Monday, December 31, 2007

Downtown Tacoma: Filling the Gaps

The Tacoma City Council envisions a broader but denser development pattern, linked by streetcars. Project Destiny looks forward to the Russell Investment Group occupying 1.2 million square feet in a new corporate headquarters, the jewel in a "re-positioned" downtown that is attractive and affordable to other corporate offices, as well. The BIA continues to encourage "more feet on the street" as the district prepares to kick off its third decade of service.

These are all facets of the same goal--to fill in the "dead spots" in downtown's built environment with more housing, shopping, offices and visitor attractions. Despite the very real success of local leaders since the mid-1990s, that remains a challenging assignment.

The superheated (some now are suggesting the term "overheated") downtown housing market of the past few years is finally cooling, but there's no consensus yet on how cold that trend will turn. There are some recent signs that at least a small rally may be developing, but sales have plummeted.

Next week's City Center Luncheon will present a panel discussion that may shed more light on future trends in the market but, for now, John Gillie's comprehensive feature in Sunday's edition of The News Tribune is a good snapshot of the current state of key developments. Gillie's "status check" of downtown projects tells him that 2008 can expect"a more measured pace of development,...more rental units instead of condos,...more office space construction and...more affordable condo conversions."

Tighter credit and slowing absorption of unsold units, Gillie contends, have caused developers "to slow down projects, redesign them to better fit market realities in Tacoma, and to slim the designs to make those projects more affordable in a market where construction costs have climbed steeply."

Friday, December 28, 2007

First Night: Back Again, Right on the Button!

Next Monday, New Year's Eve, will see the return of the First Night celebration to the heart of Tacoma's downtown Theatre District. First Night is an alcohol free celebration of the New Year, and also also a celebration of community, the arts, creativity, and diversity. This year's theme is "Year of the Pirate," and magicians, fire dancers and other acts will energize the streets where Main Stage entertainment, a host of artistic activities and a midnight fireworks display will be provided free to the public.

Purchase of a First Night button provides all-access admission to entertainment spanning seven venues, including:
  • Rhythms of Grammy Award winning recording artists in the Pantages Center;
  • Antics of Nellie the Performing Pig--who dazzled Leno, Letterman and Oprah--as she takes the stage at the Rialto Theater;
  • A scene from "Shakespeare in the Parking Lot" at Sanford & Son;
  • The Club SOTA Instrument Petting Zoo;
  • An opportunity to help create 1,000 cranes at the Asia Pacific Cultural Center.

The buttons also provide a free visit to the Museum of Glass and the Washington State History Museum between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. First Night button holders will also enjoy 15 percent savings while dining at Ravenous, Varsity Grill, India Mahal and Stadium Bistro. Appetizer specials are offered when showing the button at TwoKoi, El Toro or Galanga Thai, and Hello Cupcake is offering a two for one discount.

Buttons may be purchased in advance for $7.00 at Museum of Glass, Leroy Jewelers, Glenna's Clothing and Sanford & Son; on Monday, remaining buttons will be available at the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts box office (with the price then at $8.00). Kids ages 7 and under are admitted free to all venues.

The BIA is providing stepped up security patrols and cleaning to help make the evening brighter. The Tacoma Link light rail hours of operation will be extended until 1:00 a.m. Tuesday to accomodate First Night traffic.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Russell Exodus: How Real a Threat?

Yesterday's feature article in The News Tribune by Dan Voelpel made public an issue that many downtown leaders have struggled with for months--the potential exodus of the Russell Investment Group, its 1100 employees (currently spread over four buildings) and the potential utilization of 1.2 million square feet of office space.

Russell’s major leases in Tacoma expire in 2013--a strategic corporate move to consolidate operations. At that time, the company has three options:
  • Add on to the current 'A' St. headquarters;
  • Build a high-rise office tower elsewhere in Tacoma;
  • Build a high-rise office tower or a low-rise corporate campus elsewhere in the Puget Sound region.
For several months now, City of Tacoma and private leaders have been mobilizing a "full court press" to make one of the first two options the preferred one for Russell. Among the strategies in play are efforts to find Russell a suitable site to construct a new corporate headquarters, new tax-incentive legislation, development of a parking system/streetcar network, greater height limits on skyscrapers, and a campaign to reposition downtown Tacoma as attractive and affordable to other corporate office users. It's also part of the impetus behind the Creative Cities Project, which has aimed to give Tacoma more of an edge in the increasing world competition for knowledge workers.

Friday, December 21, 2007

North End: Are Things Getting Better?

It may be too soon yet to get excited, but there are several indications that public disorder in the north end of downtown is easing.

Efforts begun or realigned as a result of October's 9th & Pacific Community Forum seem to be bearing fruit. Public telephones in the vicinity--which often seem to serve only those who want to break (or at least severely bend) the law--have been removed. The D Town Market--by all accounts a center for disorder--has been closed due to several code violations. Area residents and businesses have noted a visible increase in police patrols--which some link to the assignment of the new Sector One Commander, Lt. Shawn Gustason--and a precipitous drop in the "nuisance traffic" that has come to characterize that area for so many previous months.
"[A] message is sent to bad guys that it's not a smart move to try and get away with nuisance and criminal activity because the community, police, and the BIA are watching and working together to keep the neighborhood safe," observes Laura Hanan, an area resident and activist.
Credit needs to be directed towards Community Liaison Officer Rob Luke, who has helped orchestrate activities like the code review, and his fellow officers. Credit is also due to Safe Streets and the management of the Winthrop and Olympus hotels, all of whom are cooperating to address internal security issues that, too often in the past, have spilled out onto the streets. And credit is deserved by all north end community members, who are acting effectively to organize and take back those streets.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Business Comes to the Commute Redux Table--Big Time

As Downtown Tacoma experiences an overall tightening of parking supply due to office and residential growth, municipal leaders have initiated broad-based community discussions about mobility and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber has empowered a broad stakeholder group—the Transit & Parking Committee. In 2008, City and transit officials are planning to launch a new push to get daily commuters out of their own cars and into alternatives.

Local business leaders are also coming to the table with a new program--Destination Downtown Door-to-Door (DDDD or "D squared"). The program takes its name both from Tacoma’s current urban center plan (“Destination Downtown”) and from a repeated observation by City Manager Eric Anderson (derived from the ongoing series of public forums he has been facilitating around downtown parking and transit issues) that an effective transportation demand program will provide downtown stakeholders with a variety of travel choices “from door to door.”

Between now and May 31, 2009, Destination Downtown Door-to-Door will help eliminate 300 daily commute trips to and from downtown Tacoma. The new program will be coordinated by the Chamber but is a collaborative effort with Pierce Transit, Sound Transit, the City of Tacoma, and individual businesses and property owners. Funding for the program is derived from the Trip Reduction Performance Program (TRPP) of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).

Destination Downtown Door-to-Door augment the resources of city government and local/regional transit agencies already dedicated to commute trip reduction with currently unavailable or underutilized resources from the private sector. The new program will add to existing commute trip reduction efforts in these ways:

  • Provide incentives and transit subsidies to more downtown employees and residents;
  • Build excitement and awareness through new venues such as monthly “Commuter Club” socials and educational meetings;
  • Engage “buy in” from business leaders at the highest levels;
  • Broaden the appeal of alternatives through use of highly visible promotions and expand marketing efforts to include non-affected employers.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Tacoma Set to Strengthen Commute Alternatives Push

Continuing growth in downtown Tacoma requires creative new strategies, including Commute Trip Reduction (CTR) as a means to better manage parking demand and build market share for commute alternatives. A big push to encourage downtown workers to leave more of their cars at home is being planned for 2008.

Statewide, CTR programs--mandated for major employers (i.e., those with 100+ at a worksite)--remove approximately 20,000 vehicles from roadways every morning, reduce air pollution by 3,200 tons every year, and save 6.5 million gallons of petroleum annually. More than 1,100 worksites participate in programs. These companies encourage employees to find alternatives to driving alone, such as working from home, using an alternative work schedule, vanpooling, riding the bus, walking or riding a bicycle.

By 2020, Tacoma’s downtown area is expected to add 11,600 jobs (Puget Sound Regional Council estimate). Given current commute patterns, accommodating this growth will require creation of more than 11,000 new parking stalls (at a cost of more than $200 million); increasing transit use by 4% over the same period will save Tacoma more than $9 million.

As the City of Tacoma moves forward on parking & transit recommendations made by the City Manager--as well as the ongoing work of the Transit & Parking Advisory Committee--commute trip reduction efforts are essential to managing demand for parking and increasing mobility. CTR offers other benefits, including:
  • Increased ability to strategically address new regulations from the state and federal levels (i.e., new, higher attainment standards for clean air);
  • Building stakeholder support for new technologies and funding methods (e.g., pay stations);
  • Allowing support for new development without raiding the general fund to build more parking structures;
  • Helping to conserve road surfaces, parking spaces and fuel resources;
  • Improving competitiveness versus other downtowns in the Northwest;
  • Providing a foundation for introduction of new services (e.g., Flexcar);
  • Reducing emission of greenhouse gases to help forestall global warming;
  • Giving downtown workers the precious gift of more time and a better quality of life.

The City of Tacoma already sponsors a CTR program that includes transit and vanpool subsidies which employers can offer as an employee benefit. Another outgrowth of the City's program has been development of a Growth Transportation Efficiency Center (GTEC) plan for downtown to further reduce solo commute trips. Recently, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) approved $300,000 to fund implementation of the plan, which will focus on University of Washington Tacoma students and faculty, new residential development in the north end of downtown, and smaller clustered employers.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Code Enforcement Blocks Traffic, Sidewalks at Luzon

A City of Tacoma Streets and Grounds crew will be working at the Luzon Building (1302 Pacific Ave.) this Saturday as part of a code enforcement effort by the Building and Land Use division to secure the building.

Workers will be installing concrete barriers around the building on Saturday from 7:30 a.m. until completion, which is expected by 1:00 or 2:00 p.m. Traffic will be flagged for short periods of time on 13th between Pacific and Commerce, and then on Pacific Avenue as the blocks are brought out to the street to set them. The crew will also be setting up temporary sidewalk closures, one to direct pedestrians across 13th at Commerce for foot traffic down Pacific, and the other at 14th & Pacific on the west side to direct pedestrians across since the walk will be blocked at 13th.

For more details about the project, contact Rich Barber at (253) 591-5497.

Inspection Closes D Town Market

Pursuing stepped up and coordinated inspections--like those that resulted in the closure of McCabe’s American Music Cafe last month--Tacoma Police will announce later today that a similar effort has led to forced closure of the D Town Market at the corner of 9th & Commerce.
City officials forced D Town to close earlier today after inspections revealed several code violations.

D Town has been an above average generator of calls for service to both police and BIA patrols for the past few years. Owners of the Winthrop Hotel evicted D Town from their property in 2005, after which the store moved across the street to its present location.