Thursday, August 31, 2006

Addressing Public Disorder

Vandalism, drug dealing, car prowls and aggressive panhandling have been slowly losing ground in the greater downtown area, part of a cycle that manifests itself throughout the area on a regular basis. Continual vigilance and a coordinated approach to public safety, incorporating tactics derived from the well-established “broken windows” theory, have helped to reduce both the frequency and the severity of incidents.

In April, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber articulated a set of guidelines for addressing public disorder. The Chamber encouraged local government and member businesses to cooperatively address the current rise in public disorder, petty street crime and nuisance behavior in downtown Tacoma and adjacent neighborhoods; the BIA and the New Tacoma Neighborhood Council were early adopters of this coordinated approach.

Specificially, the Chamber advocated addressing public disorder through coordinated deployment of the following strategies:

  • Use 911 to document problems
  • Partner with others for “safety in numbers” - support renewal/expansion of the downtown Business Improvement Area (BIA) and other such group efforts
  • Increase police patrols (e.g., redeploy BIA bikes downtown on the swing shift)
  • Incorporate Community Policing Through Environmental Design (CPTED) into new projects and renovations
  • Require all organizations and programs to mitigate their community impacts in cooperation with other stakeholders (e.g., management of the Winthrop Hotel)
  • Tie funding for community services and programs to implementation of evidence-based “best practices”
  • Encourage public agencies (e.g., Law Enforcement Support Agency) to direct funding into opportunities for improved coordination and communication among public safety providers

Cooperative efforts involving police, other public safety agencies, citizens and businesses have helped dampen sporadic outbursts of public disorder in the past. Programs like the BIA (funded by downtown property owners) have proved effective, but ongoing success requires continual commitment from a variety of sources.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Help Wanted: Great Benefits, No Pay!

Work is continuing through several committees on the recommendations made by Project for Public Spaces last month to help activate Harold M. Tollefson Plaza. Volunteers are still welcome for each of these groups--the pay is low (read "nothing") but the benefits promise to be great for this public space and the rest of our community. And..there's plenty of work to go around!

One group is tackling the management of the Plaza, exploring how to program the space, manage regular use and even fund some needed capital improvements. To join this group, contact Joanne Buselmeier.

Another group is looking at ways to encourage sidewalk vendors to operate in the Plaza. Any potential vendors would be especially helpful to this process, so that the committee can better understand current obstacles to vendor operations. Have cart, will travel? Contact Paul Ellis on this one.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Up in the Dumps?

It's not the most glamorous issue, but it's an important--and potentially expensive--one.

At the most recent meeting of the Environmental Services Commission, citizen appointees were asked about one inequitable solid waste rate that has direct applicability to many downtown businesses.

First, the facts. Those businesses with front load containers of 1 Cubic Yard (CY) pay $181.80 per month, and those with front load containers of 2 CYs pay $240.75. When compared to those with a 300 Gallon (1.5 CY) Commercial Barrel who pay $107.16, the latter service and rate is out of proportion to the other two.

In a continuing process to move to a cost of service based rate, the City is considering increasing the rate for the 300 Gallon Barrel over the next three years. Its 2007 rate would rise to $128, the 2008 rate would rise to $148 and the 2009 rate would be $169. These steps are proposed to cushion the impact of equalization--for 2007, the 1 CY Container would fall to $173.80 and the 2 CYs Container would decrease to $231.15.

The Barrels are proposed to be continued for those businesses which have access problems. Those businesses that could convert to Containers would be encouraged to do so. All customers will be encouraged to use greater efforts at recycling to further reduce their solid waste fees.

The rate review process is still underway. But, the proposed schedule is for a presentation at a City Council Study Session on November 7th, with City Council action on rate adoption expected at a meeting on November 14th.

For more information, contact the Environmental Services Commission.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Drive, They Said

If you want to see the future of downtown Tacoma (or at least an exciting part of it), head to Spanaway this weekend.

It's time for the 29th Annual LeMay Car Show and Auction this Saturday. Attendees will be able to see 800 vintage, classic and specialty automobiles, trucks, and motorcycles from the LeMay Collection at Marymount Academy and the LeMay Estate, plus hundreds of local collector cars. By the way, this year visitors will also be able to view the North American Eagle vehicle in which some local racers hope to break the world land speed record by achieving Mach 1.05 or better.

The LeMay car collection--esteemed the largest privately owned collection of automobiles, motorcycles, trucks, other vehicles and related memorabilia in the world by the Guiness Book of Records--is the nucleus for a major new museum. The late Harold LeMay amassed in excess of 3,000 vehicles and thousands of artifacts. The Collection, recognized by many as a national treasure, represents the American experience with the automobile as it spans the 20th century and features virtually every American make as well as numerous foreign cars.

It's not too early to begin an acquaintancee with this fabulous collection and get to know more about America's Car Museum before its move to Tacoma's Dome District. See you at the show!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Plaza Vote--What Should We Learn?

As reporter Jason Hagey observed in The News Tribune today: "Score a half point for the blogosphere."

Downtown's new civic center, the pie-shaped Pacific Plaza, will now officially be renamed Harold M. Tollefson Plaza--a compromise not unlike the one suggested here on Monday. City officials and citizens alike should learn something from the compromise vote last night.

First, we hope that City officials recognize the sea change in public participation. As we've already learned from the Project for Public Spaces workshop in May, Tacomans want to be involved in the renaissance of downtown and find Pacific--er, Tollefson--Plaza to be the iconic center of that rebirth. Some of us remember the public process a few years ago to help develop the Plaza's design, when public input was anemic at best--things have changed.

Kudos to Kevin Freitas--one of the participants in the PPS workshop--for stirring up public interest on this subject. We repeat our earlier suggestion in this space to the City--next time around, use your blog to sample public opinion.

Second, we hope that citizens aroused by this issue stay the course and keep learning. There is a long history and lots of nuances connected with almost every issue of import downtown, and it pays to study history and understand the local municipal process if you want to make positive change. Kudos to Mayor Bill Baarsma for keeping history alive!

Moving forward, we invite City leaders and other citizens to join us in the effort now to "activate" Tollefson Plaza--watch this space for ways to get involved!

Solving the 'Rubik's Cube'--an Update

Stepped up enforcement (advocated by the Parking Advisory Committee and implemented by the City of Tacoma) has improved access to on street spaces for downtown's customers and clients--as much as 60% of spaces are available at any given time now. That's the good news delivered by Kurtis Kingsolver, the City's chief parking enforcement officer, to members of the Tacoma City Council's Economic Development Committee yesterday afternoon.

But before the City pats itself on the back, Kingsolver warned, it needs to get some heavy lifting done. The onset of inclement weather and chain parker's tendency to test limits will likely begin to erode the progress made without continued efforts to develop a permit system and complete a new "moving to evade" ordinance, he told Councilmembers. His personnel are working closely with the Chamber's stakeholder group to get these elements into place as soon as possible.

City staff also updated elected officials on progress in renovating Park Plaza South garage and a new parking structure on the Thea Foss Waterway. More on these projects in a future post...

Committee members Bill Evans, Connie Ladenburg, Spiro Manthou, Rick Talbert have dealt with so many issues related to parking that Talbert has made the tongue-in-cheek suggestion to "rename this the Parking Committee," but the elected officials' hard work--and continued openness to stakeholder input--will pay off in a better system.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Home, Home on the Strange

It's axiomatic that real estate always increases in value because "they aren't making any more of it". Nonetheless Ryan Petty, director for Tacoma's Community & Economic Development Department, and his staff may have found a way to create more room for downtown Tacoma's housing boom by making downtown bigger. To some, this might seem like a strange solution, but it's probably a necessary--and positive--change in policy.

While downtown is more and more becoming a residential neighborhood for Tacoma, it's one unlike any other--the civic and commercial hub of the city. Nearly 50% of downtown's extant housing units are low income, which should be a cause for concern for all Tacomans. One way (arguably the best way) to remedy this problem is to slow development of low income projects and speed up building of market rate projects until a balance results; this strategy was the goal in the mid-1990s of the Miller Amendment and Housing Tax Incentives.

Results of these actions have been generally positive, increasing the stock of market rate housing units and contributing (as part of a national trend) to today's downtown housing boom. As some City leaders have observed (most notably Councilmember Tom Stenger), the growth of downtown has tended to push problems out beyond its borders--principally to the Upper Tacoma neighborhood.

What Petty has suggested is that the definition of "downtown" be expanded to include Upper Tacoma and the Stadium District, areas that most people are surprised to discover are not technically part of the city center. Petty's suggestion for a boundary expansion came out at the Tacoma City Council's Study Session today, which largely focused on downtown housing policies.

More on this topic in a future post...

Monday, August 21, 2006

What's in a Name?

Tomorrow evening, the Tacoma City Council is scheduled to take action on a name change for Pacific Plaza. Mayor Bill Baarsma and some of his peers believe that the name "Harold M. Tollefson Square" will add historic gravitas to this relatively new public space, as well as recognizing the important contributions of one of Baarsma's predecessors.

Many community members think that the designation "Pacific Plaza" should stick. The current name reflects the central geography of the park and gives it greater community ownership, they might argue. Besides, it's a wedge--not a square.

We submit this suggestion for a compromise: Harold M. Tollefson Pacific Plaza. This name would cement the historic tie sought by Baarsma (one of Tacoma's pre-eminent historians) while shorthand would still allow reference to the site as "Pacific Plaza" should that truly be the popular call.

Friday, August 18, 2006

No Conspiracy Theories, Please!

It has been brought to our attention that some readers might wonder if the use of an image incorporating a parking meter in our last two postings about downtown parking betrays a bias on our part towards the devices. Rest assured, the official position of the BIA and virtually every other stakeholder group remains opposition to on street metering (pay stations, of course, being merely a high-tech update of that old standard) at this time. The selection of those particular images was not intended to supplement (or, actually, to contradict!) the accompanying text.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Putting Parking in Perspective

In a previous post (and some local news articles published at about the same time), we cited parking as the Rubik's Cube of downtown issues and blogged David Sucher's posting about how "urban design starts with parking."

"You may not want to believe it", Sucher concludes, "but that is the cold hard reality."

Like wireless Internet, parking is a service that almost everyone thinks ought to be ubiquitous, easy to access and free. This makes the job of those who have to plan delivery of this service in the real world doubly difficult--overcoming obstacles of time and space can be dwarfed by the task of overcoming expectations.

That's why a number of downtown stakeholders banded together with City of Tacoma officials last year to form the Parking Advisory Committee. The BIA is one of the stakeholders, and the group is independent (managed by the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber) but recognized by the Tacoma City Council.

Yesterday, Ross Tilghman and Miriam Sevy from the Leora Consulting Group offered their analysis of how to solve the parking puzzle's financial aspects to members of the Tacoma City Council. While recent changes in municipal staffing, finance and operations (supported by the PAC) have improved the parking system, "missing elements prevent Tacoma from realizing the revenue needed to build more parking."

The most significant--and controversial--"missing element" recommended by Leora is the use of pay stations (metering devices) to regulate on street parking. In other cities examined by the consultants, no more than 10% of total system revenues come from garages; in Tacoma, garages contribute 65% of revenues. Other cities gain 19% of their revenue stream from metered on street parking and 26% from on street permits, sources not yet available to Tacoma.

In short, the consultants declare that "Tacoma cannot issue ratable new revenue debt without meter/pay station parking revenue"--severely limiting the City's ability to supply new parking.

Members of the Parking Advisory Committee will join City Councilmembers on an exploratory trip to Portland, OR next month to see a more robust parking system in operation; the PAC will also meet with the consultants to review their analysis in more detail. To date, the stakeholder group has opposed pay stations.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Bigger Picture

As stated in a previous post, the BIA will be offering business and property owners--and other community members--opportunities to engage in defining downtown’s “Next Steps” this year via a campaign to develop a strategic plan for the future of our assessment district. The outcome of this process is hoped to be enhanced service delivery downtown.

When Tacoma’s downtown BIA was originally formed in 1988, the city center was in bad shape: drug dealers, panhandlers and prostitutes seemed to be lurking on every corner, trash and graffiti dominated many common areas, and businesses were moving out. Although controversial at the onset, the BIA’s “clean and safe” programs soon helped bring about a turnaround.

When the district was renewed in 1998, the BIA’s focus had shifted somewhat to include a broader range of services. The BIA sponsored a retail recruitment program, helped create the first online property website in the nation, and increased funding for marketing. The district’s efforts helped downtown reach a “tipping point” over the past several years, during which time the number of derelict buildings dropped while occupancy—and values—increased dramatically.

Earlier this year, the BIA commissioned the firm of Lachman & Laing to conduct a series of interviews with key downtown stakeholders that reviewed security operations and recommended ways to maintain a “clean & safe” environment. In May, the BIA partnered with the City of Tacoma, the Foss Waterway Development Authority and others to host a half-day workshop by the Project for Public Spaces to help stakeholders create an effective action plan for bringing greater life into downtown’s common areas.

During the next three months, the BIA will continue to sponsor a series of themed events to help envision downtown’s next decade of progress and define the steps needed to get there:

Housing Growth
Downtown continues to boom with new housing units. In September, the BIA will initiate discussion on how to continue that growth and what role the district should play in supporting its continuation;

Retail Transformations
The BIA has been a primary partner for the City of Tacoma in stimulating retail activity downtown, implementing several activities recommended by consultant Paula Rees. In October, a renewed discussion will engage merchants, retail brokers, developers and city officials in implementation;

Office Occupancy
While the Tacoma-Pierce County community and the Puget Sound region have grown tremendously over the past several years, office occupancy in downtown has remained flat over the same period. In November, the BIA will initiate a discussion on how to strategically spur growth.

Interested in participating in one or more of these discussions?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Activating Pacific (Tollefson?) Plaza

This weekend, the Tacoma community once again had an opportunity to "catch the vision" of an activated Pacific Plaza with the debut of Showcase Tacoma, an event organizers hope will recur annually. BIA staff member Joanne Buselmeier continues to investigate the feasibility of setting up a management entity to promote more such actiivties in this premier public space.

The best pictures from the event currently available online were compiled by blogger Kevin Freitas. Speaking of Kevin--he's just completed a poll regarding the name change for the plaza proposed by Mayor Bill Baarsma; His Honor prefers the name "Harold M. Tollefson Square" for a previous mayor of Tacoma. Perhaps the City of Tacoma's new blog will conduct it's own poll...?

The Downtown Tacoma BIA was a co-sponsor for the event. The BIA printed and installed the colorful street banners promoting the event, stepped up bicycle security patrols around Pacific Plaza this weekend, and assigned extra hours for common area clean-up pro bono in support of this celebration of Tacoma's native son, Dale Chihuly. By the way--BIA Maintenance crews will leave the chalk art created this weekend on the sidewalks until that art has deteriorated so much as to lose its interest.

We're doing some of the same for next Saturday's Glass Roots Arts Festival. This street festival will focus on local artists/artisans of all media. The Festivals Committee for Tacoma Arts Community, a grass roots arts group, is putting on this event to showcase regional arts, artists and artisans; only goods created, designed, or recorded in the region or by someone living in the region are eligible. The Glass Roots Arts Festival will be located between 11th and 13th Streets in Court 'D' from 11:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m.

Contact person for the event is one of the "alumni" from our Project for Public Spaces workshop--Barb Pemberton, (253) 845-3157, horatios@peoplepc.com, or visit her at Horatios (105 2nd St. S.W. in Puyallup, during business hours).

Thursday, August 10, 2006

No Stalling on Downtown Parking

The Downtown Tacoma BIA is one of the stakeholders participating in the Parking Advisory Committee, sponsored by the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber and recognized by the Tacoma City Council. This group, which was organized last November for a two-year run, has achieved real progress on downtown parking issues.

The committee's key focus has been on examination, evaluation and--where deemed appropriate--implementation of ten recommendations from a stakeholder process developed in 2003 and subsequently presented to the City. Input from City of Tacoma staff has brought to attention several additional items, especially regarding new technology, that augment the purposes stakeholders had in mind when drafting their recommendations.

Four of the ten recommendations have progressed far enough that the committee believes them to have been achieved:
  • Recommendation 1: The City of Tacoma should agree to complete the promised expansion of the parking system.
    The City is abiding by commitments made in 2001 regarding completion of parking expansion projects and has defined the trigger criteria for development of expansion capacity.
  • Recommendation 4: The City of Tacoma should establish a balanced parking oversight committee.
    The Parking Advisory Committee is a balanced combination of staff and parking stakeholders as envisioned by stakeholders.
  • Recommendation 5: The City of Tacoma should integrate on-street enforcement with off-street operations.
    On-street enforcement and revenue collection have been operationally integrated with parking facility operations. Ongoing review and communication between City interests and stakeholder concerns are helping to improve responsiveness and support.
  • Recommendation 8: The City of Tacoma should enhance and possibly expand its enforcement officer force.
    The City has hired the full complement of authorized enforcement officers and put them on the streets.

Two recommendations are moving ahead with significant results to date, but not yet completed:

  • Recommendation 2: The City of Tacoma should proceed immediately with fa├žade improvements and necessary seismic, and structural repairs on Park Plaza North and Park Plaza South Garages.
    City staff has recommending a vendor and that Park Plaza South only should be renovated at this time pending identification of a source for a $5 million funding gap.
  • Recommendation 9: The City of Tacoma should implement hand-held recorder enforcement technology.
    Committee members have been working very closely with the City’s parking enforcement personnel and are seeing a significant increase in access for customers and clients along with a sizable movement of employee parking to off-street facilities. There is still work to be done on the “moving to evade” ordinance, on a permit system, and to meaningfully link employees with commute alternatives such as transit.

The Parking Advisory Committee hosted a well-attended public forum on parking in June to deepen the understanding of and broaden community input on the mechanics of the current system. Input from that forum will be discussed in an upcoming posting here and will be presented to the Tacoma City Council's Economic Development Committee on August 22nd.

Three other recommendations having to do with more technical aspects of financing have yet to undergo intensive scrutiny by the group. These items will be addressed while, at the same time, the committee reviews recommendations for a parking "business plan" from consultants Miriam Sevy and Ross Tilghman of the Leora Group, LLC. City Councilmembers will get a preview of the "business plan" recommendations next Tuesday afternoon.

The final recommendation yet to be addressed has been the most controversial:

  • Recommendation 10: The City of Tacoma should postpone metering implementation pending community consensus.
    Delay in implementing pay stations was a consensus shared in October 2003 by every group within the stakeholder community. There was across-the-board agreement that the City should delay any decision on implementation of street metering until:
    1. Outstanding concerns have been addressed
    2. Enforcement compliance is determined
    3. Economic performance improves
    4. Definition of decision criteria is established
    5. Community support is attained.

    Committee members have agreed to work with the City in examining the 2003 consensus position in light of changes in procedures and the addition of new tools, including the ongoing, largely successful enforcement action. They have asked in return that the City refrain from decisions regarding pay stations, permits or metering until it has worked with stakeholders to examine the issues carefully and with broad input to see if the community consensus of three years ago is still valid.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Keeping in Step...

Today we're posting a few brief notes that have been accruing and may be of interest:

For all the current interest over the Miller Amendment, most community members have never seen the resolution. Reading the actual document may help some readers of this blog to better evaluate the many (and varied) opinions expressed about what the legislation is and does. Also of interest may be the recognition that the resolution was submitted on behalf of Councilmember Mike Crowley (formerly head of the BIA and now Executive Vice President for the Master Builders Association of Pierce County), it continues to be memorialized with the name of Councilmember Paul Miller, a downtown building owner who was therefore recused from voting on this issue.

Several weeks ago, we identified Fireman's Park as one of downtown Tacoma's great public spaces. In order to encourage "more feet on the street" there, the BIA has been working with the Tacoma Police Department and other partners to address ongoing security problems in the park. Transients have been able to scramble up into the park from SR-705--and scramble back down after committing petty crimes--but TPD Community Liaison Officer Rob Luke has very recently cobbled together funding to have that route blocked by a high fence. Kudos to Officer Luke!

Among downtown issues, parking is certainly the Rubik's Cube--an incredibly complex system that requires constant input from a kaleidoscopic variety of parties to reach a solution. The Chamber's Parking Advisory Committee has been working hard with City of Tacoma staff to move the pieces of the puzzle to a position that benefits a larger number of stakeholders--more on this topic tomorrow.

If you haven't made plans to attend this weekend's Showcase Tacoma event, you are missing an opportunity to support this community's next big chance to activate Pacific Plaza--so get your feet on the street!


Monday, August 07, 2006

Bending the Amendment

What might otherwise have been a rather staid committee meeting for the Tacoma City Council this afternoon was enlivened with dramatic outbursts and a surprising revelation.

The revelation was the presentation of a letter from A.F. Evans Development, potential developers for the controversial Winthrop Apartments, announcing that they had reached "feasibility limbo" on the project and disclosing that their purchase and sale agreement with the building's owners has expired. Whether the Winthrop's availability will lead to a bid by other interests or is simply a bargaining tactic remains to be seen.

The drama of that revelation was temporarily overshadowed by incendiary verbal exchanges between downtown merchants and at least one Councilmember as discussion on the Miller Amendment ensued. Several merchants expressed the opinion that the concentration of large low-income projects in the vicinity of 9th & Broadway is a blight and leads to civic disorder. Councilmember Tom Stenger characterized their opinions as "bigoted".

In the end, the committee determined to bend--not break--the Miller Amendment:
  • City staff was asked to come back to the committee with recommendations for policies that will encourage more low-income housing without entirely voiding the Miller Amendment (e.g., suggesting an appropriate mix of subsidized and market rate units);
  • Staff was also asked to look into what measures (if any) the City might take to enforce better management for low-income projects;
  • Councilmembers also asked for suggestions on how to better address the public disorder evidenced in the area around the Winthrop and Olympus projects.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Needed: One Vision for Downtown Housing

Downtown Tacoma languished for decades; despite widespread public support and massive investment of public dollars, revitalization eluded community efforts. In the mid-1990s, a common vision was iterated that established new private investment as the benchmark for success, sparking the upwards tide that has carried us to today's renaissance. That's the power of a common vision.

It's what we lack today for urban housing, despite the boom that drives development of condos and apartments all over the city center. As blogger Derek Young asks in this week's edition of The Business Examiner, "Do we know where we want to go? Do we know how to get there? Would we even know if we had lost our way?"...

The BIA needs to be renewed again in 2008 if it is to continue. As its leaders contemplate the path to that goal, they want to include the broader downtown community in dialog over where the city center is going, what services will need to be in place to support continued growth, and what share of the common burden ought to be borne by property owners through the assessment vehicle. During the next few months, the BIA will sponsor a series of themed events and activities to help define downtown’s next decade of progress and the steps needed to get there, leading to the development of a strategic plan.

Downtown continues to boom with new housing units; the BIA will initiate discussion on how to continue that growth and what role the district should play in supporting its continuation.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Putting Views Into Action

Per our earlier post regarding the so-called "Miller Amendment", the Tacoma City Council's Neighborhoods & Housing Committee will continue their exploration of this topic at their next meeting, August 8th.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber has weighed in on the City Council's decision to maintain, amend or abolish the Miller Amendment--in real terms, deciding whether or not to continue City Council oversight on subsidized housing projects. The City's original adoption of this process came in response to the Chamber's request (based itself upon the requests of downtown business and property owners) to limit the number of "below market" projects and allow downtown's demographics to become more balanced over time.

"Ten years later", the Chamber observes, "we submit that the effort has been successful and that downtown demographics are becoming more balanced as a result. Despite this progress, downtown is not there yet. Downtown's demographics are still significantly skewed to lower income, and even the plethora of projects currently in the pipeline--should they all come to fruition, which is in no way certain--won't alter the profile enough to bring about the desired balance.

"Downtown also lacks any comprehensive housing strategy that would provide a vision for its future development", the Chamber concludes; "lacking this kind of guidance, the best that the City of Tacoma can do may be to let the market seek equilibrium without any subsidies."

Councilmembers Baarsma, Fey, Manthou and Stenger need to hear from members of the downtown community regarding this issue. We'll post results here as they become known...