Thursday, September 28, 2006

Another Viewpoint on the 'Wall of Shame'

Much--perhaps too much--has been already written about what some are now calling the Washington History Museum's "wall of shame" and its opposition by downtown stakeholders, led by blogger Kevin Freitas (who first broke the issue).

City of Tacoma officials issued a stop-work order earlier this week on a brick wall under construction which WSHS intended to commemorate those who helped save Union Station from demolition in the early 1990s. The wall would partially block the view of the Chihuly Bridge of Glass from Pacific Ave. and virtually preclude any hope of someday opening direct pedestrian access.

We're pleased to see how much the recommendations from Project for Public Spaces' workshop (which we co-sponsored) has informed debate on this issue--one more reason to remain confident that the final report will not become "shelf art" anytime soon. Participants in that event--like Erik Bjornson, who is heading up one of the implementation committees--will continue to carry forward the effort begun this past May.

We're not so pleased to see the ongoing lack of communication that seems to plague so much in downtown. Museum officials sought and received a building permit and approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission without any objection from City officials. This is reminiscent of the lack of coordination between the City and Sound Transit that will lead to yet another tearing up of Pacific Ave. in the near future. Isn't it time we started doing better?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Cutting Downtown's Wires--How Close?

Dan Voelpel's column today announces that members of the Rainier Communications Commission have recommended CenturyTel to build a wireless broadband network in Pierce County with equipment provider SkyPilot. Dan--who has long been a proponent for free wireless Internet access in Tacoma--tells his readers that they "won’t have to imagine for long.
...[t]he Wi-Fi quilt--among the largest in the country when finished--will start unfurling over Pierce County as soon as November."

CenturyTel is proposing a multi-million dollar investment in Pierce County. First, the company will build pilot projects in several of the member jurisdictions--smaller suburban cities--of the RCC. Following an evaluation of these projects, CenturyTel will begin work on a county-wide wireless network, primarily as a backup for public safety that crosses jurisdictional boundaries. Residents and businesses will receive free service during a 60-day test period in the pilot project areas, which may include downtown Tacoma.

A limited-capacity, free Wi-Fi service is planned for full deployment with higher capacity Internet services offered to citizens throughout the county at a competitive price. This is the model already being explored by Oakland County, MI--and it's a good one.

The BIA is excited about the prospect of wireless Internet access throughout downtown Tacoma, especially for great public spaces like the Plaza, but there are still some hurdles to clear. We're completing an update of our earlier white paper on wireless Internet prepared for the Tacoma Technology Consortium and we've been asked to participate in a focus group for the RCC next month. Despite winning the competition for a request for proposals, CenturyTel may find it harder than Dan thinks to build out a system, because:
  • CenturyTel is a newcomer to the market--their only experience with Wi-Fi is deployment of a mesh network in Vail, CO, now under construction;
  • Participating jurisdictions must make available the use of streetlights, utility poles and other tall structures (“vertical mounting assets”)--closely guarded assets with a high market value, and especially problematic in Tacoma where they are not controlled by the City [Note: this idea may not even be working in Vail, according to this news story];
  • Local public safety officials remain skeptical of the security of any wireless network.
Nevertheless, there are many good features of the CenturyTel proposal. A mesh network is pretty much the only way, other than owning your own frequency like Clearwire, to operate a system that's reliable--and reliability, not security, is really the selling point for most users. Both Clearwire and CenturyTel are expected to launch local services this November, and either will provide significant new benefits to those who want to experience downtown's great public spaces.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Opportunities Abound to Get Involved

Local governments and agencies want to hear from downtown businesses about a number of planned actions on the near horizon. Here are two opportunities to stand and deliver your opinion:
  • This Friday, September 29th, beginning at 9:00 a.m. at the Swiss Tavern (19th & Jefferson), consultants for the University of Washington - Tacoma will review the economic impacts of closing Market St. & 19th St. There has been previous discussion concerning moving traffic from Market to Pacific Ave. and Tacoma Ave.; other impacts may include removal of dozens of parking spaces and changes in traffic circulation. If you are interested in attending, be sure to RSVP to Marty Campbell with the Downtown Merchants Group, (253) 376-3774.
  • Sound Transit is studying options for new routes to connect Tacoma Dome Station to 'M' St. , allowing expanded Sounder service from Tacoma to Lakewood. A feasibility study is underway on a section of track and street crossings in the 'D' to 'M' St. corridor. The agency has sponsored a Community Open House on Thursday, October 5th from 5:00 - 7:00 p.m. in the Phoenix Room at Freighthouse Square (440 E 25th St.).

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Yeast of These: Rise of Tacoma's Creative Class

32 invitees from all sectors of the Pierce County community joined a team led by author and George Mason University public policy professor Richard Florida last week for the world's first Creative Cities Leadership Seminar, an event designed to supercharge the region's economic development efforts.

Accounts offered by Florida and The News Tribune columnist Dan Voelpel agree that the event was a successful one. Sponsored by the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, the seminar brought together a truly diverse group of local leaders and emerging leaders, encouraging them to find common causes. This group will spend the next year developing and pushing a series of initiatives designed to boost the appeal of Tacoma-Pierce County as a center for creativity.

They plan to do this via a series of projects, which include the following:
  • Events aimed at catalyzing nightlife and social centers in Tacoma-Pierce County;
  • An initiative to leverage local green-technology and building companies to cultivate a niche green-technology sector;
  • Stimulating economic growth and diversity by encouraging an ethnic eateries district;
  • Forming a committee that will encourage local community and business organizations to adopt proactive acceptance policies for people from all walks of life;
  • Creating an arts and culture center aimed at facilitating people seeking professional careers in the arts; and
  • Establishing a communications team that will keep the public informed of efforts as they move forward, encourage central focus and stimulate community input.

Florida's contends that attracting and retaining high-quality talent, technology and broad tolerance--rather than massive infrastructure projects such as sports stadiums, convention centers and shopping developments--has become the key to urban prosperity.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Four Stars in Our Eyes

Downtown Tacoma is having such a great week--with significant new hope for long-delayed renovation of the controversial Winthrop Hotel and new owners for the long-neglected Elks' Temple--that we might be excused if we dream a little...

Todd Matthews has a great article today in the Tacoma Daily Index on the Davenport Hotel in Spokane, its restoration, and the relevancy of that story to Tacoma's Winthrop. Todd has been doing a great job of making the City of Tacoma's newspaper of record something more than a wrapping for legal notices, and this article is no exception; it includes original interview material with folks involved with the Davenport's rebirth as a four-star hotel.

"If Spokane can do it, certainly Tacoma can do it," said Tom McArthur during a telephone interview with Matthews. McArthur, a former newspaper reporter who fell in love with the hotel nearly a decade ago, now serves as its communications director. He sees similarities between the two hotels--both were neglected over the years, ignored by locals, and were touchstone reminders of each city's downtown blight.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Temple to Progress?

In 1998, Tacoma’s city center was plagued with dilapidated buildings in key, visible locations. Then the BIA undertook a campaign to to clean up key dilapidated properties in downtown Tacoma. The organization identified the nine most egregious properties (tagging them the "Neglected Nine"), contacted each of the property owners, provided expert teams to examine each building and offered a status report recommending appropriate action(s); subsequently, the BIA prepared marketing materials to assist real estate professionals in promoting each building for sale or lease. At the same time, the BIA filed formal complaints with the City of Tacoma to begin enforcement proceedings on all nine buildings. One of the nine buildings was the former Elks Temple, an eyesore at one of the gateways to downtown.

After years of effort, the Elks Lodge will change hands as part of a deal expected to wrap up this week with Williams & Dame Development. The Portland-based firm specializes in renovation and redevelopment of underused and undeveloped land. Williams & Dame has been creating visionary residential and mixed-use developments for more than two decades with projects in Portland's Pearl District and Los Angeles' South Park District, among others.

Saved By the Sell (For Now)

Members of the Tacoma City Council were spared more difficult deliberations with the announcement late yesterday that A.F. Evans Development had signed a letter of intent giving developers Tim Quigg and Chester Trabucco 30 days to decide whether to purchase the building from the Oakland-based non-profit developer. The Council's subsequent adoption of Resolution 36969 was by then an almost foregone conclusion.

Councilmembers nevertheless played out the suspense and ended up voting along previously drawn lines supporting or opposing Evans: Councilmembers Jake Fey, Rick Talbert, Sprio Manthou, and Mayor Bill Baarsma voted against the loan resolution while Councilmembers Tom Stenger, Bill Evans, Connie Ladenburg, Julie Anderson, and Deputy Mayor Mike Lonergan supported it. Ladenburg was the swing vote, ultimately coming down in support of the deal.

That's not the end of the story, though--not by a long shot. While Quigg and Trabucco are expected Friday to put $250,000 toward a $6.1 million purchase price for the Winthrop, the clock is ticking on the big dollar fundraising needed to make their dream of turning the Winthrop into a four-star, historic hotel into a reality.

The annnouncement of the entry of Coast Hotels as one of their partners shows that Quigg and Trabucco are rapidly gaining traction. Coast properties include the Benson Hotel in Portland and the Paramount hotels in Portland and Seattle.

Expect more twists and turns in this continuing drama--and harder decisions to come for members of the City Council.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Another Delay for Winthrop Vote?

Postponed for one week on September 11th, the Tacoma City Council's controversial vote for a $1 million loan guarantee to A.F. Evans Development may be delayed again this evening.

At their Study Session this afternoon, Councilmembers were presented with five additional (and to various degrees, daunting) uncertainties and issues engendered by the Oakland-based non-profit developer's request. As a package, the five documents just presented to City leaders comprise more than adequate reason for further delay.

Brother, Can You Spare the Time?

If you're tired of being delayed by panhandlers, donate a few minutes of your time to the Tacoma City Council tonight.

Councilmembers will hear testimony about panhandling during a public hearing which begins at 5:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers in the Tacoma Municipal Building. The hearing is being held to gather public input on a new ordinance that will, in general, prohibit:
  1. Panhandling directed at traffic;
  2. "Coercive" panhandling;
  3. Panhandling at places where citizens are particularly isolated and vulnerable.
The proposal comes after citizen complaints about panhandling throughout the city, from freeway off-ramps to downtown streets. Revisions were made to an earlier draft ordinance after receiving input from a variety of stakeholders, including the BIA's Security Advisory Committee. The city already has language on the books regarding panhandling, but it doesn't go as far as the proposed ordinance.

Panhandling is defined as "solicitations for immediate employment, goods, services, financial aid or monetary gifts to the occupants of vehicles on public roadways" and would be prohibited under the proposed ordinance when the activity:
  • Distracts drivers;
  • Obstructs or impedes the orderly flow of traffic;
  • Causes traffic congestion;
  • Creates traffic and safety hazards that pose a danger to the solicitors;
  • Creates traffic and safety hazards that pose a danger to the persons solicited; or
  • Creates traffic and safety hazards that pose a danger to the traveling public in general
If you plan to attend tonight and testify, please contact Assistant City Attorney Kim Gerhardt at (253) 591-5917.

Monday, September 18, 2006

13th St. Closure

Work begins today on S. 13th St. from Tacoma Ave. to Commerce St. The Public Works Engineering Division has awarded the contract to Woodworth & Company to grind and overlay the street, install required ADA ramps at every intersection and create curb bulb outs will at Market and at Broadway. No work will occur on Tacoma Ave. or Commerce St.--only the roads in between.

13th St. will be closed from Tacoma Ave. down to Commerce St. from now through November 17th. Market and Broadway will remain open in a north/south direction across 13th, but no turns will be allowed onto 13th; Court ‘C’ will become a two-way street accessible from 11th St. (but not 13th) so that persons parking in the lower level of the Tacoma Center Market St. garage can access that facility.

Project contacts are as follows:

Mike Bradley
Woodworth & Co.
Project Manager

Justin Davis
City of Tacoma

Taking the Pulse of Living in the Heart (II)

The diverse panel at Friday's City Center Luncheon addressed problems and prospects for the continued growth of market rate housing in Tacoma's downtown.

This author kicked off the discussion by highlighting the fact that the downtown housing boom is a phenomenon seen across North America and relating some of the factors that are making it happen. Lawrence O. Houstoun Jr., principal in the Atlantic Group, compiled the following list, which was quoted at the meeting:
  • Experience opportunities, which he defines as the concentration of things to do and see in urban centers,
  • Changing views about urban crime,
  • The effects of business improvement districts,
  • The rise in single person households, and
  • Remarkable and persistent low mortgage rates.
Next up was blogger Derek Young, the author of and creator of the comprehensive Condo Project Map, an interactive online tool citing the reality--and rumors--of residential projects in Tacoma's City Center. Derek discussed the importance of public safety as a necessary foundation for urban living, highlighted the need for balancing housing with office and retail uses, and cited the current lack of retail services as a real shortcoming for downtown's attractiveness as a place to live. Of course, Derek has provided his own take on the event on his blog.

Colleen Walker, the real estate agent who is selling condos for Intracorp's CitySteps project, identified the three questions that potential buyers typically ask:
  1. How safe is downtown Tacoma?
  2. Where's the shopping?
  3. Can new development in this area block its current views?
Colleen reported that she has thus far sold 17 of the 40 condos for sale in the development, located in an emerging area of downtown at 2100 Yakima Ave.

Finally, Thea's Landing resident Darren Brewster discussed how it feels to be an urban living pioneer in Tacoma today. Darren works for the World Trade Center Tacoma and thus has virtually no commute. He was effusive in his listing of exciting things to do downtown, but echoed the earlier speakers in underscoring the foundational importance of public safety and in yearning for more retail enterprises.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Taking the Pulse of Living in the Heart (I)

Earlier today, this quarter's City Center Luncheon focused on downtown housing with the exploration of perspectives from both public and private sector leaders.

Ryan Petty, director for the City of Tacoma's Community & Economic Development Department, began the process by recapping a presentation he made to the Tacoma City Council on August 22nd. The presentation reviewed the current status of housing in Tacoma's urban center and laid out a variety of potential policy options.

As currently defined, Petty stated, downtown has about 1,260 residences; approximately 47% are classified as low income. To date, there are an additional 1,400 units under construction or permitted with 300 more units approved by the City Council under the Property Tax Exemption Program; of these new units, 137 are for low-income seniors, 60 for special needs families, and all the others are market rate.

Petty related goals for housing already adopted by the City of Tacoma:

  • Maintain and support vibrant and stable residential neighborhoods
  • Promote a variety of housing opportunities for Tacoma’s citizens at all income levels
  • Support the development of both market rate and affordable housing throughout the city
  • Insure that any new affordable housing development is not concentrated in any single neighborhood or group of neighborhoods

He then presented two goals that support those above while also recognizing the current concentration of low income residences in downtown:

  • Support and encourage mixed income housing development
  • Reduce the isolation of low and very low income households
Petty and his staff have proposed to the City Council that the current Central Business District, Stadium District, and Martin Luther King areas should be combined--for housing purposes--into a larger Downtown. They support this recommendation by observing that, visually, it's all perceived as downtown, that the three areas contain the same overall uses and functions, and that the entire area can be tightly “linked” as an urban core by transit services.

Another proposal from Petty and his CEDD staff (originally offered by City Manager Eric Anderson) is to establish mixed income ratio by project and/or by area or vicinity. A typical ratio for such a policy is 80%/20%, where 80% of the units are market rate and 20% of the units are “affordable” (i.e., low income).

In summary, Petty's presentation indicated that members of the City Council are considering the following policy changes:

  1. Require Council approval of any housing development project in the downtown before it can be considered for funding
  2. Establish a dollar limit beyond which Council makes funding decisions
  3. Establish boundaries for a new “large footprint” downtown
  4. Adopt guidelines to encourage mixed income development
  5. Support the above with incentives

Participants in the luncheon also heard from a panel of private sector representatives; their input here on Monday.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

About Last Night...

Members of the Tacoma City Council made the right decision last night in agreeing to postpone approval of a loan guarantee for A.F. Evans Development on the controversial Winthrop Hotel project. Despite pressure on the Oakland-based developer from lenders, the additional time can only bring about a better resolution for all parties--especially downtown stakeholders.

Our testimony at the public hearing was apparently well-received, and we recap the points we made to Council as follows:
  • We support restoration of the Winthrop Hotel;
  • As you [members of the City Council] know, the area around the Winthrop has been a tremendous drain on resources from the BIA (funded by downtown property owners) and from the Tacoma Police Department. This public disorder has been exacerbated by the unwillingness of current management to work with community stakeholders for a solution. Whatever use you eventually support for the Winthrop, we hope that you will make management of this property a high priority in your considerations;
  • It's gratifying to see the amount of public input--from blogs to letters to the editor--generated by this decision...this is the most discussed decision in downtown Tacoma since, well, the decision to rename the Plaza! Downtown is once again developing a robust sense of community, and future decisions will engender a much broader sample of input...
  • It's equally gratifying to see the expansion in the number of parties willing to invest their money in this building's future; we have encouraged discussion and, hopefully, new partnerships among those parties. We hope you will do the same.

For a broader sample of the voices raised on this subject, please check out the robust discussion on Derek Young's blog.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Wanted: Responsible Owners for the Winthrop Hotel

Tomorrow evening, the members of the Tacoma City Council may put the final touches to a transfer of ownership for Tacoma's long-debated Winthrop Hotel. While there are many aspects to the public debate that has surrounded this pending sale, one issue is of particular concern to downtown property owners--that the sheer size of the 190-unit complex makes it critical that it be well-managed.

It's been well documented that the area around the Winthrop requires an inordinate amount of attention from BIA security patrols and the Tacoma Police Department. A key principle in addressing public disorder is the need for organizations and programs to mitigate their community impacts in cooperation with other stakeholders. This principle has gained greater recognition from the larger community through deliberations of such groups as the Blue Ribbon Task Force and the Service Tax Task Force, among others. The Tacoma community is becoming increasingly demanding that the impacts of service providers of any type be borne by those providers; this has long been the standard imposed by the community on for-profit operations.

Coast Real Estate Services, the current managers of the Winthrop, have been egregious in their failure to mitigate the community impacts engendered by their complex. They have been unwilling even to allow their representatives to take part in community dialog.

Many community members, including members of the Tacoma City Council, have taken solace from their sense that A.F. Evans Development, the Oakland-based non-profit in line to purchase the complex, will be a better manager; yet the Lake Washington Apartments in Rainier Beach, co-owned the past 10 years by Evans, are reportedly plagued by drug dealing, shootings, beatings, syringes on lawns, stolen mail, feces and urine in the hallways, and discarded condoms in the laundry rooms.

The third party to consider as possible managers for the Winthrop is the group being organized by Tim Quigg, a principal in Quigg Brothers, Inc. Quigg is currently partnering on the restoration of the Morck Hotel in Aberdeen with Seattle developer Chester Trabucco, who also rehabilitated the Hotel Elliott in Astoria, OR. Will Quigg and his partners offer better management for the Winthrop than either of the current parties? This is a critical question that deserves investigation by City of Tacoma leaders before they close out other options.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Managing Tollefson Plaza

Despite all the recent attention paid Tollefson (formerly Pacific) Plaza, there's still not much going on there--at least not on a regular basis. As the report from Project for Public Spaces noted, "activation" of that public space will take management--proactive oversight by an entity made up of "zealous nuts" who will act professionally yet with passion.

A committee pulling together representatives from the BIA, City of Tacoma, Metropolitan Parks District, and neighbors around the Plaza has begun meeting and hopes to have completed a draft business plan for just such a management entity by month's end. The vehicle is likely to be a non-profit patterned after Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square, Inc., a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization created to manage the downtown park known as the city's "living room".

Meanwhile, exciting new ideas for activities in Tollefson Plaza continue to roll in to this office. Watch for a preview of some of the most interesting ones in a future post.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Downtown Housing - The Big(ger) Picture

As readers of this blog will know from our post earlier this week, the Tacoma City Council is expected next week to take action to help Oakland-based A.F. Evans Development to pursue plans to renovate the controversial Winthrop Hotel and continue its use as a center for low-income housing.

Downtown activists continue to fight Evans' aquisition of the former hotel. Attorney Erik Bjornson has posted a very articulate summation of why the Winthrop should be redeveloped as a hotel, and a group led by local business owner Tim Quigg hopes to rally enough support to bankroll such an effort as an alternative to Evans' plan. Blogger Kevin Freitas is running another poll to sound out community feelings, but the hotel option probably has the edge. After all, that's why the Winthrop was built in the first place through another community effort in the early 1900s.

Newspaper columnist Peter Callaghan has struggled (in terms reminiscent of this blog) to find a middle path--restoring the Winthrop as a grand hotel while using current residents' vouchers, along with other grants and loans available for low-income housing, to support development of other new housing.

The Winthrop issue is a crucial one for the future of downtown, and next Tuesday's decision will be pivotal, but it will hardly be the final decision on the building. And, the ultimate long-term use for the Winthrop is just part of the bigger picture of downtown housing (covered in a previous post)--an area which is also undergoing some long-deserved new scrutiny.

Next Friday, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber's quarterly City Center Luncheon will examine many facets of the current housing picture. Attendees will hear a report on current consideration by the Tacoma City Council of expanding the definition of downtown and strategies to support the current boom in market rate units. A housing developer, a real estate agent marketing condo units in a transitional area, and one of the urban center's pioneering young residents will also present their varied perspectives on this issue.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Another Meaning for 'Transient Hotel'?

On September 12, the Tacoma City Council will consider awarding an additional $1,000,000 in taxpayer funds to developer A.F. Evans Development, allowing the Oakland-based non-profit to keep the Winthrop operating as a high-density apartment complex.

Mayor Bill Baarsma has likened the decision on near-term redevelopment of the Winthrop as similar in importance to that of the decision to renovate Union Station and the redevelopment that followed. Meanwhile, local developer Tim Quigg is working diligently on a proposal to restore the Winthrop Hotel along with a team of architects, preservationists, historians, craftsmen and Tacoma residents.

Many downtown stakeholders active in the ongoing debate over the Winthrop are afraid that the proposed action would effectively extinguish citizen efforts to restore the historical Winthrop Hotel as a working hotel downtown. Purchase by Evans seems sure to close out the hope that the Winthrop can once again be what it was designed to be--an elegant lodging in a burgeoning, renewed downtown.

Readers who care about the future of the Winthrop should take the time right now to weigh in with members of the Tacoma City Council on this issue.

Pending the outcome of next Tuesday's vote, some additional light may be glimmering at the end of the tunnel. One of Evans' divisions is all about acquisition/rehabilitation--is it possible that they might joint venture with Quigg or another interested party?