Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Putting the Right Feet Forward

Jane Jacobs's concept of "eyes on the street" suggests that the safest streets have a multiplicity of uses--as many as possible--that draw many people for different purposes all day and evening. It's analogous to the concept of "safety in numbers" that the BIA tries to incorporate throughout its activities (we even hand out small stickers for telephones that carry this title).

Eventually we hope that downtown Tacoma will evolve to the point where enough eyes will be focused on the street to ensure public order around the clock, but until then we have other strategies to recommend. One of these is signing up for the Downtown Secure Net, an e-mail alert system that links virtually (and virtually links) every building in downtown.

Friday, May 26, 2006

A Third Great Public Space

Each Friday, we've agreed to offer a new public space in downtown Tacoma for nomination as one of the ten great spaces we will collectively celebrate as we pursue the vision of a fully-activated downtown.

Our criteria for selecting the ten great spaces are taken from principles that the Project for Public Spaces has found in successful places all over the world:
  1. They are accessible;
  2. People are engaged in activities there;
  3. The space is comfortable and has a good image;
  4. It is a sociable place--one where people meet each other and take people when they come to visit.
To date, we have cited two public spaces in downtown Tacoma: Pacific Plaza (the site for our recent placemaking workshop) and Theater Square.

Today's addition to the list is Fireman's Park. Located north of 9th St. and east of 'A' just above the Schuster Parkway, this wedge of greenery offers an unobstructed vista of Commencement Bay and the Port of Tacoma. The Puyallup Tribe regarded the site as sacred, and the sun rises from the center of Mt. Rainier on the winter solstice. The present park was first laid out in 1894 immediately north of the city’s first brick fire station, and features a dramatic Alaskan native totem pole installed in 1903 and restored in 1976.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

More Feet Off the Street

Many of us celebrated the groundbreaking earlier this week for the $5.1 million remodeling project to downtown's Pantages Theater, which will expand and improve the lobby and other welcoming areas--what you might think of as the "front porch" of this landmark performing arts venue. Patrons of performances and other visitors will enjoy a great new gathering area with the intersections of 9th, Broadway, and St. Helens providing a sweeping vista through enlarged window spaces.

Erik recently shared with us that his close reading of The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) reveals Jane Jacobs' emphasis on having many “eyes on the street”--encouraging people to move slowly, stop, talk, and “hang out”, among other things. He maintains that this intersection is the "100% corner" for downtown Tacoma--whether or not he's right about that, the Pantages renovation will be putting more eyes on the street, and that's a move in the right direction...

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Finding the Way (I)

Integral to attracting more feet on the street is the concept of wayfinding--creating an environment that identifies logical traffic patterns so as to enable people to move easily from one spot to another without confusion.

You may remember from yesterday's post that one of consultant Paula Ree's recommendations was to "rationalize signage and improve wayfaring to help shoppers navigate downtown and find retail locations," a suggestion that found strong support among local merchants. About two years ago, the BIA participated in a working group that developed an icon based signage system to support wayfinding downtown. It's taken two years, but the first element of that system--traffic signs sporting the new icons--has been manufactured and is being installed.

We're currently working with the Downtown Merchants Group and other partners to submit a grant proposal to the New Tacoma Neighborhood Council that would fund another piece of this system--the first pedestrian "flags" or sign standards. Our vision is to develop a system that would link iconic points of interest--say, our ten great public spaces.

The City of Seattle has undertaken some excellent work to develop a wayfinding system deploying well-designed kiosks (see picture, below right) into a comprehensive system. Seattle's not the only place that's done this right, of course.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Chicken or the Egg?

Today's topic may seem like a "chicken or egg" discussion to some: Is a healthy retail sector the result of or the precursor to more feet on the street? The right answer to this particular question is a vital one for the future of Tacoma's city center.

While some in the mid-1990s still held that Tacoma's downtown would be transformed solely by the power of the arts, most civic and business leaders realized that places to shop are also pretty important. What took longer to evolve--and in some ways is still emerging--is a strategy to foster a successful retail environment here.

Seattle consulting firm Maestri Design, Inc. was retained by the City of Tacoma in 2004 to provide recommendations for improving downtown retail. At an evening event (“Retail Transformations”) co-sponsored by the BIA, Maestri president Paula Rees used a “magic wand” to emphasize the sweeping changes impacting Tacoma’s urban center. Rees said downtown had a “credible” collection of businesses that could form the core of a vital retail experience.

Rees concluded that downtown could accommodate as much as 225,000 square feet of additional retail activity to meet current demand. While that finding was contrary to some long-held opinions that downtown, for all of its changes, still lacks the consumer base to support more shops and restaurants, she said the demand for downtown retailers was coming from office workers, a growing number of downtown residents, and visitors from surrounding neighborhoods.

Rees and other consultants from Maestri unveiled eight specific recommendations to improve downtown’s retail environment:
  • Consolidate downtown retailers into clusters, no larger than four blocks long, and encourage retailers to locate there;
  • Develop consistent identities for retail clusters, much like the readily identifiable Pioneer Square neighborhood in Seattle, and use consistent place names on transit stops, maps and marketing materials, among other things;
  • Devote more money and programs--including security patrols, trash pick up and community events--to retail clusters;
  • Re-examine regulations that require retail space in new buildings, and give developers the option of temporarily using new retail space for other things, such as offices or housing;
  • Rationalize signage and improve wayfaring to help shoppers navigate downtown and find retail locations, in addition to better signs to direct motorists to parking garages and lots;
  • Develop a parking program that encourages shopping and discourages “chain” parking;
  • Adopt a more confident and original marketing stance, embracing the vision of a downtown retail environment that features small, unique businesses, similar to Seattle's Belltown neighborhood;
  • Help downtown entrepreneurs by offering incentives like grants for downtown retail projects and low-interest loans to fix up storefronts.

Since that time, the BIA has supported “Retail Transformations” through a variety of activities and investments:

  • Created and manages a system of colorful street banners on downtown arterials;
  • Funded directional signage in partnership with the City and the Foss Waterway Owners Association;
  • Installed decorative stars during the Holiday Season for the Downtown Merchants Group;
  • Funded refurbishment of street planters and funds hanging flower baskets during the warmer months.

How well are these strategies working? How important are they to the continued success of Tacoma's city center?

Monday, May 22, 2006

Seeking Permission

In her comment to our May 15th posting about Pacific Plaza, julie@urbanX asked: "if someone wanted to put on events there currently what would they need to do to get permission to do that"?

Apparently the proper procedure (at this time, anyway) is to contact the City Clerk's office and apply to use the park. Their phone number is (253) 591-5171 and their e-mail address is gswebmgr@cityoftacoma.org. We're told that there are fees that will apply depending upon the type of use, number of people, etc.

If you apply to use Pacific Plaza, please post a comment to let us all know how things went. If you are planning an event or events there, share that information with us, too--there may be some followers of this blog that would like to help.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Two For Ten

One of the most important concepts shared at the recent Project for Public Spaces workshop was the concept called "The Power of Ten"--the idea that if downtown Tacoma had ten places that were fully "activated" then the area would have critical mass, "a series of destinations where tourists and residents alike could become immersed in the city for days at a time".

It's probably obvious that Pacific Plaza (or Tollefson Plaza, as Mayor Baarsma may have us calling it) should be one of our ten great downtown places. But what are the other nine? We're going to suggest one more today and one each Friday for the next eight weeks, and we encourage your comments for or against each suggestion (or suggest some place we don't)...

First, here are some criteria for selecting the ten great spaces. In evaluating thousands of public spaces around the world, PPS has found that successful ones have four key qualities:
  1. They are accessible;
  2. People are engaged in activities there;
  3. The space is comfortable and has a good image;
  4. It is a sociable place--one where people meet each other and take people when they come to visit.
PPS has also assembled some great examples from around the world of successful public spaces that illustrate these criteria in action.

Now, here's our suggestion for the second great space downtown: Theater Square. First created in the 1980s to cover the downtown bus turnaround, this public space is a mecca for key public gatherings and hosts the Broadway Farmers Market every Thursday during the warmer months.

'More Feet On the Street'...

...is the mantra that was often repeated last week during our workshop with the Project for Public Spaces team. While it's true that the "gold standard" for success in downtown revitalization is private dollars invested (risked, really), it's hard to beat pedestrian counts on an average day as a great ongoing measurement of goal attainment. Beyond the economic measure, of course, more feet on the street also means a generally better quality of life for us gregarious human folk.

That said, let's put theory into action! Today is a beautiful day (and evening), so spend as much of it as productivity allows on the streets downtown--there are lots of opportunities today:

The Broadway Farmers Market begins today in Theater Square from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., offering charming cherries, tumescent tomatoes, food, fun and festivities;

The Third Thursday Art Walk runs from 5:00 - 8:00 p.m. and offers art venues with free admission, refreshments and demonstrations. The Tacoma Art Museum admits for free all day today (from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.);

The Theater District and Opera Ally Merchants Night on the Town runs from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m., featuring food, shopping and mingling at Court 'C' Studios, Dame Lola, Fibers Etc., Horatios, Mineral, Over the Moon Café, Remedy 450, Rocky and Coco's and Ruby Collection.;

The Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber and Bamford & Bamford Pottery are hosting a business after hours networking social at 702 E. 'D' St. from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., featuring artist Jeremy Sillas (there is an admission cost for this event).

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Rolling Forward on Skateboarding

Whether you think that urban skateboarders are part of the newest national sports trend or that they are ruffians on wheels, you've probably not been able to ignore them. The topic was a hot one at the recent Project for Public Spaces workshop, and most participants seemed to agree that some sort of "official" skateboarding facility downtown is desirable to help direct current activity--which has on occasion led to dangerous antics and damage--into a more positive venue.

Peter Whitley, a skateboarding advocate who has been promoting development of one or more new parks for some time now, shared this articulate viewpoint with us recently:
  • We feel that the under-705 skatepark concept presents enormous possibilities and would fit well with other under-bridge skateparks we've seen along the west coast. Here are just a few of the advantages:

    Presents a legitimate place to recreate and socialize
    Offers year-round skateboarding even in poor weather
    Has great access to parking, public transportation, and stores

    Presents a centralized place to see skateboarders in action
    Displaces other illicit activity in the immediate area
    Provides constant, regular, positive activity
    Creates a sense of safety (through activity) for pedestrians on their way to the Dome or
    Attracts consumers to Dome area

    There are, of course, some liabilities and we should not be shy about addressing them:
    Poorly designed and/or implemented skateparks do not attract experienced (older)skaters which can lead to a "teen pit"
    Immediate area around skatepark can present opportunities for bad behavior if it isn't secured or is concealed
    Site amenities should include devices that encourage non-skating participation (benches, "safe" vantage points, etc.) for maximum community involvement

Tacoma City Councilmember Bill Evans has been meeting with Whitley and other members of TacomaSkateparks.org and has begun building support within the City and with Metro Parks. Perhaps it's time for the larger downtown community to join the dialog.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A Clean Sweep...and Signs

One of the services provided by Tacoma's Downtown BIA is maintenance of common areas throughout the 84-block district. Our crews regularly sweep, blow, and pressure wash sidewalks and other common areas on a regular basis (we also remove graffiti). We've also been making strategic investments in streetscape elements such as planter boxes and hanging flower baskets, which we fund and City of Tacoma crews install and maintain.

Tonight the BIA is requesting that the Tacoma City Council allow us to withdraw some funds from our reserve account to help keep these programs on track.

About 40 days ago, our Tennant sweeper burst into flames and was totaled; we are still awaiting insurance proceeds to cover the lost. Fortunately, the BIA has kept dollars in reserve so that an unexpected purchase like this won't leave us in a quandary. Our new sweeper (price around $65,000) is set for delivery tomorrow.

We're also funding installation of new directional signs for drivers in the downtown area, a program we are funding in cooperation with the Foss Waterway Development Authority and the City of Tacoma. Some of the new signs are already up; they constitute one element of what we hope will be a new wayfinding program for visitors and shoppers.

Funds for this signage were committed almost two years ago and thus had to be withdrawn from our reserve fund (unspent assessments). Approval for this request from the Tacoma City Council is just one aspect of the BIA's accountability to ratepayers.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Progress for Public Spaces

More than 100 business and community leaders participated in recent activities with the Project for Public Spaces, sponsored by the Downtown BIA and its partners. PPS will be producing a final report in 4-6 weeks, but plenty of energy has already been released and some strong recommendations have already emerged:

  • Developing a regular "art mart" for Pacific Plaza that will offer local artists the opportunity to hawk their wares;
  • Identifying a location (under I-705?) and funding for a skatepark between downtown and the Thea Foss Waterway;
  • Exploring ways to better (more pro-actively) manage Pacific Plaza and promote its activation (e.g., fill it with people every day)

If you are interested in helping with one of these efforts--or if you think we've left anything off the list that needs to be pursued right now--please leave a comment.