to contract a property transfer and contamination clean-up of the Sauro Site at S. 14th and Pacific (with the goal to retain the Russell Company in Downtown Tacoma) and further to the recent discussions about the desire for taller buildings in the downtown (see Erik Emery Hanberg), Imagine Tacoma provides a brief analysis of the challenges of ‘going up’ within the core:

Why is there an underground tour in Seattle and not in Tacoma? Because Downtown Seattle is mainly built on silty soils and Tacoma is built on hard pan soils the consistency of rock (and thus why we bounced during the Nisqually Earthquake while Seattle swayed). For most of downtown, the resistance of going down becomes extremely difficult (and thus expensive) after 15 feet – and I’m talking dynamite difficult. Although parking regulations may be reduced downtown for new construction, the reality is that any project of considerable size will require significant parking and servicing of the building structure below grade – and thus having to deal with the hard stuff.

Perched Water
Tacoma has a flow of perched water coming down the hillsides. Any excavation needs to provide a system of dewatering – and the deeper you go, the dewatering becomes more of an issue.

Tacoma is built on a hill. Really. I know the City brings bicycle commute experts in from Copenhagen who tell us how to bike more, but downtown Tacoma is on an East slope and South slope (with approximately 350 feet of grade elevation from the Thea Foss to MLK). Thus, any tall structure needs to be at least 250 feet tall just to get above the hillside to the West. Why? Because otherwise you limit your view to just the North (Commencement Bay) and to the Southeast (Mount Rainier) – and this is pretty much the same view as can be found by currently standing on Yakima Avenue. The Hotel Murano is an example of this issue – all of the windows face either North or to the Southeast. So building a high-rise building only gets you a 90-120 degree view?

Narrow Blocks
Tacoma has incredibly NARROW blocks (many along Pacific Avenue are less than 100 feet wide) AND incredibly WIDE alleys (40 feet when really 20 feet or less would do). This makes any incorporation of the automobile difficult within a site (and why there is a preponderance of above grade parking structures within the core).

A high rise building in Seattle, or Portland, will cost pretty much the same in Tacoma (except for land costs) BUT you cannot get the same investment rate of return in Tacoma (unless the project includes public money – which most development in Tacoma over the past 20 years has required). And since land is so much less expensive in T-town, it is base economics to go ‘out’ rather than ‘up.’

But there is a ‘sweet spot’ for getting high – that area East of Pacific and North of South 15th (including the Sauro Site). This is an area of the core that is conducive for getting down (and thus going up) as excavating is easier (lots of areas on fill instead of hard pan), the water table is lower, the blocks are wider and the access to and from the Interstate is less bLINKered. Any vertical development stills has the hill and the base economics to deal with (no small matters), but at least the physical components are manageable.

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Can the images be enlarged. Even after clicking they are to small to understand. Every Imagine Tacoma edition has had this problem

September 24, 2008 at 9:00 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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So taking these variables into consideration, perhaps the city should set higher elevation minimums for these blocks relative to the rest of the working definition of “downtown.” I imagine they probably already are, but maybe not as much emphasis on this set of blocks in particular.

It would be a shame to see 3-5 story buildings go up in these blocks and take away valuable high/mid-rise supporting real-estate. Especially when there are so many grass filled empty lots still open on the hillside.

September 24, 2008 at 9:46 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Mofo from the Hood

I’m curious if anyone could address whether the Hilltop area between Multicare and St. Joseph’s Hospital has had any serious discussion about very tall buildings. If that section was built as tall as St. Joe’s, or taller, then wouldn’t that at least complement the downtown area?

Is the zone between the two hospitals possibly off limits to high towers and compacted construction?

What, I wonder, is the adverse effect of building towers at the crest of the hill?

The Hilltop seems a likely choice to address Mr. Boe’s categories, with the exception of the difficulty of excavation.

The downtown area referred to as the core may be restricted to medium rise buildings for the reasons that Mr. Boe noted. But those restrictions didn’t impede creative adaptation in early 20th century Tacoma.

With all the collected knowledge of what has been built and the physical limitations of the geography, it’s half past time to take action beyond the historical and geological analysis.

September 25, 2008 at 2:03 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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The current height limits in some areas of Hilltop allow 150’ buildings in Hostpital and R5 zoning. With the Mixed-Used Center rezones the R-5 zoning will be gone and the height limits that are proposed are from 45’-85’.

I think the Hospital zoning will stay at 150’.

East of Yakima Ave. you have Downtown Residential zoning at 90’ (though there is a view corridor that runs 150’ east from the Yakima Ave. centerline that only allows 60’) and Downtown Mixed Use zoning at 100’.

I think with the Downtown Plan update the DR and <span class=“caps”>DMU</span> zoning will have taller height limits.

oh and <span class=“caps”>FYI</span> the tallest building built on Hilltop in a long time is about to open:

September 25, 2008 at 2:16 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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jamie from thriceallamerican

What’s with the “view corridor” from Yakima?  Talk about arbitrary…

Re: Ninth Street Flats, their “location” map has some questionable points of reference, notably Masa, Downtown <span class=“caps”>YMCA</span>, and the Harmon.  No need to lie, kids…there’s plenty of other things in the neighborhood.  (And really, for that matter, why highlight Commencement Bay Coffee when Blackwater is like 4 blocks away?)

September 25, 2008 at 4:23 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Thorax O'Tool

I work down in the Port, very near the Blair Waterway.

The view of downtown from there is actually quite interesting and unique. Why?

Simply because the angle the streets run (slightly NW) tends to put the downtown core off to one side where it is less prominent. Instead, the view focuses on the stretch from about 6th up to Stadium or so.

When you look at downtown from that angle, the density is much higher in the St Helens area than it is down by the UW.

I think, taking into consideration the things mentioned above by David it could be quite natural (and possibly very good for the city) to not only redevelop hilltop in the TG area, but to also bring the zoning for taller (400’-500’, maybe?) a little farther up the hill and towards Stadium. There are <span class=“caps”>TONS</span> of empty lots and deteriorating 1-story buildings. Let’s use that to our advantage if the Geology Gods aren’t too kind to the current core.


If you want to see the view I’m talking about, hop down into the Port, and look at town from Port of Tacoma Road and E 11th… Lincoln and Marshall would work too.

September 25, 2008 at 4:24 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Re: Ninth Street Flats

The site looks to have a few needed fixes.. Maps on condo/apartment sites are often wrong especially when the developer and/or web developer is from out of town.

September 25, 2008 at 4:58 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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crenshaw sepulveda

Someone will actually pay 30k in rent a year to rent a penthouse across from the jail?

September 25, 2008 at 5:09 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Many of Seattle’s tallest buildings are located way up on the hillside and therefore appear to be much taller than they actually are. If they were located closer to the water, like Tacoma’s tallest buildings are, they would appear much less striking. For example, Seattle’s tallest building is located about where the County-City building is on Tacoma’s downtown slope. Just imagine the impact of even a Sheraton-sized building in that location!

Many of these buildings have very large above ground parking garages incorporated into the buildings to reflect their positions on the side of rocky slope. For example, Seattle’s city hall has an 18-story (!) parking garage underneath it, all above ground.

Unfortunately, Tacoma’s height limits are reduced the higher you get up the hill. The philosophy here is that the tallest buildings downtown are located at the lowest elevations and therefore do not “block” any views from the Hilltop or other parts of the city. I disagree with this philosophy. I think Tacoma should strive to have a striking skyline that can be seen from all over the city, and constantly remind Tacomans of where they live.

September 25, 2008 at 6:12 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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crenshaw sepulveda

I’ve never needed a reminder of where I live.  It is not likely that tall buildings on the hill will change that for me.  Are there very many people in Tacoma that need to have very tall buildings on a hill to remind them of where they live?

September 25, 2008 at 7:50 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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I sometimes forget where I live, but I’ve not found tall buildings to be the solution.  Having the bartender call a cab usually does the trick. 

To drizells point, it seems counter intuitive to zone taller buildings at a lower elevation, and shorter buildings higher up the hill.  Would this not be akin to putting the tall kids in the front row of the class photo, and the short kids on the first step — still staring at the back of the tall kids’ heads?  Note to self: work on analogies.

September 25, 2008 at 2:48 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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working class hero

little know fact: the seattle municipal tower ( formerly the at&t, key bank tower) is built on five natural springs, this was discovered during excavation but the di was cast and it was too late to stop building, water pumps run 24/7 and the building is surveyed every 90 days for settling. so really dewatering isnt an issue if your really really motivated

September 25, 2008 at 7:29 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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