Friday, November 03, 2006

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.


  1. Anonymous5:21 PM

    It's interesting that expanding the supply of high-density land is being presented hand-in-hand with higher density development that can only occur with higher land values. Based solely on intuition, it would seem that if the supply of high-density land were restricted it would push land values up faster & thereby encourage more intense development.

    (but that's why I'm in the peanut gallery)

  2. Anonymous8:31 PM

    Most of Eric Anderson's ideas for more dense housing downtown are right on taget as well "infilling surface parking lots and other undeveloped or underdeveloped parcels."

    However, pay stations were tried, failed and removed in Bellingham at great expense, the last Washington city to try them.

    The city's parking consultants have still not been able to make a case why pay stations would work in Tacoma when they did not in Bellingham and had to be removed.

    Also, Bellingham already had meters. Tacoma does not which means it would have to make two large steps from free parking to pay stations.

    It would be nice if we had the same demand for parking in downtown Tacoma as there is in Portland or Seattle. Perhaps then we could consider pay stations.

    Unfortunately, the most recent studies still show a vacancy of 40 percent in downtown parking in Tacoma.

    With so many vacant spaces downtown, the law of supply and demand would indicate that the vacancy would be even higher if pay stations were put in.

    Here's some quotes from the Western Front in Bellingham:

    Western Front


    Bellingham City Council approved yesterday's removal of LUKE, a new automated parking meter system, from the 1300 block of Railroad Avenue at an emergency city council meeting last Saturday.

    Business owners complained that the new system has driven customers away.

    The Bellingham City Council voted 6-0 to remove the new pay stations from Railroad Avenue and replace the system with the electronic parking meters the rest of downtown uses.

    The city received complaints about the new system from business owners and customers, Farr said.

    "People don't want to deal with the frustration of the machine," Farr said.

    Customers were frustrated with the automatic pay stations' technical problems, Farr said.

    The LUKE machine wouldn't print out receipts, didn't give change and didn't allow customers to use certain parking options on the screen, he said.

  3. Anonymous6:39 PM

    A great book to read on the subject which is being touted these days among city planners across the country is High Cost of Free Parking"

    The book touts the benefit of charging for parking in cities for the benfit of businesses, cities and the environment.

    The author also discusses how to set fees for parking which completely hinges on supply and demand of parking spaces.

    Shoup concludes cities should eliminate zoning requirements for off-street parking, end free municipal parking, and charge whatever price will maintain about 15 percent vacancy - the optimal rate to ensure easy entry and exit.

    Thus, according to Shoup, cities should increase their parking rates up to a point until there is a 15 percent vacancy. This explains why the parking rate charged in Seattle is higher than in a city like Bellingham.

    However, the overall vacancy rate in Tacoma is already 40 percent. Thus, applying this technique, the rate for parking could not be increased from it's present value of zero. This makes sense as a restaurant that has few customers cannot raise their prices.

    With that said, there may be a few blocks in downtown Tacoma, such as in front of UWT on Pacific or in front of the Tacoma Financial Center that have low enough vacanies to support a price increase.

  4. Anonymous8:12 PM

    Regarding the map:
    I thought the City voted revoked the zoning which would allow residential on the eastern side of the Thea Foss. Is this an old map?

    Regarding downtown rezone:
    I understand what it is trying to accomplish, but don't understand the method. Why not just define the entire City of Tacoma as "downtown." In talking with developers, the reason I see for a lack of density being built doesn't have so much to do with zoning as it has to do with other factors, most of which are beyond the control of City Hall: construction costs (huge factor), parking requirement (we should have a maximum not minimum requirement), unsophisticated property owners (don't know a good deal when they see it), lack of suitable demographics (we need more masters degrees), to name a few.

    Regarding parking:
    While I used the parking stations when I was down in Portland a couple weeks ago and thought they were great. I agree with Erik- Tacoma's problem has more to do with perception than anything.
    And people are more lazy here! Think about it: the next time you are in Portland or Seattle, make a note of how many people you see walking or riding a bicycle- then compare with how many you see in Tacoma. Tres difference!

  5. Anonymous9:52 AM

    I hate being a broken record about this.

    Each parking space in a parking structure costs upwards of $30,000 to construct. This cost is embedded and distributed into other costs as an economic externality. This has the unfortunate effect of driving up the cost of housing, which then leads to a higher rate of gentrification because units can only be occupied by those with more disposable income. This defeats one goal of Mr. Anderson's because of the emphasis on expanded parking.

    Secondly, the City Manager's good idea for higher density buildings, requires higher capacity transportation. A parking system is not going to solve this problem, unless you want to duplicate each and every parking space on each and every vertical level of downtown - on Pacific, on Commerce, on Market, on Fawcett, on Tacoma Ave. on MLK etc. There is no way to build your way to prosperity when you're hobbling your urban fabric with monstrous parking garages. Have we learned nothing from our experiences with an overreliance on parking and highways? A better investment, as Portland has shown, as Vancouver has shown, as San Diego and Minneapolis and Europe have shown - is mass transit. With a decently developed, high quality mass transit system, we will not need to duplicate each of the parking spaces. This is what Portland officials tout time and again and yet it falls on deaf ears in Tacoma for some reason.

    Furtherm, I'm tired of City officials building downtown for "visitors" from "out there" rather than residents who live here. Parking spaces near my building are full during the day (used by office workers from more affluent cities), but are completely vacant at night and on the weekends. I think that most people would be better served if they had access to more goods and services in buildings on those lots rather than new parking structures.

    Whereever we have put parking structures to be parking structures, downtown dies. Whenever we mix uses and have greater density w/o so much auto infrastructure areas thrive. Look at the Merlino Arts Center on 6th and Fawcett. They've lost so much parking to construction projects and the Triangle and they're doing better than ever, offering more services to the residents because a critical local population level has been met. People bike there, walk there, take the bus, and they drive. But there's a proper mix of transport modes.

    The infrastructure necessary to make the same mixed use building work in a "visitor" type situation would include a ginormous parking garage that would be empty 50% of the time.

  6. Anonymous10:39 AM

    Well put, Chris. We need more broken records!

  7. A new vision for parking and transit use in downtown Tacoma that can revolutionize future development is beginning to emerge. We'll write more about it in a future post, but for now you can get a glimpse here: