Monday, July 31, 2006

Two Perspectives on Downtown Housing (II)

One of the reasons that downtown housing is coming back in Tacoma (at least it hasn't hurt!) is strong support from the City of Tacoma and its partners such as the BIA. Every year, the city and the district partner with local housing developers to market urban living.

In October 2003, 15 residential properties and more than 40 merchants opened their doors to the public as part of the first Tour of Urban Living event. Several thousand visitors each day toured residential properties, shopped in local stores, visited museums, dined in restaurants and rode the LINK light rail. They strolled the Foss Waterway Esplanade, visited the University of Washington Tacoma campus, attended an event at the Tacoma Dome, and took in a movie, play or nightclub in downtown Tacoma.

The event has continued and grown each year. The BIA supports the event by providing space on our website to promote the event as well as to list downtown housing projects--both for sale and for lease--year round. We also maintain the URL, which jumps to our website.

The BIA will be partnering with downtown merchants this year on an event preceding this year's Tour of Urban Living; this Block Tie Affair will debut at a local venue (TBD) showcasing local caterers/restaurants, florists, artists, businesses, condominium projects etc. This event will expand the marketing effort from housing to the broader concept of life downtown by providing a passport for downtown eating, shopping, and activities savings during the weekend of the tour.

The intention of organizers is to:
  1. Welcome and unite downtown dwellers
  2. Identify and recognize "urban pioneers"
  3. Recruit "urban ambassadors" to share their stories of why Downtown Tacoma
  4. Showcase the neighborhoods to new prospective dwellers
  5. Get people on the streets for energy during the tour
  6. Promote business for local merchants and restaurants

For details of the 2006 Tour of Urban Living, watch the BIA website. For more information about this new event, contact Patricia Lecy-Davis.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Two Perspectives on Downtown Housing (I)

After decades in the doldrums, downtown housing has returned in a big way. The 2000 Census confirmed that downtown population in major U.S. cities reversed a long-term trend, increasing by about 10 percent during the 1990s. While reliable data for the past five years is hard to come by, the numbers that do exist point to even more rapid growth.

We could do well to catch the vision of Vancouver, one of our urban neighbors to the north. Alan Ehrenhalt, executive editor for Governing magazine, recently observed that Vancouver's housing boom has created "a vibrant, safe, glamorous downtown, full of residents who have money to spend and who enjoy themselves spending it at all hours of the day, every day of the week". Nearly twenty percent of Vancouver's total population resides downtown, and that number continues to grow.

Tacoma lacks the comprehensive vision that Ehrenhalt found in Vancouver, but our downtown has nevertheless benefited from the growth trend in urban living. Since the mid-1990s, when Tacoma's downtown population hovered right around 1000 (almost entirely low income), the past few years have seen investments that will eventually result in several thousand new housing units (almost entirely market rate--middle to upper income). A decade of low interest rates, relatively inexpensive property, and generous tax abatements have "primed the pump" for housing; another influence may have been adoption in the mid-1990s of a moratorium on low-income housing downtown through what is today known as the Miller Amendment.

When the Tacoma City Council adopted this legislation in 1995, downtown was open for development of low-income housing and had no market-rate projects on the horizon. The proposal of two significant new low-income projects--a multi-story project proposed by a non-profit housing provider in the block of Pacific just south of 9th, and the Olympus Hotel--set downtown interests to the ramparts. The BIA and other advocates for the measure argued that downtown's demographics were tilted too far in one direction, and that approval for more low-income projects should be halted to allow development of market rate projects until the demographic mix was better balanced.

Recently, members of the City Council's Neighborhoods & Housing Committee have concluded that this time has arrived; they cite the recent proliferation of market rate condos and apartments as evidence that downtown is now--or soon will be--an economically balanced neighborhood. Not all downtown stakeholders agree; they point out that most of the upper-income projects are still on the drawing board and that, even when completed, they will not overbalance the preponderance of low-income residences downtown.

What's our long-term vision for downtown Tacoma? What dispersion of incomes and types of housing support that vision? Certainly there have been significant changes downtown in the past ten years that warrant a collective look at housing policies.

Monday, July 24, 2006

More Carts for the Urban Heart?

One of the recommendations of the final report released last Thursday by Project for Public Spaces--and one that is getting priority attention from the BIA--is the notion of getting more sidewalk vendors operating, actually, getting any sidewalk vendors operating downtown...

Sidewalk vending is, essentially, small-scale selling by means of a cart (which has wheels and can be pushed or towed) or a kiosk (a small stand that does not move). The most complicated part of this small-scale selling is the regulatory framework. In the 1950's, many cities passed ordinances that restricted or even eliminated outdoor selling. Malls are private property, so the prohibitions on "public selling" did not apply. In the 1970's and 1980's, shopping malls found that vending carts in their open areas enhanced the quality of the mall, and they created large numbers of cart-based businesses. Urban planners learned from the malls and began encouraging sidewalk vending as an enhancement to the street life in a community.

The current regulations in Tacoma governing sidewalk vending were hammered out in the mid-1990s; it's time to revisit the municipal code again. The fact is that no sidewalk vendors are taking advantage of the opportunity to sell downtown, so something is presenting an obstacle. As a follow up to the PPS report, we are assembling a committee to look at what those obstacles are and to propose potential solutions.

A good starting point is looking at the experience of other communities to find examples of successful programs. Today we will offer two examples:

Thirty sidewalk vendors are licensed to sell a variety of merchandise and food products on the 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver. Specific sites are licensed in order to diversify the vendor's businesses on the Mall, while taking into consideration the continued success of restaurants and retail shops already in operation. Vendors have a specific set of rules and regulations determined by the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District and the City & County of Denver that they must follow in order to operate their carts on the Mall.

The Springfield, MO City Council recently approved a six-month trial period for sidewalk vending limited to a defined downtown area. Carts designed to meet the regulatory requirements cost about $5,000 and can run more than twice that, and each company has to have a health department-approved prep kitchen, carry liability insurance and agree to stay a certain distance away from other restaurants selling hot dogs — including other vendors. The Urban Districts Alliance, a nonprofit group that coordinates and promotes downtown investment, helped urban entrepreneurs develop guidelines that led to the city’s approval for this trial program.

Are there other successful programs we should be examining? Please post your suggestions and we will take a look!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Giving the Recommendations Legs

Today more than sixty community leaders celebrated the release of the final report from Project for Public Spaces in a gala luncheon in the Wells Fargo Plaza. The focus of the report was on Pacific Plaza, but the potential benefits can be applied throughout downtown. The meeting introduced six committee efforts already underway to help implement the recommendations that Fred Kent, Cynthia Nikitin and Ben Fried made in the document:

Stewardship of Pacific Plaza - an effort is underway to coordinate all of the neighbors for this public space, as well as other partners, for developing a non-profit entity that will solicit events, promote use of the plaza, and otherwise proactively manage it. Whether this will entail expanded use of an existing organization like the BIA or creation of a new entity has yet to be determined. People interested in joining this ongoing effort should contact Joanne Buselmeier, a staff member for the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber;

Showcasing skateboarding - another team comprised of business and property owners and skateboarding enthusiasts is grappling with how to provide appropriate venues for this urban sport while reducing damage to downtown buildings. The chair for this committee is Judee Encinias, a board member for the Downtown BIA;

Establishing a regular "art mart" - downtown merchants and members of the arts community are exploring organization of a regular venue that would be much like a farmers market for arts, probably launched in Pacific Plaza. Downtown Merchants Group leader Marty Campbell is coordinating this effort;

Exploring how to attract sidewalk vendors - current merchants, potential street vendors and others are invited to participate in a review of the obstacles that are preventing the proliferation of seasonal carts and stands. BIA staff person Paul Ellis is the contact for anyone interested in joining this committee;

Considering narrower width for Pacific Ave. and S. 17th - this group will look at ways to make Pacific Ave.--five lanes wide between Pacific Plaza and Tacoma Art Museum--less forboding. Once again, contact Paul Ellis about participating in this committee;

Removing barriers to walkability - local attorney Erik Bjornson is working with architects, photographers, security experts and others to examine how current obstacles to walking might be overcome. Particular focus will be given to the hillclimbs between 9th & 11th and between 11th & 13th.

The lead persons for each of the above-mentioned efforts will be invited to post meeting information and results on this blog, so keep reading!

It's a Banner Day!

Today is the day that the long-awaited recommendations from Project for Public Spaces will be presented to the public. To commemorate this event, the BIA has created a new street banner (shown at right) that introduces the theme: "Get Your Feet on the Street".

About fifty banners with this design are being installed on major north-south arterials over the next few days.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Next Steps

Dan Voelpel, business columnist for The News Tribune, today previews recommendations from the final report by Project for Public Spaces that will be released tomorrow. Dan's been very supportive of this project right from the beginning, and he gets the recommendations right.

One relatively minor correction, however, is in order: none of the consultants from PPS will be attending tomorrow's event. PPS has made its recommendations and passed them along to the BIA and its partners for implementation.

Attendees will see a recap of the May 11th workshop (thanks to TV Tacoma) and receive a copy of the final report. We will also present responses to the report, including reports from some local leaders who have already got to work on one or more of the ideas that emerged from the workshop.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Keeping Our Balance on Boards

As the recent article about skateboarding in the Tacoma Daily Index relates, long-delayed talk between skaters and downtown property owners is occurring at last. While there are very real concerns on both sides of this discussion, there is reason to hope that progress will result.

Skateboarding is becoming a major leisure time activity across the nation--one that seeks expression in urban environments. The young people that our marketing efforts have sought to woo downtown are often coming here with a board under their arms. In the continuing battle for market share, this seems to be a demographic slice--one of the few naturally drawn downtown--too valuable to ignore.

Locally, skaters have impressed many City officials with their creative ideas and energy--so much so that reinstating the long-term ban two years ago seems to have become politically impossible. Advocates like Peter Whitley have initiated demonstration projects that show how skateboarding might be responsibly (apparently not an oxymoron) pursued, and Metro Parks has earmarked funding to support creation of new parks that can utilize the techniques when they prove to be effective.

That isn't to say that downtown property owners don't have legitimate concerns--they do. One major new structure downtown has suffered more than $90,000 in damages from skateboarders during the past year. Whitley and others offer what they believe to be creative solutions to problem usage, but will their ideas really work?

Despite these and other questions, skateboarders and other downtown stakeholders are beginning to realize that they need to work together. A discussion earlier this month at the BIA's Security Advisory Committee laid out issues, potential solutions, and began what we hope will be a continuing--and productive--dialogue.

Thursday's release luncheon will present (among other reports) Peter Whitley and Judee Encinias to recap that BIA discussion.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Guest Posting - Project for Public Spaces

Cynthia Nikitin, Vice President, Project for Public Spaces

Fred Kent, Ben Fried and I were really delighted working with all the terrific folks in Tacoma to come up with a program, management strategy and vision for the new Pacific Plaza. Rarely do we encounter a group of stakeholders--from the mayor to the merchants, representatives of civic and cultural institutions, residents and city staff--so juiced about their city, about their future and the potential to ‘turn their town around” as we did in Tacoma. All we really had to do was facilitate--to get the discussion rolling, make people feel that we were all on a “level playing field”--and then get out of your way and let you do the rest!

The ideas that came out of the workshop were top notch and the fact that similar issues surfaced in each group really shows how close you all really were to reaching consensus. We found the architects to be extremely dedicated to creating the best functioning design possible, and their enthusiasm and flexibility were both refreshing and encouraging.

We hope that the agencies that have jurisdiction over local streets will take a good look at Pacific Avenue and South 17th to see whether the volume of traffic warrants the widths of these roadways. We really feel that they are over-designed as downtown main streets and do not serve to connect the plaza to the edge uses around it. Cars should not move fast through a downtown core; streets should be designed to accommodate all users in a city center, including cyclists, pedestrians and transit passengers. These streets, as currently configured, are barriers that separate rather than seams that bind the downtown civic center together into a cohesive place.

We think that Tacoma has huge potential to become one of the great cities of the Pacific Northwest and a major West Coast destination. The city, BIA and government agencies need to support and make possible what folks want to do in the plaza and the rest of downtown. Laws and policies regulating street vendors and outdoor dining need to be re-examined; flexibility and a willingness to experiment with and try new things needs to be the hallmark of your community and your every day way of doing business. By doing this, Tacoma will not only retain but continue to attract people with talent and energy and creativity to the city center because you will have a city that appeals to people with vision and dedication. What could be better than that?

Keep up the good work and we look forward to working with you again!

Friday, July 14, 2006

A Beginning and a Finish

This posting is the final one in our series identifying the ten great public spaces in Tacoma's downtown. Today's entry marks the physical beginning of Tacoma's urban waterfront, has been selected as a site for numerous civic purposes, and is the center of some ongoing improvements that may lead to a more "activated" future.

A three-acre green space reclaimed in the 1990s, Thea's Park provides a welcoming gateway to what will one day become the longest waterfront walkway in the nation: 1.5 miles of boardwalk, public event plazas, marinas, shops and cultural centers stretching along the urban Thea Foss Waterway’s western shore. The park was one of the first and most highly visible projects to redevelop this significant urban waterway.

Commanding expansive views of Commencement Bay, the Puget Sound and the constant activity of Tacoma’s busy port, Thea's Park has the backdrop of many historic downtown buildings and is adjacent to the renovated Dock St. Landing, one of the few remaining warehouse buildings that once lined the waterway. A beach located at the north end of the park has replaced what was previously a rubble-strewn shoreline. A low, curving seat wall separates this beach from the boardwalk, incorporating interpretive messages that describe the history of the waterway. A centerpiece globe marks the location of Tacoma's sister cities with stars.

Thea's Park has already enjoyed a starring role in many civic events. On Sept. 11, 2002, the City of Tacoma dedicated its new peace monument here. During the Tall Ships Festival, flags of all participating nations were displayed and national anthems played here; Thea's Park also served as a center for live entertainment.

Thea's Park has always been a favorite spot for local street skaters. Known as the S-Ledges by skaters, the park features wavy foot-high concrete ledges surrounded by a broad slab. Recently, an organization named Skaters for Public Skateparks has built and maintained a large granite-edged manual pad, which cost less than $3,000 and was designed to provide a model for similar installations in other parts of downtown. The effort has started to open dialogue between skaters and downtown property owners; if successful, it will also go a long ways towards activating this great public space.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Final Report--But Not the Last Word

Those of you who have been following the process initiated by Project for Public Spaces here in May already know that a milestone is just ahead--the release of the organizations final report.

Join us for a special luncheon next Thursday, July 20th, in the Tacoma Club for the official release of the document. Participants in this event will be the first to see the final report, and everyone who attends will receive a copy.

While the release of the final report completes PPS' service to the Downtown Tacoma BIA, it is by no means the end of the process. Several groups have formed since the May 11th workshop to begin work on initiatives that emerged during the event, and the groups will report to the community next Thursday.

We hope to post a preview about each group here during the week leading up to the luncheon--stay tuned!

Monday, July 10, 2006

On Foot, By Ear...Art!

Here' something new to add to your next foray setting your feet on the street downtown--Tacoma Art Museum has launched Washington’s first cell-phone walking tour, Ear for Art: Chihuly Glass CellPhone Walking Tour. The innovative new tour allows users to learn more about Dale Chihuly’s artwork in Tacoma’s Museum District as they stroll through revitalized downtown Tacoma.

The tour may be accessed any time of day or night and features twelve audio stops located throughout the Museum District that provide cell-phone users the opportunity to hear a narrator--for some pieces, Chihuly himself--talk about the installations at Tacoma Art Museum, Union Station, the Chihuly Bridge of Glass, the University of Washington Tacoma Library, and The Swiss Pub. Tacoma Art Museum joins a growing number of museums across the country--including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Austin Museum of Art in Texas, and the Brooklyn Museum in New York--that have chosen to make use of this readily available technology.

The self-guided tour can begin or end at any of the five locations, and access to the tour is free; callers simply pay for their personal airtime charges. The tour also includes games that can be played as the tour progresses. Cell-phone users can choose to just listen to the basic information included at each stop, or they can dial further to hear more about the artworks and installations they’re viewing.

Paula McArdle, curator of education at the Tacoma Art Museum, coordinated the creation of the cell-phone tour, working closely with nationally recognized consultants Museum411, Chihuly Studio, and representatives from each of the venues on the tour. The project was funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to promote Tacoma Art Museum’s premier collection of Dale Chihuly’s work, (1977- present) on long-term public display.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Wright Choice for a Public Space

It's one of the largest green spaces in the entire city, often referred to as "Tacoma's Central Park". It's surrounded by some of the city's most ornate and historic houses. It's ready for growth with a new master plan developed just last year. It's Wright Park, the penultimate public space in our ongoing list of ten potentially great public spaces downtown.

Wright Park was established in the 19th Century through a land donation by Charles B. Wright. The founding vision was one of a bucolic, scenic, pastoral, passive public space as embodied by traditional English parks. One of the park's jewels is the Seymour Conservatory (27 acres with over 500 species of plants in a 3100 SF Victorian era greenhouse). Since that time, of course, much has changed. The master plan will help set the stage for activating Wright Park by reorganizing park amenities, activities, and facilities that have been haphazardly located in previous phases of improvement.

Check out Wright Park this weekend or during this year's Ethnic Fest on July 29th & 30th. Then take a look at the recommendations of the master plan. If you have comments or better ideas, send them to Kristi Evans with Metro Parks Tacoma.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Cutting Our Blocks Down to Size

Erik Bjornson, an attorney whose office is downtown just off Fireman's Park, has been inspired by the recent Project for Public Spaces workshop and his own reading of Jane Jacobs to focus on walking downtown:
Jane Jacobs recommended "short blocks" when designing a downtown. We, of course, cannot redesign the city.

However, many of the connectors between streets, especially between Pacific, Commerce and Broadway are inoperable as they are far too cluttered to be functional. Thus, they are not used.

Perhaps we could identify them and work to have them improved. It shouldn't cost too much and would be a great benefit to downtown than many of the proposals I am hearing about.
Erik is hoping that some other readers of this blog might join him in seeking a more walkable city center. He has identified the following steps:
  1. Identifying connecting passages between streets downtown with names locations and intended function;
  2. Identifying the difficulties of passing through them and suggesting design changes and solutions--"the cheaper and easier the better so we do not have to wait for 5 years to get a $250,000 grant for each one";
  3. Prioritizing them based on the amount of foot traffic currently impeded and how central they are to downtown Tacoma.
  4. Additionally, Erik would like to have a few pictures taken if someone has a digital camera.
Sound interesting? Please contact Erik and lend a hand!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Tail That Wags

When I began work as a classroom teacher many years ago, I (along with many of my peers) considered classroom discipline to be the last of my concerns; nonetheless, experience soon taught me how absolutely fundamental that concern was to everything else I might want to do. For teachers, bringing some kind of order out of chaos is "the tail that wags the dog".

I may be experiencing the same kind of paradigm shift now in how I view parking. It's been clear to me for some time that downtown parking can be compared to Rubik's Cube in its being a complex interlocking system; what has been coming into focus for me recently is just how much parking is a part of urban design. It may be, in fact, the tail that wags the dog.

Several bloggers in this space have preceded me in this conclusion. David Sucher, the well-known author of City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village and subsequently a blogger on the new urbanism, contends that urban design starts with parking. He cites conversations with architects indicating that design of parking access is always the foundation--and major limiting factor--in the design of buildings.

The movement know internationally as the New Urbanism (most influential groups such as Project for Public Spaces subscribe to the tenets of this movement) rejects the centrality of parking. For instance, the Bay Meadows Land Company in San Mateo (CA) proudly describes its design work as a "renewal of the charms and conveniences of an urban landscape designed for people rather than parking [emphasis mine]."

"Most people don't understand transportation," observes Alex Marshall, a blogger who lives in New York City. "They think we have these places [emphasis mine]...and we figure out how to move around within and between them. Actually, it works just the opposite: We create ways to move around, and that creates places [again, emphasis mine]."

As we think (and dream, hopefully) about downtown Tacoma's public spaces, let's keep our focus on places rather than how we get to them. For instance, one of the recommendations of the soon to be released final report is likely to be that the Link light rail should stop in Pacific Plaza. Looking at places first, what comes into focus?