Wednesday, January 31, 2007

City Council Nixes Tax Break Break

The Tacoma City Council yesterday shot down a staff proposal to drastically limit the kinds of projects eligible for the multifamily tax exemption often credited with helping to revitalize downtown.

The proposal, discussed at an afternoon study session, would have restricted the tax break downtown and near the Tacoma Mall for one year to projects with at least 30 units built densely enough to accommodate 80 units per acre. Several Councilmembers told Planning Division Manager Peter Huffman they wanted to explore ways to push developers to build urban housing that puts more units on small lots, but none was in favor of the proposed interim change. City Manager Eric Anderson said the proposal would be removed from next week’s City Council agenda.

Monday, January 29, 2007

City Council Eyes Curtailing Housing Tax Exemption

Next Tuesday evening, February 6th, the Tacoma City Council will consider enacting a one-year moratorium on the multifamily tax exemption for housing projects in downtown Tacoma with fewer than 30 units or a density lower than 80 units per acre.

In order to implement the proposed moratorium, the Council would have to declare an emergency, permitting the ordinance to be adopted without public comment until Tuesday, April 10th--over a month after it is adopted.

The tax incentive is used by many Washington cities and is credited with stimulating much of the demand underpinning the revitalization of downtown Tacoma over the past decade. The incentive has been described as one of the few tools Tacoma has to encourage investment downtown and to revitalize the city.

Why is the City of Tacoma considering implementing this moratorium? There is a concern about the “manner of construction” of some projects within the Tacoma Mall center that have a “lack of pedestrian access improvements.” The city is also concerned that the tax exemption should be “reserved for projects of more significant scale.”

Just as the tax exemption has provided real benefit to downtown revitalization, the proposed moratorium could bring real barriers to downtown's renaissance. The Bridge Condominiums (Marcourt) at 744 Market St. has only has 14 units and encompasses only 54 units per acre, so this model restoration project would not have qualified under the proposed moratorium (which requires a project size of 30 units and 80 units per acre).

The nearby Vintage Y, a historic restoration with only 17 units, would have been barred as well if it had applied for the multifamily tax incentive rather than for an historic tax incentive.

Prium Companies' Foss Waterway project--Nineteen Thirty-Three Dock St.--would also fail to meet the moratorium’s requirements. The project is currently designed to have 90 units on a 1.35-acre lot--only 66.7 units per acre--far short of the moratorium’s requirement of 80 residential units per acre. The Prium project fails the moratorium’s requirement as much of the space of the project is currently designed to be commercial and retail but the moratorium only counts residential units in its density calculation.

This action seems inconsistent with other policies adopted by the City Council--especially the recent commitment to pursue a denser built environment downtown.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Chamber Supports Stronger Involvement in Sounder Route Selection

Following robust discussion at this morning’s Board of Directors meeting, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber agreed to work more closely with Sound Transit to pursue context sensitive solutions in selection of route alternatives and setting design standards in the Dome District for expanded Sounder service.

Directors also embraced the following broad goals by which to measure design and routing alternatives:

  • 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
  • Improve the sense of entry to Downtown Tacoma and the Dome District

Directors tabled a motion to convene a new Programming & Design Summit, agreeing instead to work through the regional agency’s ongoing outreach efforts to examine alternative routing, reach community consensus and expedite action on the preferred alternative that results.

Chamber Chair Dave Senner observed that the routing decision “is a long-term decision that won’t be made again in our lifetimes” and hence needs to be carefully considered. After viewing multiple alternatives under study by Sound Transit—including two displayed in public for the first time anywhere—directors were asked by Pierce County Executive (and Sound Transit chair) John Ladenburg to consider that “the resolution is redundant—we’re already doing that [working with the community to foster broad public involvement].” Ladenburg and Sound Transit Executive Director Joni Earl invited directors and other Chamber members to participate in meetings that will culminate with a final alignment selected in April.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

BIA, TPD Patrols Will Target North End

BIA Security Patrol personnel and Tacoma police officers will be stepping up activity to combat public disorder during the next several weeks.

Last week's meeting with stakeholders from the Theater District and surrounding area of downtown confirmed the need for more targeted intervention. While the stepped up patrol activity will be somewhat random and details are not available in advance, late night ("graveyard shift") patrols and sweeps through the areas around the Winthrop and Olympus hotels will clearly be part of the process.

Business managers, property owners and residents from the north end of the BIA will receive regular reports (after the fact) on patrol activity and its results. Stakeholders who have not yet signed up for e-mail or telephone lists for this purpose should contact the BIA.

The BIA has organized a meeting later this week that will assemble representatives from the Law Enforcement Support Agency (LESA), Pierce Transit, Sound Transit, Tacoma Police and other agencies to examine how surveillance cameras might be put to use for enhanced security downtown. Participants will also learn how one vendor has begun linking camera systems from different platforms to more effectively increase "eyes on the street" in other downtowns.

Monday, January 22, 2007

BIA Mission, Strategies Profiled

John Gillie's interview in this morning's edition of The News Tribune captures the BIA's mission and strategies quite well; it also highlights the genesis and rason d'etra of this blog.

We will strive to live up to the ethos articulated in the final paragraph:

I think we’ve done a lot of the right things. The biggest danger is if we just coast and stop generating new ideas. You’ve got to keep improving what you’re doing all the time.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Theater District Kicks Off Security Effort

Business managers, property owners and residents from the north end of the BIA met Wednesday afternoon and kicked off a broad-based initiative to strengthen their response to unwanted street activity.

The meeting began with a cataloging of some of the measures already in place to combat public disorder, including:
  • Targeted late-night patrols by BIA and Tacoma police (TPD) addressing tagging and other concerns;

  • Aggressive new management at the Winthrop Hotel working with neighbors to identify and evict problem tenants;

  • Recent success in apprehending the downtown bank robber, preventing car prowls and nabbing taggers.

Attendees agreed to take part in an e-mail alert system and discussed feasibiity of setting up a phone tree for similar purposes. Sign-up by the BIA's intern collected contact information for both lists. North end business manager, property owners and residents who did not attend this meeting but who would like to be included in these lists should contact Paul Ellis.

The BIA will be working with Tacoma police to design new patrol patterns deploying district and TPD personnel in new patterns to address concerns of meeting attendees. A group organized by the BIA will also be investigating use of surveillance cameras on downtown streets in the near future.

- Read coverage of the meeting in the Tacoma Daily Index

Thursday, January 18, 2007

'Wall of Shame' for Tollefson Plaza?

Dave Seago's blog yesterday notes that the pedestrian-blocking "Wall of Shame" next to the Washington History Museum may be moving. Save Our Station leaders are looking favorably at a city proposal to move the Century Park project to city-owned Tollefson Plaza, across the street and to the north of the museum.

City Manager Eric Anderson is said to be enthusiastic about the plan, and it is also reported that the city would pay the cost of installing the park and a large metal sculpture of an old locomotive at Tollefson Plaza.

This may be a great idea for resolving the current friction over the stalled project, but does it help or hurt "activation" of the Plaza? How long can we continue to add elements to that public space without a master plan? Who's watching out for the highest and best use of the space?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Addressing Public Disorder in the Theater District

Downtown Tacoma has become markedly safer during the past two decades, at least in part because of the efforts of the BIA. Creation of the district in 1988 brought private security patrols to bear on undesirable street activity, in tandem with deployment of the nation's first "cops on bikes" funded through the district.

In recent years, the BIA has changed direction somewhat to involve a broader range of community members in security activities. Over the past few years, the BIA Security Program has assembled property owners, businesses and security professionals to quickly and effectively address public disorder.

This afternoon, the BIA has organized a meeting of business and property owners in the Theater District to kick off the formation of a more formal network there, too. Interested community members can participate in this meeting, which begins promptly at 4:00 p.m. in the renovated lobby of the Pantages Center.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Chamber on Board with Sounder Re-Routing?

The Board of Directors for the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber will consider a resolution next week that encourages Sound Transit to pursue more context sensitive solutions through the Dome District for expanded Sounder service, identifies key community goals for project design, and offers to convene a Programming & Design Summit to bring together public and private interests.

Earlier this year, two community groups expressed concerns about the routing of this project and invited the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Southwest Washington to develop new project alternatives that would, in their view, better support local economic development goals. In November, the Chamber’s City Center Luncheon examined these alternatives.

If approved by business leaders, provisions of the Chamber's resolution will be advocated with Sound Transit, which is expected to address the issue at their February 22nd meeting.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Get Your Share of Tax Savings

The Washington State Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development has accepted recommendations from the City of Tacoma and the Tacoma Community Redevelopment Authority for $12 million in Commercial Revitalization Deductions (CRD) to be awarded to four commercial building projects in Tacoma:

  • 1201 'J' St. LLC for the “First Swedish Baptist Church” Building: $340,000
  • Dotcom Associates 1 LLC for the “Kress Payless” Building: $8,250,000
  • Sun-In Holdings LLC trans-load facility: $350,000
  • Atrium Court LLC on behalf of future commercial owners: $3,060,500

The benefits to these projects include a reduced federal tax bill and an increased ability to make their projects “pencil” by giving owners financial relief early in the projects when they incur the most expenses. The CRD allocation is one of several tools afforded downtown business and property owners through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Renewal Community (RC) designation. Tacoma is the only place in Puget Sound--and one of only 29 urban communities around the country--to maintain the designation with a variety of federal tax credits and deductions through 2009.

The Atrium Court Office Condominiums still have five units available for purchase. Future owners can write off their share of the award amount off their income taxes--ranging from about $204,000 to almost $250,000 (depending on size of unit purchased)--as a deduction from their income. For more information, contact Don Arsenault at (253) 759-5000.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

No Stalling on South Garage Project

As anticipated, the City of Tacoma is moving ahead with plans to partner with a private developer to rehabilitate the 36-year-old Park Plaza South. The proposed $32.5 million renovation would create two new floors of Class 'A' office space and 104 additional city-owned parking spaces, and would revamp 30,000 square feet of retail space along Pacific Ave.

The City plans to fund the overall cost of approximately $9.5 million through $2 million reserved for deferred maintenance and nearly $8 million in 20-year bonds, according to a presentation during yesterday to the Tacoma City Council's Economic Development Committee. The City would assemble the parcels along Pacific Ave., and Pacific Plaza LLC--a partnership between PCS Structural Solutions and Absher Construction Company--would purchase and develop the building, then sell the parking stalls back to the City. In the end, the city would run 485 parking stalls and the partners would own office (both companies plan to move their own enterprises into the new space) and retail spaces. The City would assemble the properties through purchase and acquisition or--if necessary--eminent domain.

Park Plaza South needs as much as $7 million in deferred maintenance, including retrofit work to make the garage structurally sound, so the project seems a most reasonable alternative. Once the City gives them a green light, the partners believe that they can kick off redevelopment of the garage as early as this summer--although the City has yet to contact merchants and property owners to discuss the idea. The committee unanimously approved a "do-pass" recommendation to assemble the property, seek revenue bonds, and enter into a development agreement, but action still requires full City Council approval--expected next month.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Prium Begins Winthrop Transformation

The long-awaited purchase by Prium Companies of the controversial Winthrop Hotel is supposed to be completed next week, but the developer needs 18 to 24 months to build new housing so the hotel’s low-income tenants can relocate.

After that, Prium plans to restore the building to its traditional use as a hotel with retail space for a restaurant, coffee shop and flower shop. The company also promises to work with the City of Tacoma to develop parking plans to benefit both the hotel and the larger downtown.

The Tacoma City Council is expected tonight to approve a loan to Prium for $2 million in federal Urban Development Action Grant dollars. The money is to be paid back within five years and carries an interest rate of 4 percent.

Hillclimbs Redefined

As one of the outcomes of last year's Project for Public Spaces workshop, the BIA encouraged several committee efforts to address various topics. One of these groups looked at the need to better define pedestrian paths up and down the city centers' hills.

Local attorney Erik Bjornson and architect Ko Wibowo have been examining downtown's hillclimbs for several months now--finding them to be full of blind spots, sharp corners, empty benches, and otherwise unsettling elements. Using Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities as their guide, the pair set out to find ways to increase area foot traffic and improve passageways currently pretty much avoided by pedestrians.
Wibowo has prepared a sketch of their improvement ideas, which include new retail spaces, widened walkways, and outdoor public seating. The pair also quit walking long enough to complete an interview with the Tacoma Daily Index. They have been invited to make a more formal presentation of their findings to the City Center Luncheon on February 9th.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Eclectic Kool-Aid Acid Test?

Ed Murrieta's blog Ed's Diner over at The News Tribune has started a very lively dialog about downtown parking, dining and retail that is worth reviewing. His January 4th post, entitled Mommy, that downtown Kool-Aid tastes funny, unleashed a torrent of responses from an eclectic mix of readers.

Murrieta quotes an e-mail from a (unnamed) downtown restauranteur who is "angry for having drunk the Downtown Revival Kool-Aid." The implication is that the promises of revitalization have been a hallucination--at least for some segments of the community:
The restaurants came. Where's the retail? More condos are coming. Where's
the retail?

It's well-established in real estate circles that restaurants are often the pioneers in districts on the rebound. It's equally clear that they can't survive indefinitely without a broader mix of stores and activities.

One respondent to Murietta's post cites a lack of available on street parking as the deterrent; Murietta rejects that explanation and so do most experts. Parking and transit are services that can support retail growth either well or poorly, but they don't drive that growth.

Murietta's readers offer lots of good suggestions for types of retail that ought to blossom downtown, but they and he don't ask the seminal question: What group is charged with enticing that new retail downtown?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

BIA 'Grafitti Patrol' Tags Taggers

Due to continued heavy graffiti defacing properties near 7th & Broadway, the BIA and Tacoma Police jointly staged a special "graffiti patrol" over the past two weekends, fielding covert operations during the "graveyard" shift when most of the damage was occurring. In the early morning of January 1st, the BIA/TPD team apprehended five taggers.

BIA patrol members John Leitheiser and Charles Kempel spotted four of the taggers and contacted TPD officer Jeff Thiry, who made the arrest; a second TPD officer was called for backup when Kempel observed a fifth suspect moving away from the scene; this suspect was also apprehended. A search of the suspects by TPD revealed eleven cans of spray paint, and all five were booked into jail for destruction of property.

The success of this approach may lead to repeat efforts as the district's budget allows. One of more other taggers hit Davita and other properties around 15th & Pacific overnight last night.