Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Renewal Go-Ahead Confirmed

Last Thursday, the BIA Board of Directors confirmed that a majority of ratepayers have returned ballots voting "yes" for renewal of the downtown district as outlined in the prospectus. BIA staff will now prepare the renewal petition for action by the Tacoma City Council.

The BIA only counted responses from private property owners in establishing that the statutory mark of 51% has been attained (actually, it was exceeded), since public entities such as the City of Tacoma, University of Washington Tacoma, and Union Station--which represent more than 30% of the total ratepayer base--can opt out of the assessment.

Expect the renewal petition to be on the City Council docket in early November; in the interim, BIA leaders will be heard at work crafting agreements and finalizing a budget to put the terms of the prospectus into reality beginning May, 2008.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Parking Recommendations Released

A consensus document offering stakeholder recommendations to improve downtown parking is hot off the presses. The twelve-page Improving Downtown Transit & Parking (a ten-page version sans an executive summary was released to the press yesterday) presents the recommendations from the Transit and Parking Advisory Committee, a 12-member group representing a broad variety of stakeholders organized by the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber.
The Transit & Parking Advisory Committee was the driving factor for increased enforcement of downtown parking policies; as a result, considerable on-street parking has become available to visitors, customers and clients of downtown businesses. The committee’s comprehensive report now recommends not only consistent enforcement, but also flexible parking strategies in response to special events and the selective deployment of parking meters.

The Transit & Parking Advisory Committee has identified general recommendations:
  • Maximize efficiency of current transit & parking operations
    Create a strong transit & parking system business plan
  • Enhance communications about the transit & parking system
  • Implement new technology—and use it effectively
  • Institute a “customer care” program
  • Provide flexibility to respond to special events and changing needs
In addition, the Transit & Parking Advisory Committee offers recommendations for some specific policy “hot buttons”:

Coordination & Collaboration
An effective downtown transportation plan should be developed that considers pedestrian, bicycle, carpool, vanpool, bus, rail, Flexcar and parking as coordinated elements of a strategic transportation system. The Transit & Parking Advisory Committee will continue to work with the Commute Trip Reduction programs of both Tacoma and Pierce County to encourage participation from both large and small employers.

Parking Enforcement
The Transit & Parking Advisory Committee encourages the City of Tacoma to more aggressively pursue enforcement against “chain” parking (now termed “moving to evade”) while at the same time encouraging broader support for use of transit and other commute alternatives by employees of member firms in the downtown Tacoma area. A more robust, employer-based transportation demand management (TDM) program should be pursued to provide effective, customer focused alternatives to parking.

Meters—Charging for On-Street Parking
The Transit & Parking Advisory Committee believes that selectively deploying pay stations or other forms of on-street metering has merit for “inventory control” purposes as well as for establishing a stronger revenue package as security for bonding. In the few areas that have sufficient demand consistently with occupancy significantly above 85 percent, the City could install parking meters and begin charging a very minimal amount.

Expenditure of Funds Gathered from On-Street Metering
The City of Tacoma should direct the funds gathered from metering in a distinct neighborhood or subarea of downtown into amenities that will benefit that specific neighborhood. Funds earned in excess of the real costs of operating the metering system should be expended upon clearly-related public improvements such as a streetcar line and/or streetscape improvements. The Transit & Parking Advisory Committee recommends that a stakeholder group be formed or tasked to direct the investment of these funds in the local neighborhood.

Removal of Off-Street Parking Required for New Construction
Removing the off-street parking requirement may allow developers the flexibility to build the amount of parking that the market requires. This step should only be considered, however, within the context of a more robust transportation demand management program than currently exists.

The document was endorsed yesterday morning by the Chamber; previous endorsements were made by the BIA, the Downtown Merchants Group, and the New Tacoma Neighborhood Council.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Not a Developer’s Market?

John Gillie's feature article in Sunday's edition of The News Tribune provides a nice round robin of development projects across the City Center, but it ultimately leaves some important questions unanswered--indeed, unaddressed.

First, let's review what the article said. Gillie rightly observes how several economic factors are combining to create a slow-down in downtown redevelopment:

...emerging competition, changing market conditions and national trends...plus tighter financing, a deflating national housing market, a local oversupply of condominiums and new caution even among high-flying developers [has] put the brakes on what was a kind of gold-rush development market in Tacoma.
Gillie then goes on to detail how these factors have played out in a number of projects to either slow down or stop them:
  • Crosswater Condominiums (dead)
  • Hanna Heights (renovated and re-opened)
  • Jay Heights [pictured] (on hold)
  • The Luzon (plans under renovation)
  • Old City Hall Condominiums (stalled)
Meanwhile, Gillie observes, several projects (including The Roberson, The Esplanade, Metropolitan Phase II and The Mecca) are moving along successfully.

As usual, Gillie's tabulation is accurate and even-handed. What's missing from this feature is a sense of what's unique about Tacoma's downtown market. Specifically--with vacancy rates at a historic low, why isn't Tacoma's city center filled with cranes the way that, say, downtown Bellevue is? How has a project like The Esplanade been structured, managed and marketed that gave it a leg up on a project like the Crosswater Condos?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Former Bank of Cal Building Sold

Jay Yi, owner of food packaging products company Inexim, has purchased the former Bank of California building at 1011 Pacific Ave. Yi plans to move his company offices from Puyallup to the third floor of the bank building and lease the architecturally elegant lobby for ceremonial occasions such as corporate events and weddings.

The Union Bank of California moved to the historic Waddell Building at S. 15th & Commerce two years ago. The building has long been recognized as one of the most ornate in Tacoma's financial district--the columned building exterior was constructed of Wilkeson sandstone and granite and the interior is finished with walnut and Travertine masonry and decorative plaster.

While the building is one of the most notable downtown, it's not designated an historic building. It was nominated for designation years ago, but the effort failed under opposition from the owners at that time.

More information and pictures at Exit133.com and The News Tribune.

Monday, July 16, 2007

'Autowalk'--No Longer An Oxymoron

Downtown Tacoma is best known for its theaters, great architecture and the renaissance that has saved buildings and brought civic interest back into the city’s core--a revolution built on the principles of the New Urbanism. Yet many aspects of downtown’s development can be tracked along with the emergence and evolution of the automobile.

In early years, dealerships found a home in warehouse-like buildings with retail sales on the main ground floor and service on secondary levels. As Auto Row developed and cars evolved, so did buildings--from the ornate 1920s Packard dealership to the streamlined 1948 Buick facility, built as Mueller-Harkins and preserved today as USA of Yesterday.

“In the era of Auto Row, there was excitement and activity downtown--shopping, entertainment, enterprise--and a number of car dealers,” recalls Brett Santhuff, President of the American Institute of Architecture Students. “Masses would gather in the streets outside papered showroom windows for the unveiling of new cars. Over a season, dealers would roll out the new models--Buick, Studebaker, Ford, Pontiac, Chrysler, Chevrolet, Plymouth, Hupmobile, Packard, Dodge, Lincoln, Oldsmobile.”

Santhuff is chair for “Autowalk,” a walking tour celebrating Tacoma’s historic auto row, kicking off this Thursday, July 19th, from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. The event, free and open to the public, will spotlight the architecture and the dealerships that brought Tacoma into the automotive age. The route will extend from S. 9th St. along Broadway to S. 7th St. and north on St. Helens Ave. to S. 2nd St.. Information booths, route maps, exhibits, and classic cars on display are planned.

The event is co-sponsored by Historic Tacoma and the Tacoma Historical Society with participation by members of the Puget Sound Chapter of the Buick Club of America, other local car clubs, and the LeMay Museum.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Encouraging Sidewalk Vending

The BIA will be involved in a meeting this afternoon with members of the Tacoma City Council's Economic Development Committee, where discussion will begin on ways to encourage more sidewalk vending in downtown.

Since the Project for Public Spaces workshop in May 2006, a small committee has been formualting recommendations, which will be presented to the EDC today:
  1. Reduce the insurance requirement (the current requirement for $500,000 is too high);
  2. Require vendors to demonstrate permission from the business owner (and property owner, if different) on whose sidewalk they would be vending--rather than having to secure permission from everyone within 100 feet, which may include as many as five separate parties;
  3. Rewrite requirements for the carts--current wording is confusing, even conflicting.
The desired outcome is changing City of Tacoma regulations so that sidewalk vending will be encouraged as a complement to other retail. There currently are no sidewalk vendors operating in downtown Tacoma.

Committee members have also concluded that it will be helpful to review the requirements that the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department places on vendors--they need, at minimum, to be streamlined.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

State Agrees: Not In Tacoma's Back Yard

After years of wrangling, the State of Washington apparently now agrees that Pierce County doesn’t really need any new work-release programs for prison inmates.

Corrections leaders released a preliminary list Monday of potential work-release sites that ranked Washington’s 39 counties in order of need. Pierce County was among eight counties classified as “low need”; nine other counties--including Snohomish, which currently has no work-release sites--were classified as “high need.”