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Downtown revitalization gives new life to PLU’s largest neighboring city

By Steve Hansen, Photography Jordan Hartman '02


In the past 15 years, only a few of Tacoma’s oldest buildings have not been replaced or remodeled during the city’s rejuvenation.

During Rick Allen’s tenure at PLU from 1973 to 1985, he made a promise to his wife: If he ever left his job as dean of Student Life, he’d never work in downtown Tacoma.

It was a pledge that many people made at that time, when the stretch of Tacoma between Tacoma Avenue South and the Thea Foss Waterway was riddled with homelessness and crime, buildings were vacant and in disrepair and the nearby waterfront was an environmental disaster. It was a place few people were willing to touch.

Some 20 years later, as president of United Way of Pierce County, Allen tells the story from his office on the fourth floor of the Sprague Building, a splendidly renovated 1890s-era landmark. The UWPC offices sit right at the junction of 15th Street and Pacific Avenue – in the heart of the same downtown Tacoma in which he promised his wife he’d never work.

That the area has changed is an understatement. From Allen’s window, a cleaned-up Thea Foss Waterway sports a walking trail, a museum and sparkling new restaurants and condominiums – with more on the way. On the other side of the Sprague Building, across the street, is the swanky white-tablecloth Pacific Grill and the Courtyard Marriott, the first hotel built in the downtown Tacoma since the Sheraton barely survived the mid-’80s.

The gleaming glass-and-steel Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center looms nearby, consuming an entire city block. Sound Transit’s successful Tacoma Link light-rail zips through the area toward the Theater District to the north, coming from the University of Washington–Tacoma campus to the south, where students congregate in small bunches, not exactly blending in with the suits and museum-goers who roam about Pacific Avenue choosing between the many places to grab a bite.

And nighttime shows what is perhaps the most surprising thing of all: On any given evening, people are out on the streets, doing the things that people do in a thriving urban area.

The history

For those who graduated from PLU even just a few years ago, such a description of downtown Tacoma would be almost unimaginable. Given that PLU has been inextricably linked to the city for more than 115 years, it is worth looking at Tacoma’s recent successes, particularly through the eyes of a few PLU graduates that have been a part of it.

The recent history of downtown Tacoma spans about 15 years, beginning around 1990. It is the story of a well-timed confluence of investment from the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

“Every success story has a hundred parents,” said Lyle Quasim ’73, chief of staff for Piece County Executive John W. Ladenburg. “If this project failed, you wouldn’t have been able to find anyone who even lived in the ZIP code.”

Indeed, there is no shortage of people that have had a valuable impact on the rebirth of Tacoma. And one needs to look no farther than the swanky new condominiums and remodeled lofts within a stone’s throw of Pacific Avenue to see that people are definitely living in the ZIP code.

Similarly, there is no one single moment when Tacoma’s resurgence officially took root. More likely, it was a perfect storm of federal, local and private dollars – and forward-thinking citizens – to enable the revitalization of a neglected and bereft region of Tacoma.

“People in Tacoma started to shift from a siege mentality to see things in a totally different way,” said Quasim. “And when they did that, they were able to build off even very small successes.”

Many believe one of the first small successes was when the city purchased Union Station and renovated it into the lobby of a new federal courthouse. The station, once a thriving terminus to the Northern Pacific Railroad, had fallen into such a state of disrepair, the city paid only $1 for it.

About the same time, the state was seeking a new place to house the Washington State History Museum. Pierce County’s legislators convinced the state to move it from Tacoma’s Stadium district to downtown, adjacent to Union Station – and to secure state dollars to refurbish the building.

Tacoma’s most prominent citizens, too, were getting into the act. A group of farsighted Tacoma business leaders, including George Russell of Russell Investment Group and Bill Philip of Columbia Bank, started to eye underused properties on the other side of Pacific Avenue with the hopes making the property available for the possible expansion of the University of Washington.

At the same time, Tacoma had leaders with big ideas and the gumption to try and implement them. Eventually, they backed the downtown location of the UW-Tacoma and a convention center. The city bought contaminated property along the Thea Foss Waterway on the cheap, knowing that the city could clean it up long before the federal government or private business would. The business community bought into the plans.

The present

Fast-forward 15 years. The fruits of this effort are evident everywhere. Early 1900-era landmarks like the Harmon Building and the Albers Mill have been refurbished and are smart-looking lofts, apartments, shops and restaurants. The Tacoma Art Museum and the Museum of Glass have recently opened in beautiful new exhibition spaces.

“In just 15 years, the middle of downtown shifted south,” said Marc Crisson ’81, director of Tacoma Utilities. And given that, the next question is, as Crisson put it: “How do you work around some of the community issues as you move forward?”

Those community issues focus largely on housing – namely, making space available for those who now want to live there (and subsequently making the downtown core a more dense, thus safer, area) and ensuring those people have access to goods and services in their immediate area.

“I’ve had five different developers asking about our parking lot,” said Allen, gesturing outside his window. “Twenty-four to 36 months ago, nobody was asking about it. That tells you that a lot of people are dreaming about what [downtown Tacoma] can look like.”

This is certainly true along the Thea Foss Waterway, including along the east side. This is land that remains zoned for industrial use, but many see it as the next best place to build in the downtown area. All this speaks precisely to what people see in the area – if people really want to build even here, there must be some real potential. These are issues the Tacoma City Council is weighing, namely how to balance the needs of residents (and those building homes for them) and those who have longtime industrial use in the corridor. After all, said Crisson, “you can’t move the Port of Tacoma.”

Similarly, just as the needs of those who have utilized the port over the years, the needs of those lower-income residents who live in downtown must also be considered. A common failing of urban areas that redevelop too quickly is that such growth can push aside the lower-wage individuals that made the area home. Tacoma has come too far, too successfully, to allow this crack in the armor.

“When you don’t have growth, you have a problem. But when you do have growth, you have a whole different set of problems,” said Crisson. “All in all, this is a better problem to have.”

Part of a circle

To solve this problem, Allen says cities have to look to the nonprofit sectors for help. Without it, an effective revitalization campaign will show its cracks, maybe even fail.

“You need to look at economic development and human services as parts of a circle,” said Allen. “One begins where the other ends. Wherever there is the weakest link, that is where cracks will form.”

To illustrate his point, he speaks of the Rescue Mission and Nativity House, two essential service providers for the area’s most destitute. The two nonprofits were once located just across the street from Allen’s building, where the Courtyard Marriott and the convention center are today. It became clear, Allen said, that if these new developments were going to displace the facilities that care for those in greatest need, then their replacements must not only be improved, but they need to be located nearby.

The logic is simple: if the Nativity House and Rescue Mission were moved, for example, to south Tacoma, then the population they served would never be able to use those services, and they would be back on the streets. And that would make places like the Courtyard Marriott and the convention center – not to mention simply living downtown – less attractive. So there had to be a balance.

The Nativity House, now located on South Jefferson Avenue a few blocks from its previous space, has a new state-of-the-art facility, serving about three times the people it had once served. “It did exactly what it was supposed to do,” said Allen. “It helped the people that it was supposed to, and it helped clean up downtown.”

Similarly, the need to address affordable housing issues in downtown will be something that Allen, through United Way Pierce County, will continue to focus on.

“The more you do this, the greater the source of community strength,” Allen said.

PLU President Loren J. Anderson said having a vibrant downtown core strengthens PLU as well.

“With Tacoma’s renewal, the city offers students, staff and faculty a range of cultural, business and social opportunities,” he said. “At the same time, PLU provides the city and its residents with a place to get a great education, enjoy scholarly and arts events on campus – and most importantly – the university sends well-trained leaders into the community to continue the social and economic progress.”



MUSEUM DISTRICT

Just north of South 21st Street on Pacific Avenue is what many who recall Tacoma’s less glamorous days would be surprised to find there: a tourist attraction. And not one, but three. The so-called Museum District consists of the Washington State History Museum and the Tacoma Art Museum, both on Pacific Avenue, and the Museum of Glass. The Chihuly Bridge of Glass spans Interstate 705, connecting the history and glass museums.

The three museums host tens of thousands of visitors each year. Here’s a look at the three museums that are an essential component of the changing face of Tacoma.

The Washington State History Museum – Opened at its current location in 1996, the museum celebrated a milestone this past April by welcoming its millionth visitor. The museum, previously located near Stadium High School, mimics the graceful curves of nearby Union Station and features numerous interpretive exhibits, traveling exhibitions and the Great Hall of Washington History. www.wshs.org

Tacoma Art Museum – TAM has been in existence since the mid 1930s, and has moved all over the city since then. The sleek new space was short listed for several architectural honors when it opened in 2003. Located just north of the other two museums on Pacific Avenue, it features American, European and Asian art, including works by notables such as Edward Hopper and Jacob Lawrence. www.tacomaartmuseum.org

The Museum of Glass – Opened in 2002, the Museum of Glass features an angled 90-foot stainless-steel cone that has redefined the Tacoma skyline. Inside, there is 13,000-square-feet or gallery space that displays the work of some of the world’s best glass artists, including a “hot shop” where visitors can watch glass blowers ply their trade. www.museumofglass.org

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© Scene 2005  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Winter 2005

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