Reviewing Tacoma’s Mixed Use Centers

A review of Tacoma's officially designated Mixed Use Centers underway now could lead to a shift in the way these centers are treated within City code.

The current conversation is part of a much longer-term review of the centers, all focused on identifying and addressing barriers to development in the 17 MUCs identified in Tacoma's Comprehensive Plan.

The Comprehensive Plan designates these 17 areas to receive much of the growth expected in Tacoma over the coming decades. To accommodate this growth, the MUCs are zoned for higher density, non-automobile dependent development. The goal is for these neighborhoods to function more or less self-sufficiently, with a mix of uses to allow residents and workers to meet many of their needs within the neighborhood, without getting in their cars.

In order to drive development and density into these MUCs, and facilitate this pattern of development, the City offers a variety of incentives and different development requirements, including tax exemptions for multi-family developments, increased height allowances and decreased parking and setback requirements, increased transit and street investments, reduced parking, and other incentives to encourage development.

The problem is that development hasn't been coming along as quickly as hoped, hence the review of MUC standards.

Last year some incremental changes to the MUC code were made, aimed at lowering the threshold to development in these areas. Now the goal is a deeper review of the entire program.

Of the 17 centers, three (Stadium, Hilltop/MLK, Tacoma Mall) get pretty close scrutiny as part of subarea planning work, and one (Point Ruston) was just created in 2014. A Seattle firm is now conducting a review of the other 13 for the City, beginning with a survey of current conditions in the MUCs. In December, they presented work so far to the City Council Infrastructure, Planning, and Sustainability Committee.

Tacoma's Mixed Use Centers vary in terms of the mix of uses, housing and transportation options, quality and availability of amenities like parks and public spaces, and economic metrics. The Proctor District, for example, is the smallest of the 13 MUCs under review, with James Center and Tacoma Central many times larger in terms of acreage. The McKinley neighborhood, on the other hand, has the fewest jobs and lowest daily traffic.

There has been some talk of reducing the number of Mixed Use Centers. At this point the consultants seem to be leaning toward keeping them all, but prioritizing them in terms of growth potential with active or passive development strategies. The suggestion at this point is to develop an individualized development strategy for each of the MUCs, aligned with their individual opportunities and constraints. Some of these development strategies would be more passive, taking a back seat to those better positioned for development in light of market realities and other conditions. 

Another suggestion coming out of this early presentation represents a bit of a shift in how we think of our mixed-use centers. Currently mixed-use centers are classified as one of four types: the downtown center, urban center, community center, and neighborhood center. The 13 being reviewed fall into either the community or neighborhood categories. The suggestion going forward is to instead change the classification system, categorizing the MUCs as neighborhood, crossroads, or employment centers. This shift would group the MUCs by how they are primarily used, rather than by the areas they serve.

James Center (the area around Tacoma Community College), would be an employment center, while Proctor would be a neighborhood center. 72nd and Portland, which is more commercial and car-oriented, and sits at the intersection of major arterials, would be a crossroads MUC. Not all of the districts can support multi-story mixed-use developments like the new Proctor Station project, and the suggestion is to be more flexible in the kind of development we expect - density could be increased by encouraging more compact development patterns, but not insisting on multiple floors.

It's not clear at this point whether the Council is on board with this idea of differentiating the kind of development expected between individual centers. There are concerns about equitable distribution of City investment, and about whether this shift might hurt the long-term vision for some of Tacoma's Mixed-Use Centers. Analysis will continue over the next year, with the consultants next expected to present to the council Infrastructure, Planning, and Sustainability Committee sometime in February or March.

It's a lot to take in, and there's more to come, so at this point we'll just leave you with the questions the consultants asked the council at the end of their presentation: 

Are you comfortable, at least so far with - 

  • Not making vertically mixed use essential?
  • Differentiating centers more clearly along form and function of center, rather than service area?
  • Not focusing on eliminating centers, but instead developing individual redevelopment strategies and realistic time frames?

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It is not rocket science.  Enforce codes, or create them, show people the city cares and will do what it takes to make all the dirty business owners comply and then maybe, maybe others will take a chance and establish new businesses.  38th street is a wreck with drug addicts, alcoholics and dirty business owners that have buildings with facades that look like crap and litter all over the place.  Hold them responsible, stop talking and do something.  What a bunch of BS.

January 14, 2015 at 5:21 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Some of these areas aren’t much as far as MUC’s go and should have been eliminated (in this case, “reclassified”) as Tacoma doesn’t have enough density to support 17 different areas.  I’ve driven down Portland Avenue many times and, for the life of me, couldn’t point out the MUC there.  I mean, I see a zone of like three close together businesses - is that it?  Or what about the Narrows area?  A fire station, theater, and caterer constitute possible millions in reinvestment and a plan for renewal?  What about Westgate being 100% car centric and in suburbia?  What could they possible do to it?  They would literally have to demolish it and start over for the density they really want.  I could go on and on… I mean, isn’t a MUC, as far as this sort of planning goes, a place that has walkability and businesses but lacks density and attractive infrastructure? 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally not against this strategy.  I just find it awesome that they’re putting the old non-profit saying, “Always put someone else between yourself and trouble” into action so blatantly.

January 15, 2015 at 8:06 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Jim C

So Proctor is the smallest MUC but seeing the largest development, eh?  Shocker.

Most cities undergoing revitalization via mixed-use development are doing so from their downtown cores, not spreading it out amongst their neighborhoods. Since our downtown is apparently broken beyond repair, I’m pretty convinced the entire exercise here in Tacoma exists to give jobs to consultants and funnel taxpayer money to apartment developers. The retail and employment pieces of this grand vision are clearly WAY behind the apartment-building (see the Foss for our only extant example) and I’m at a loss to see how they will ever catch up.

Densification is the new Urban Renewal.

January 15, 2015 at 10:51 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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That’s not true - the revitalization of cities like Seattle, Portland, Denver, Oakland, and DC has very much been as much about mixed use neighborhood development as downtown revitalization.  Both feed off each other.  Tacoma has a long way to go on both.

January 15, 2015 at 11:12 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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I’m confused, all of the commercial space on the Foss is practically occupied and I also disagree that revitalization doesn’t come distinctly from the urban core.  Neighborhoods need to be all encompassing and walkable.  Neighborhood centers are a tier below the Downtown core, we are city large enough to have these neighborhood centers but some are not doing very well largely because our price per sq/ft isn’t pushing the envelope to create great mixed use projects.  That time will eventually change.  Right now a couple of these could be consolodated.

January 15, 2015 at 11:51 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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The Lincoln District does not do well because many of the store owners are very dirty and quite frankly just don’t care about the appearance of the neighborhood, period.  It could be awesome, but it’s not and more than likely never will be until the mentality changes.  Even the good owners that are great people don’t really care much about the appearance of their buildings.  A very well known and visited Vietnamese restaurant is case in point.  Great people, but they just don’t really care about having a great facade and their business does very well, enough to support a little improvement.  There is just not enough pride and care in the neighborhood.  We are simply are seen as a place to come and make money and take it somewhere else.  There are at least three commercial buildings, some on major strips that are used as storage units.

January 15, 2015 at 5:24 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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“To accommodate this growth, the MUCs are zoned for higher density, non-automobile dependent development. The goal is for these neighborhoods to function more or less self-sufficiently, with a mix of uses to allow residents and workers to meet many of their needs within the neighborhood, without getting in their cars.”

To phase out automobile dependancy in those areas just limit on street parking in those areas with 30 minute or less parking or just delivery or utility type parking only.Put up the street signs and/or parking meters.

In other words outlaw personal motor vehicle on street parking in those MUC’s and initiate draconian parking enforcement with numerous tow aways.

Already I see more vehicles parked in those areas right now than ever before due to development.Seriously it’s getting more gridlocked.Perhaps if the government (Federal,State and Local) wanted to phase out unsustainable personal motor vehicle dependancy/ownership with uber expensive infrastructure, they should offer free or reduced cost housing or a huge monitary bonus to individuals whom choose to not own these anthropocene holocaust species extinction machines.

January 15, 2015 at 8:19 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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“Perhaps if the government (Federal,State and Local) wanted to phase out unsustainable personal motor vehicle dependancy/ownership with uber expensive infrastructure, they should offer free or reduced cost housing or a huge monitary bonus to individuals whom choose to not own these anthropocene holocaust species extinction machines.”


January 15, 2015 at 10:30 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Armchair social engineering can be fun, especially in a mixed-up city like Tacoma. First of all, the key assumption here is that the overall population of Tacoma will increase. If so, then how should Tacoman’s greet the future? What would a better future really look like?

Submitted For Your Approval: High density multi-family buildings, stocked with government created, ordained and sustained public transit-dependent cultural slaves.

Some call this picture New Urbanism, but that’s really word play for New Ghetto-ism. People who make a career of propaganda and subversion generally agree that it takes about 15-20 years to convert a target population to fit a hypothetical, or categorical imperative. In this case, the unintended consequence of gleefully accepting the premise “more taxes will solve everything” could result in the ghettoization of Tacoma.

January 19, 2015 at 12:57 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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