Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Split the Difference?

For many cities, the establishment of a vibrant downtown is seen as an end in itself. Lively downtowns, though, create a whole new set of challenges--including issues of policing and security; noise; litter and trash; gentrification and displacement.

Lively downtowns feature a mix of uses that are split amongst different sets of people throughout a twenty-four hour day. The same building may have office space that is used during the day, a restaurant that is bustling in the evening and residential lofts that are occupied overnight. Sidewalks provide outdoor seating and public facilities, venues for street vendors and entertainers; sidewalks are the stages upon which urban life is played out. These ever-changing uses and crowds make such split-use districts hubs of activity that can lead to urban vitality--and conflicts.

Along with this growth comes the inevitable “growing pains” as more people move into downtown and more empty buildings are refurbished into restaurants, bars and nightclubs. The BIA recognizes that accommodating the influx of residents living in close proximity to hospitality zones requires a more efficient process to sustain the economic and social benefits of hospitality while reducing the potentially negative impacts on public safety and residents' quality of life. This end can be pursued through imposition of new, stricter municipal regulations--like those the City of Seattle is currently considering--or through a collaborative effort of the impacted parties.

We prefer the later course of action; accordingly, we're hosting a meeting tomorrow afternoon to gather interested parties and begin the dialog:

Wednesday, May 2nd
3:30 - 5:00 p.m.
Pantages Center Lobby
The primary goal for this meeting will be to help local businesses, residents and property owners create standards and expectations to reduce conflicts, establish a more objective mediation process and develop support systems for hospitality businesses. This approach is in line with other recent initiatives, like the Blue Ribbon Task Force, that emphasize the need for “good neighbor” agreements supported by municipal code.


  1. Interesting scheduling of the meeting. Seems like having it in the afternoon precludes the attendance of the working professionals who will actually be the ones living, working, and eating in these split-use districts...

    But on the positive side, I'm glad to see movement in the direction of encouraging around-the-clock use of our downtown, which will definitely add to the vitality of our downtown. And it is also encouraging to see at least some level of proactivity on avoiding problems down the road.

  2. After looking into the matter and discussing it with various stakeholders downtown, there are a number of concerns that have arisen concerning the proposal to establish an "Entertainment District" downtown as urged by the "Responsible Hospitality Institute" which you have referred us to.

    Underwriters for Responsible Hospitality Institute

    First, four out of 5 of underwriters of the "Responsible Hospitality Institute" who propose the creation of an "Entertainment District" are national liquor trade associations or liquor manufacturers

    National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
    Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, Inc.
    Distilled Spirits Council of the United States
    National Beer Wholesalers Association


    For instance, Distilled Spirits Council of the United States states that it is "[l]ocated in Washington, DC, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States is a national trade association representing America's leading brands of distilled spirits."


    Consequences of Creating an "Entertainment District"

    Second, the Responsible Hospitality Institute urges cities to adopt a "Entertainment District" which basically lowers the standard of behavior for bars, nightclubs in the district with a certain prescribed area downtown. See the attached "Right to Downtown" which was downloaded from their web site.

    Most troubling is the language that if you live within a certain area of downtown you are notified that "One or more inconveniences may occur as a result of downtown operations" and "...you should be prepared to accept such inconveniences or discomfort as a necessary and aspect of owning, living in, operating a business in, or otherwise utilizing an area" downtown. See page 3 of attachment.

    Worse, the creation of an "Entertainment District" would make some activity that would normally be considered a nuisance in other areas of a city no longer a nuisance in the "Entertainment District." Yet, the Tacoma City Council has just passed a nuisance ordinance would normally apply downtown.

    Thus, the designation would take away some of our ability to police the area or control nuisance behavior even though the Theater District has had a long history of problems concerned with alcohol abuse and continues to be in the Alcohol Impact Area.

    Regardless of the form it takes, an "Entertainment District" is a city designated area where a lower expectation for behavior is demanded especially as it relates to the consumption of alcohol.

    Correspondence with Jim Peters, the President of Second, the Responsible Hospitality Institute

    The statement of the president of RHI is also disconcerting who stated on your BIA blog
    "If Laura would like I can refer her to developers and residential organizations in other cities where conflicts led to lawsuits over misrepresentation and protests to city council and police to "fix the problem" of the noise from restaurants, clubs, early morning deliveries, trash trucks etc." See attached and below.


    The RHI president outright dismisses complaints to police and city council members. He characterizes such reporting as "misrepresentation and protest."

    Yet, Tacoma Downtown merchants have worked closely with the BIA and the police to have many people arrested in the Theater District and evicted from their residence due to criminal behavior. Without their close cooperation, the area would be in far worse shape it is now.

    Appropriate Use and Name of Theater District

    With the Panatges, Rialto, and Theater on the Square as the predominate functions downtown as well as City Hall itself, it appears the Theater District is already properly named, branded and the intended use is set.

    The Elks Building, Winthrop Hotel and the Old City Hall will be restored within the next couple of years. Downtown merchants in the Theater District sell toys and there are many professional spaces in the area. Theater patrons certainly like to dine and drink. However, I do not believe they would want the area to have a lowered standard of behavior than the rest of the city.

    Also, I don't see the desire of merchants or the council to turn the Theater District becoming a Pioneer Square type area.

    Different Uses Downtown

    From walking through the Theater District daily and speaking to the different members, I do not see a conflict of legitimate uses in the Theater District. In fact, the restaurant/bar owners are for the most part good friends with the other merchants in the area.

    The only use I have heard which conflicts with the Theater District has been illegal activities in which case the BIA or police have been called.

    Although progress has been made, they are still struggling to get the area of 9th and Commerce and Transit Station under control with enough normalcy that people feel comfortable there whenever the light rail is running.

    Pacific Avenue still continues to have problems late at night with illegal activity. Although the Winthrop and Olympus have made some progress, they are still arrests and evictions being made in and/or around these buildings.

    As a mediator with the Pierce County Center for Dispute Resolution, I certainly favor mediation where appropriate. Yet, there can be no mediation when criminal activities occur. The only solution is to call the police or the BIA.


    In the future, Tacoma may need to enact a Night Club Ordinance as Seattle has:


    One benefit is that it holds the night club responsible for unruly patrons rather than forcing the police to deal with them.

    I don't know if Tacoma needs to follow Seattle. We can choose to enact their ordinance, parts of it or nothing at all.

    Yet, if given a choice, I would think than an ordinance in another Washington City would be a better starting place than the proposal from the liquor distributor trade group who has a very narrow interest.

    One resource available examine how other Washington cities handle nuisances and other activities is
    the Municipal Research and Service Center of Washington.


    -Erik Bjornson

  3. Awesome response, Erik. Thorough and astute.

    In reading this entry it struck me that skateboarding is like a microcosm of the kinds of conflict described.

    Where skateboarding occurs downtown, many residents react negatively. Few people see our youth recreating downtown, bringing activity to an otherwise barren corridor. Instead, it seems like most people see thugs on wheels...wantonly destroying property and "escaping" on their boards.

    I believe that it's clear to the BIA and downtown merchants that the "Red Steps" on Pacific (as they are colloquially referred to by skaters) present an almost ideal de facto skatepark, it didn't take long for all of the preventative measures to emerge with little thought to harnessing that activity where it can be most beneficial to the larger community. (Not to mention our youth who WANT to come downtown to recreate...what kind of golden ticket to willing downtown pedestrians do we need?!)

    At any rate, there lies this group of people eager to come downtown during the day, after work, and on the weekends to gather, celebrate their interests, and -even- spend money.

    BUT, we are skateboarders and apparently that's bad. But we're here for Tacoma, ready to be downtown in an active, healthy way. We're not buying booze or smashing bottles or yelling in the streets (or even taking up parking places).

    We just want to be an accepted part of the community like anyone else. What will it take for Tacoma, the BIA, and other downtown stakeholders to realize the benefits of attracting this eager youth community?

  4. Peter:

    I love your youthful enthusiam...You ask "What will it take for Tacoma, the BIA, and other downtown stakeholders to realize the benefits of attracting this eager youth community?"

    What it will take is not having the 100-year-old buildings that old farts like myself have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of our family's money trashed by your youthful enthusiasm when your skateboards slam down onto our storefronts and residences.

  5. The BIA's hope is that we can begin a process of constructive dialog among the varied--often conflicting--groups in this area. An inordinate amount of our resources and those of the City of Tacoma are demanded to address problems in these few blocks on a regular basis, and we'd like to see how we can be more pro-active in addressing issues there.

    This week's meeting is only the first, and it's an outgrowth of previous discussions--and we think most stakeholders will agree, constructive action--around
    ongoing security problems. This meeting is not about changing the name of the district, or promoting drinking, or creating any new legal entity. It's about how we can all work together to manage our common spaces--collectively.

    The alternative to this course of action is likely to be new ordinances imposed upon the area--like what Seattle is proposing. Does anyone locally find that appealing?

  6. I'd be thrilled to see skateboarders in the Pacific/Commerce area. Young people engaged in a legitimate activity sounds great to me.

    How about designating a skateboarding area, or constructing one? One of those empty storefronts on 9th and Pacific would be great for a skate shop. I'm sure there are ways to protect historic buildings if the community were to be proactive about it.

  7. Why not build a skatepark like they have in many Seattle neighhorhoods. The one in Ballard, for instance, is part of a larger family-oriented park, and the vibe there is not the least bit threatening.

    I would hope that nightlife behavior/noise issues can be resolved without an ordinance -- the same thing has led to years of hard feelings in Seattle. Plus, I wouldn't want to do anything that would discourage responsible music venues from opening downtown. A good quality music venue in downtown Tacoma like the Tractor or Crocodile in Seattle could be a key to the improved livability of Tacoma generally and downtown in particular.