Thursday, November 30, 2006

Solid Waste of Time?

At its December 5th meeting, the Tacoma City Council is considering rates for public utilities. The adopted goal of the City is to have customers pay what it costs the utility to provide the service, an arrangement called "cost of service."

Gary Brackett, appointee to the Environmental Services Commission (ESC) and Manager for Business & Trade at the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, has examined two rate options currently before the City Council for consideration. Brackett compared the rate recommended by the ESC to a rate requested by some members of the Council that abandons the cost of service goal so as to lower costs for some residential customers.

Under the rate plan recommended by the ESC, cost of service rates would be achieved for all customers in 2010. Most downtown businesses, multi-family units and smaller firms use Front End Loader (FEL) containers to accommodate space limitations. This plan requires that rates for front load containers decrease during that period:

ECS Recommendation/Front End Loader (FEL)
(multi-family, small business, space-limited downtown businesses)
The rate amount currently charged for the 4 cubic yard front load container is $361.20. Cost of service for the 4 cubic yard front load container in 2007 is $289.97 per month. The proposed 2007 rate under the plan recommended by the ESC is $350.05. This recommended rate is still $61.08 above cost of service. The rate is proposed to be reduced by 3% per year until 2010, when the cost of service rate of $318.61 is reached. In 2011, the cost of service rate for this container service is $332.82, a 4% increase from 2010.

ECS Recommendation/Residential
(single-family, duplexes only)
The cost of service rate for the 30 gallon residential barrel in 2007 is $35.58 per month. The proposed 2007 rate recommended by the ESC is $30.05, a 7% increase from 2006. This recommended rate is $5.53 per month less than cost of service. Under the plan, the rate is increased by 7% per year until in 2010, when the cost of service rate of $36.63 is reached. In 2011, the cost of service rate for this container service is $38.00, a 4% increase from 2010.

Alternative Plan
An alternative plan has been proposed in which rates for front load containers would be held at current levels rather than being decreased by 3% per year. The additional revenue generated from doing this would be applied to subsidize the residential rates to reduce the increase from 7% to 6.2%. There would be no significant change to other commercial rates.

Alternative Plan/Front End Loader
In the alternative plan for the 4 cubic yard front load container, the rate would be held at $361.20 from 2007 through 2011. In 2007 this rate is $71.32 above the cost of service rate of $289.97 and $11.15 above the rate supported by the ESC. In 2011, it is $28.38 above the cost of service. By holding the rate at the 2006 level, reaching the cost of service is delayed beyond the planning horizon of 2011.

Alternative Plan/Residential
The residential 30 gallon barrel rate for 2007 would be $29.90 under the alternative plan, a 15 cent per month decrease from the other plan recommended by the ESC. In 2011, the 30 gallon barrel rate would be $37.45, 65 cents per month less that the $38.00 rate in the recommended by the ESC in the five-year plan.

This is an example of the differences between the plan recommended by the ESC--in which cost of service is reached for all customers in 2010--and the alternate proposed plan--where rates above cost of service are held constant with the revenues generated from this change used to offset the higher, residential rates increases.

The numbers provided above are specific for the container size indicated as an illustration. Other front load and residential containers will be impacted by different amounts.

This issue could represent a significant rate hike for some downtown properties. Be sure to let Councilmembers know which rate makes the most sense.

Monday, November 27, 2006

A Provident Change?

According to the Puget Sound Business Journal, LinMar Management Inc. recently purchased the Security Building in downtown Tacoma for $6.1 million. LinMar has changed the name of the building, located across the street from the North Park Plaza parking garage, to the Provident Building, the building's original name when it opened as the home of Provident Life & Trust Co. in 1903.

To Market, To Market

The issue of The Business Examiner being delivered to subscribers today includes the Downtown Tacoma Commercial & Residential Real Estate Map co-sponsored by the BIA, BOMA, City of Tacoma, LandAmerica Commercial Services and Prium Companies.

This new publication highlights commercial and residential properties for sale or for lease throughout the greater downtown area. In addition to distribution throughout Pierce and Thurston counties via the Examiner, copies will be distributed across the Puget Sound region in the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce. The BIA and other sponsors will have additional copies for ratepayers and customers, as well.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Downtown Infrastructure Milestones

One of the philosophical underpinnings of urban revitalization--often unexamined by most people--is the idea that communities should build greater density upon infrastructure already in place. In the real world, the problem is that antiquated infrastructure often cannot support greater density--at least, not to modern standards.

Tacoma's downtown infrastructure is getting a necessary rebuild in several areas; two such projects were updated for the public this week:
  • After a long period of controversy, the Broadway Ave. Local Improvement District was approved by the Tacoma City Council in April, providing the venue for property owners to get together to pay for reconstruction, repair and renewal of sidewalks, ornamental street lighting and landscaping and construction of surface water, wastewater and water main utility replacement. The project goes out to bid next month and, after construction (slated to begin next April) is completed, the City believes it won't have to dig this area up again for a decade or more.
  • The 'D' St. Overpass, the $22.5 million road project that will unite the Dome District with the Thea Foss Waterway by raising the roadway over the railroad tracks that loop around the south end of the waterway, recently completed its first phase of construction.

Monday, November 20, 2006

No Stamp of Approval Yet

Reporter Kris Sherman reports in The News Tribune today that the U.S. Postal Service is moving ahead on plans to sell its historic downtown building--advertisements for relocation facilities should be published by the end of the month. The Postal Service hopes to find a new 6,475-square-foot home downtown and would move most processing into a 10,000-square-foot facility in Fife, also establishing a full-fledged post office there for the first time in the suburban city’s 49-year history.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber weighed in on this issue last October at its quarterly City Center Luncheon, where USPS spokesman Ernie Swanson previewed the multi-year process for the sale. The Chamber also submitted a letter asking for a commitment to maintaining a storefront post office downtown--a condition that seems to have been honored thus far by USPS. That letter also expressed concerns that USPS consider the mail processing needs--both at the corporate and merchant levels--of businesses in the city center.

Developers have expressed great interest in the post office building and, especially, its ancillary parking lot, the lynchpin in the Haub family's long-standing plans for a new downtown office tower.

'Tis the Season (Reprise')

Kathleen Merryman offers a nice column in this morning's edition of The News Tribune about the tree that is, of course, the focal point for the 60th annual Holiday Tree Lighting set to take place next week in front of the Pantages Center. Especially nice is her observation that "[a]s the downtown has blossomed, [the tree] has seemed to wear its decorations with increasing elan."

Like most things with a long and distinguished history, the Holiday Tree Lighting is something old school that now has the opportunity to morph into something really hot. This year--for the first time--the event is being staged right after work on a weeknight rather than on a weekend evening. The change was suggested in recognition of the changing demographics of downtown--fewer families with young children, more singles and empty nesters. Organizers also hope that the timing change will keep downtown employees around for a while after work; merchants will be open extra long hours to handle the additional traffic.

Sixty years ago, downtown was the center of civic life for Tacoma--that's still true today. Downtown was an active, energetic business location--despite many years of struggle, this is probably more true today than it's been in the past three decades. Downtown in 1946 was not a growing residential neighborhood--that's a bellwether change with hundreds of new living units currently being built and occupied. One of the most important drivers for continued progress is the sense that there's a "there" here--creating and maintaining a sense of community--and events like the tree lighting are both a reflection of and a support for that sense.

Friday, November 17, 2006

More for November 30th

November 16th may be the most eventful evening in downtown Tacoma until...November 30th!

That's the evening that the lights come on for the 60th year on the Holiday Tree donated to Tacoma by Fort Lewis. There will be numerous activities associated with this annual event from 5:00 p.m. until 7:00 p.m. Now here's something to enjoy right after that--and you'll only have to move a few blocks up the hill:

Local historian Michael Sullivan will speak to Historic Tacoma from 7:00 - 8:30 p.m. at the downtown Tacoma Public Library (1102 Tacoma Ave. S.). Sullivan will speak on "Improbable Tacoma: Unlikely Events and Remarkable Characters Behind the Shape of Tacoma Today." Michael is a founding member of Historic Tacoma, heads Artifacts Consulting, and teaches at the University of Washington Tacoma. He previously served as President of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation and, before that, as the Historic Preservation Officer for the City of Tacoma.

About Last Night...

There's no official crowd estimate, but there were visibly lots of people out last night enjoying the November 16th event. The Three Mo' Tenors presentation at the Pantages Center was the evening's signature event, but many venues--like Vin Grotto, The Matador and Pacific Grill--were near or at capacity for long stretches of the evening.

We'd like to hear from readers--where did you enjoy November 16th? What's your opinion as to the best venues, and why? Who wasn't open that you'd like to see next year?

To all that participated in whatever way, thanks for helping put more feet on the street!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

More About Clearwire...

Clearwire's launch in the Seattle metro area garnered lots of media attention including articles in The News Tribune, the Business Examiner Online, and the Seattle Times in addition to prominent play on evening television news shows.

Launch of the service yesterday marked the availability of wireless broadband Internet access throughout Tacoma and the metropolitan area of Pierce County. Other areas may gain service from a new partnership between CenturyTel and the Rainier Communications Commission, although the planned launch date for pilot service to Steilacoom seems to have slipped.

Perry Satterlee, Clearwire's co-president, grew up in Tacoma's North End, and his father worked for many years in an office in the Washington Building. Satterlee insisted on holding a small launch event yesterday morning in The Vault to commemorate that fact and to thank many individuals who helped ease the company's entrance into this marketplace.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Fresh Breeze--Is It Wireless?

When the sun is shining and a breeze is blowing gently through the trees, wouldn't it be lovely to be able to pack up your laptop and finish work at an outdoor café or park? That's the promise of wireless Internet access, or at least the idyll many people make of it. Let's extend the fantasy one step further--why not make the service free of charge?

What's the reality of ubiquitous broadband Internet access, and how much of this daydream is really possible?

Consumers soon will be able to get what some are calling "personal broadband," or high-speed Internet access everywhere they go. Wireless broadband networks are starting to be pieced together in a more visible way, with service providers such as Sprint Nextel and Clearwire building towers, Intel manufacturing chips, Samsung and Motorola supplying devices. About 56 million Americans--28 percent of the country’s population--have devices enabled for wireless Internet access.

At the same time, mobile consumer and business applications are flourishing. Mobile and wireless technology is being used in supply-chain management, sale force automation, inventory management, facilities management, point-of-care administration, law enforcement, and scientific data collection applications. Mobility is causing yet another paradigm shift equivalent to when people went from using stand-alone personal computers to accessing the Internet.

Wireless broadband Internet access is moving into Tacoma in a big way this month. Clearwire is launching their service tomorrow, which requires a modem and a monthly fee for very reliable service over a proprietary frequency. Free service is promised from an emerging partnership between the Rainier Communications Commission and CenturyTel, with the pilot project launching in Steilacoom soon, but further details are still pending...

According to a report published in September by the Federal Trade Commission, there are several problems with the business models currently underwriting munciipal networks, including questionable economic feasibility. According to the report, computer users can generally only access the Internet with a high-speed wireless connection if they are within 300 feet of an antenna--that means up to about 30 antennas per square mile, a considerable investment.

Local media have been generous with their praise for the RCC pilot project but generally dismissive of Clearwire's service. We're clearly still a long way from the warm weather idyll, but how far are we from unwiring our growing downtown?

Monday, November 13, 2006

City Seeks Volunteer for Landmarks Preservation Commission

The City of Tacoma's Landmarks Preservation Commission is currently seeking applications for an "at large" position open to residents of Tacoma interested in historic preservation issues.

The Commission oversees the establishment and regulation of landmarks, landmark sites and historic districts. Commission meetings are held at 5:00 p.m. on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month.

The Commission is comprised of eleven citizen volunteers who serve three-year terms. Members are recommended for appointment by the Council Appointments Committee and confirmed by the City Council.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Sounding Out Sounder Options

Members and guests of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber on Monday explored design issues related to future development of the Tacoma Dome District and the growth of downtown's transportation infrastructure.

Earlier this year, two community groups--the Hillside Development Council and the Dome District Development Group--invited the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Southwest Washington to study the impacts of Sound Transit's projected extension of Sounder service with a focus on the segment from Freighthouse Square to “M” St. The architects organized into design teams to work, independently, on various alternative solutions.

The current alternative proposed by Sound Transit goes directly west from Freighthouse Square, curving at grade across Pacific Ave., aligning with the north side of Wakefield Dr., then connecting to existing rail between Tacoma Ave. and Yakima Ave. Architects and the community groups have concluded that this alternative would close businesses, isolate the Tacoma Rescue Mission, create dead-end streets in an area targeted for a multimillion-dollar redevelopment, box in Brown & Haley’s planned expansion, block off and reroute historic Highway 99 and drop Pacific Avenue into a 14-foot-deep gully underneath a railroad overpass.

The AIA teams developed new project alternatives that would, in their view, better support the following goals:
  • Improve arterial traffic flow and linkages
  • Preserve historic Highway 99 as a community asset
  • Minimize business closures and relocations
  • Minimize train and vehicle conflicts
  • Create new commercial development opportunities

One alternative developed by the architects curves south behind Brown & Haley headquarters, drops into a covered trench along S. 27th St. as it crosses under Pacific Ave. and reappears across South Tacoma Way from the Tacoma Rescue Mission, preserving South Tacoma Way as well as access to the mission and neighboring businesses.

That alternative and one other are part of a high-level analysis now being conducted by Sound Transit and to be reported to the agency's finance committee at its December 7th meeting.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Sound Transit Will Explore Dome Alternatives

Yesterday Sound Transit directed its staff to conduct a high-level analysis of alternative alignments for the Sounder Tacoma-to-Lakewood routings recommended by the American Institute of Architects, with findings due to the agency's finance committee at its December 7th meeting.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber will offer a presentation by the AIA's design team at the group's City Center Luncheon on Monday.

Housing May Drive Tomorrow's Downtown

Denser and more diversified housing may be the driving factor in downtown Tacoma's growth during the next 35 years, Tacoma City Manager Eric Anderson told housing developers this afternoon.

Anderson began his informal comments by distributing a new map of downtown as it may be redrawn following an upcoming public process. The new boundaries reflect those proposed earlier this year by Ryan Petty, director for the City's Community & Economic Development Department and presented in September at the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber's City Center Luncheon.

The City Manager told developers that the downtown needs to be denser--infilling surface parking lots and other undeveloped or underdeveloped parcels--and that buildings need to rise higher. Anderson also envisions a more economically diverse downtown; "the mix of income levels makes for more vitality in an urban environment," he observed.

Parking is the one area, Anderson noted, where the City can participate with developers to support growth in downtown housing--by offering parking as an incentive. In response to questions, however, he added that this support assumes the development of "a sustainable parking revenue system," and that means pay stations on the street. Anderson did allow that all of the revenue from pay stations should be returned to the district from which they are collected to fund needed improvements, like a proposed new street car system or streetscape amenities.

Downtown stakeholders need to get involved in discussions over downtown growth and circulation that will be ramping up early in 2007, Anderson said. Those discussions will help shape downtown's development from now until 2040. He was speaking to the Urban Housing Group, an informal assembly of housing developers.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Prium May Buy Winthrop Hotel

Local developer Prium Companies has just announced an agreement with A.F. Evans Development to purchase the Winthrop Hotel. Prium is a Tacoma-based real estate development conglomerate with projects in 26 cities statewide.

"We have executed a purchase and sale agreement with AF Evans that we anticipate to close by the end of the year," says Peter Ansara, Prium's Chief Operating Officer in a release issued this morning. "We are in the process of studying the potential for mixed use with a focus of developing a significant portion of the Winthrop to its original hotel state [along with] the potential of condominiums, relocation of the residents and historic preservation..."

A 'Tale of Two Tracks'

Businesses in the Tacoma Dome District of downtown feel that Sound Transit’s preferred commuter rail route through Tacoma to Lakewood would close businesses, isolate the Tacoma Rescue Mission, create dead-end streets in an area targeted for a multimillion-dollar redevelopment, box in Brown & Haley’s planned expansion, block off and reroute historic Highway 99 and drop Pacific Avenue into a 14-foot-deep gully underneath a railroad overpass. At their request, the Tacoma chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has conceived an alternative route that would mitigate these negative impacts.

An editorial in today's edition of The News Tribune argues that Sound Transit should study AIA's rail alternatives. City Councilmember Julie Anderson will be asking Sound Transit’s finance committee today to approve spending $20,000 to $30,000 or so to include a preliminary assessment of two community-based alternatives in study of the agency's "preferred alternative" route.

Interested downtown stakeholders can see the alternatives at this quarter's City Center Luncheon sponsored by the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber:
  • Monday, November 6th
  • 11:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m.
  • The Tacoma Club
    Sponsored by Venture Bank
Cost for the event is $25 for members pre-paid and $30 for non-members pre-paid; corporate tables are available at a discounted price. To reserve space at this meeting, please contact Janice at the Chamber, (253) 627-2175.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

'Tis (Already?) the Season

There are still 54 shopping days in the 2006 Holiday Season, and the BIA is helping downtown merchants get the full benefit of this opportunity.

BIA Maintenance crews are installing Holiday Stars again as part of a partnership with the Downtown Merchants Group. This year, 68 stars are being hung in 41 different locations.

18 of those locations need to have their brackets reinstalled on several light poles. Last year, the City of Tacoma replaced those light poles but didn't reinstall the brackets, and this year will not allocate the time to reinstall them; however, the City is providing the strapping materials and brackets for the BIA's use.

During the next couple of days (while the Stars are being installed), the crew will not be doing any pressure washing and will be spending less time on other elements of fall clean-up such as collection and disposal of leaves.

The BIA will also help support the annual Holiday Tree Lighting right after work on Thursday evening, November 30th. This event celebrates the giving season and commemorates a partnership that has linked downtown Tacoma and Fort Lewis since 1946. Join throngs of well-wishers for the performance of the Army's Brass Quintet inside the newly remodeled lobby of the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts (BCPA) at 5:30 p.m., followed by the lighting of the community tree at 6:00 p.m. The event will cap Art at Work Month and coincide with "Live After Five"--a special promotion by downtown merchants.