Tacoma Town Center Looks Ready to Take A Step Forward

Last fall we wrote about a proposal to build a sizeable mixed-use development on Jefferson between South 21st and 23rd, just southwest of the UW Tacoma campus footprint. This wasn't the first such plan, and we hadn't heard much on it recently, but it appears that the project has been moving forward.

Last we heard, the developer was working on a feasibility study to be submitted to the City by the end of 2015. Now we see a resolution on next week's council meeting consent agenda that would set a hearing for the vacation of a piece of City-owned right-of-way to accommodate mixed-use development. The right-of-way in question is two blocks of Fawcett Avenue, where it runs through the big empty blocks of City-owned property that would be used for the project.

Wuhan, China-based North America Asset Management Group, the LLC listed on supporting documents related to the vacation request. The NAAMG website headline reads "Real Estate Investment Project involving the development and construction of Tacoma Town Center." A brief description of the Town Center project appeared in a February 2016 economic development update from the City, describing the project as: 

 "... a $125 million mixed-use urban village that will meet the needs of the growing academic population, which includes more than 5,000 students..."

The NAAMG website gives further details.

  • 6 acres
  • 8 buildings
  • 5 stories
  • 2019 completion date
  • A grocery store
  • a mix of shop, restaurant, and food courts

A draft of a flyer for the project shows sample images of bustling retail and mixed-use projects like what they would like to build, and lists some potential amenities:

  • 195,000 square-feet of retail, including 90,000 square-feet of retail and 360 residential and student housing units
  • 600 parking stalls
  • A gracious open-air setting features an arrival court
  • Multiple retail buildings
  • A student housing tower
  • 2 residential towers
  • An office tower

Conceptual renderings show that circular arrival court, outdoor seating, and of course lots of foot traffic.

The project is being marketed heavily to EB-5 investors. These are foreign investors who would put a minimum of $500,000 into the project, and be required to create and/or save at least 10 full-time jobs for U.S. workers in exchange for an EB-5 (employment based) visa - a visa they would receive in exchange for the jobs created by their project.

In marketing this location to potential investors, the NAAMG materials focus on the proximity to a growing UW Tacoma, museums, and other parts of downtown and the Stadium district, as well as high schools and colleges in the area, and easy access both to Tacoma, and to the freeway. If you're wondering what they're saying, there's a short video featuring Mayor Strickland speaking to "What is so special about Tacoma, Washington?"

The council hearing on the vacation of land for the project looks like it will be set for May 12, if the resolution gets adopted as-is at this Tuesday's council meeting. That would be a very early step in what will likely be a lengthy process for this development.

In the NAAMG draft brochure we see phase 1 delivery forecast for summer 2017. That seems a little early, but the City update does say work on the project could begin as early as this fall, and that Kidder Mathews is currently seeking tenants for the retail component of the project.

Are you excited for some new downtown development?

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A nitpick.  We’re a city, not a town - how about Tacoma City Center or something that’s sounds (and is) more urban than Lakewood or Redmond developments? 

Also, I subscribe to neither anti-Chinese paranoia nor Bruce Kendall’s (see today’s TNT) paranoia/faux concern about anti-Chinese paranoia in the context of the paused (and inappropriately sited) methanol plant proposal, but the history of Tacoma and China/Chinese immigrants is certainly full of fascinating historical and contemporary cross-currents.  Shows that nothing’s simple…

April 1, 2016 at 5:57 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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If Bruce Kendall wanted to incentivize this new project, the title World Trade Center should be moved to a new Tacoma Town Center office building to boost its development prospects, away from the relatively ancient Rust Building from an earlier Tacoma boom (where his office is located in a building merely revitalized more than two decades ago as a Liberty Mutual Insurance real estate investment).  Tacoma needs not only new downtown construction but new trade-related white-collar jobs, especially ones related to the innovative computer science program at the University of Washington at Tacoma.  Finally, regarding relations between Fuzhou and Tacoma, labor leaders should work with business officials to objectively compare the lives of working people in both nations.  Ironic that Communist China is a center of dynamic capitalism but one should recall a timeless idiom greeting among the Chinese:  Have you had enough rice today?  Tacomans certainly wonder about such bread-and-butter issues.  Despite differences, there can be common interests and values between ordinary people of each nation—set the politicians aside and let common people speak.  What are the common interests at stake between the nations regarding the proposed methanol plant?  One also hopes that new Tacoma Town Center will include design features that invoke motifs about Chinese ideas and philosophy, which if allowed to be revealed are as rich as the intellectual traditions of democracy in the West.  Critics of Tacoma’s anti-Chinese bigotry of the 1880s forget the enlightened views of Northern Pacific Railroad leader Charles Wright’s Tacoma Land Company that let China-born merchants operate businesses in the area of S. 11th and Commerce, as an example.  Voters of that era chose the bigot immigrant (ironic) Jacob Weisbach to replace the Civil War hero/railroad executive John Sprague (his commercial block is now United Way of Tacoma headquarters) as mayor and look what happened.  As the debate about China investments in Tacoma rages and evolves, careful thought regarding good government and science and not narrow prejudice should guide the conversation; there should be no repeat of the chaos of the 1880s that damaged for decades Tacoma’s reputation for goodwill in China, benefiting Seattle’s commercial interests.

April 1, 2016 at 6:26 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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larry zarelli

High rise development does not seem to be important in this senerio. Why is this not in the plans? Tacoma needs to grow up in this 6 acre area. I

April 1, 2016 at 9:05 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Stephen Battey

High rise development does not seem to be important in this senerio. Why is this not in the plans? Tacoma needs to grow up in this 6 acre area. I

I don’t think this section of downtown allows for anything super tall. The renders appear to show 7-8 story residential towers which is right in line w/ the height of some of the existing buildings in the area. Density is important, but so is historical character.

April 2, 2016 at 10:17 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Tim Smith

When Tacoma is shown money and jobs they always seem to jump quickly and line up behind something. In this case we already see the Mayor in their marketing video. Of course we won’t seek such oversight or monitoring, but the EB-5 visa program is not without controversy.
People should read this GAO report: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-696

During testimony to the Senate about the program, Senators expressed concern regarding fraud and abuse in the program, as well as concern that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) does not know the origin of investor funds. To that point, Stephen Cohen, Associate Director at the Division of Enforcement of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), testified that since 2013, the SEC has filed 19 cases involving EB-5 offerings, almost half of which involved fraud allegations.

It is laughable to think the City would care about any oversight - as long as they get their money. For this project to be eligible for the $500,000 level we would seem to have to be rural or designated as having unemployment at 0 of the national level. Not sure if the City has received such designation from USCIS.

We are fortunate because if the investors don’t create the promised jobs we at least have our very own migrant prison right downtown! Pretty big stick from the visible from the development site.

April 2, 2016 at 5:50 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Tim Smith

“at 0 of the national level. ”  Should be 150% of the national level or the investment amount is $1,000,000

April 2, 2016 at 5:53 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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DeeBee Cooper

So Smith,

Could this be a reason why the Mayor has not challenged ICE/DHS over the NWDC and mandatory contract compliance? We know that DHS OIG reported
in March 2015 that a previous USCIS director had created an appearance
of favoritism by providing certain petitioners and stakeholders with special
access to DHS leadership and preferential treatment for their EB-5
Program applications or petitions.  Mayor S had to backtrack from her fast-track involvement with the Methanol Bomb and here she is again.

April 2, 2016 at 6:01 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Timothy Smith

The document stream involving the Mayor/ICE/DHS is very interesting on this one for sure. GEO actually uses “the local political environment” which has been absolutely favorable for them always as a reason they do not meet PBDNS standards. So the Mayor says she is not responsible, the City is not responsible, no one is responsible, and GEO says this is why. The City brought the prison here and helped underwrite (through WEDFA at the State level)  both the initial and expansion construction for a total of over $100,000,000 and has done little to reap the benefits from the “job creation” it was supposed to bring. Being a “regional center” was a benefit then as well.

We are, in fact, one of these USCIS regional centers.  Is our employment really at the 0 of the national level? I don’t think we are rural in anyway. Regional centers are held to more lenient job creation requirements than direct EB-5 investment, which focuses on direct job creation. Rather than being required to create 10 direct full-time jobs, regional centers can satisfy EB-5 job creation requirements by creating 10 direct, indirect, or induced full-time jobs. The regional center is afforded the benefit of economic multipliers in creating these jobs. Regional centers can also make it easier to pool capital since there is no limitation on the number of EB-5 applicants who can invest in a particular project, so long as each of the applicants meets the job creation requirements.

April 2, 2016 at 6:19 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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The television character George Jefferson on TV’s “All in the Family” sitcom wisely said nobody cared about the color of his skin as long as his money was green.  Thank goodness today that investors from China are willing to fund new projects in downtown Tacoma because local bankers are not apparently willing to assume such risks.  Furthermore, while there are immigration incentives that promote such investments, they do not require the direct federal tax dollar subsidies that the Weyerhaeuser Company successfully secured thirty years ago to make the office tower and Sheraton Hotel at Tacoma Center financially viable.  Let it also be remembered that China-born laborers did some of the toughest and most dangerous jobs to put Tacoma on the transcontinental mainline of trans-Pacific trade in the 1880s as they blasted a rock tunnel through the Cascades at Stampede Pass.  How they were later treated in the 1880s in Tacoma by labor hotheads is not just a matter of civic guilt but a disgraceful event in the world of commerce.  The fusion of ideas of the West with thoughts of the East at Hong Kong during the period of British rule there created one of the world’s wealthiest and most dynamic cities.  This is because people were interested in building trade opportunities and expanding the economy.  Apparently, such a tolerant environment was not acceptable to the Knights of Labor in 1885 who helped fuel the expulsion of China-born people from Tacoma.  Fear drove their actions, as did contempt for big business.  It should never be forgotten, though, that even in the 1870s that China-born railroad workers led by General John W. Sprague, a future Tacoma mayor, also drove the Northern Pacific northward from Portland to tidewater at Thea Foss Waterway, which is named for an immigrant who in 1889 rode west on that railroad to help build the city’s Pacific trade future.  That rail line opened Asian markets to American interests.  Whether the promise of Tacoma Town Center is met will depend on the permanent jobs created there.  There will be stumbling blocks in inter-cultural understanding but good-faith must be shown and transparency must exist to reflect that the goals of a federal program meant to promote new jobs-producing investments in this nation are meeting their objectives.  America, in is recent past, is in large part a land of immigrants.  Diversity is strength.  The Chinese certainly understood the passion of American missionaries to fill their nation with Christian ideas in the nineteenth century; foreigners subjugated the China then, treating it as a political weakling.  Today,  there are shared values among people from many places around the globe in Tacoma who seek, as did Charles Wright, to build the City of Destiny.  Tacoma’s prides itself not just as a working-class community but as a gateway city today for both trade and ideas.  Good-faith and transparency will determine whether Tacoma Town Center becomes a credible success with the public.  Its developers will have to account for their efforts.  They must bring a rising tide to float new boats, ahem, long-term Tacoma jobs.  If they fail, let there be certain consequences, as if a contract existed, for failing to meet obligations under a federal immigration/investment program.  Give them a chance to succeed.

April 2, 2016 at 3:49 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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It is sad to see the thinly veiled xenophobia surrounding the recently proposed Chinese investments in Tacoma.  Would any of this suspicion exist if it were English, Scandanavian, or any other white countries pitching these investments?

I personally hope these guys make a killing on this project and come back for more.  Please make it bigger.

April 2, 2016 at 8:21 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Of course it wouldn’t.  I honestly couldn’t care less who invests in our city.  As long as they invest.

April 10, 2016 at 11:16 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Tacoma Native

Could someone please explain to me how they arrived at the $66,575 Average Household Income Within a 6 Mile Radius figure? I have lived and worked in Tacoma my whole life in a white collar job, and have never come close to a $66,000 income. And if I look at the 6 mile radius in that area, I don’t see fancy homes or cars. I am not condemning the project; I truly want to see Tacoma flourish and especially the “downtown” area (which I consider this to be part of) but I think they should get their facts right.

April 5, 2016 at 8:03 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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There are a lot of expensive view condos and fancy houses in that radius to the NW.  Six miles gets you a lot of North Tacoma where there are lots of six figure household incomes.

April 5, 2016 at 3:28 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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The key word is household. Many households have more than one income source.

April 6, 2016 at 10:18 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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It will look real nice once the tent city moves in and takes over the patio area shown in the accompanying graphic, and you can bet your ass that is what will happen if Tacoma’s Seattle wanna be’s have their way.

April 8, 2016 at 3:10 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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June 8, 2018 at 12:49 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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