Place Review: Downtown Tacoma

Downtown Tacoma has done many things right, but still lacks life. The missing element is probably downtown residences, which would extend the hours and liveliness of the streets.

By foot and by trolley, I explored downtown Tacoma earlier this summer. Having lived a half-decade in Seattle earlier in my life, Tacoma felt familiar, sort of like the undersized and slower sibling of the Emerald City. Apparently coastal timber towns in damp climates on glaciated hillsides all feel alike.

I retain a fondness for Seattle. I hoped that would carry over to Tacoma. It did, sort of. But I found Tacoma harder to love than Seattle.

Tacoma does many things right. I’ve already written about the trolley. Also, there is a fine museum district. The highlight is the Museum of Glass with a “Hot Shop” where the creation of glass artwork can be observed and with extensive exhibits on the history and craftsmanship of glass. On the other side of railroad tracks, connected by an aerial walkway adorned with glassworks, is the Washington State History Museum.

Next door to the history museum is the former Union Station, now converted into a federal courthouse. Given the differing needs between the openness of a train station and the security of a courthouse, it’s a remarkable conversion. And the desirable preservation of a downtown landmark.

Further up the hill is Broadway, converted into a one-way street to create a pedestrian-friendly environment, with architecturally interesting old buildings, flourishing street landscaping consistent with the climate, and a brutalist fountain that places the street conversion firmly in the 1960s.

And there is a sense of safety in downtown. I returned to my downtown hotel after midnight one evening and found people sitting on the street furniture provided by the hotel chatting as comfortably as it was noon.

About the only physical element that could be better is the connection to the waterfront. With the exception of the Museum of Glass walkway, the other pedestrian connections to Commencement Bay are car-oriented and unfriendly to walkers.

Despite all the positive physical aspects, downtown Tacoma isn’t a success as an urban place. It lacks people. I wasn’t alone in my explorations, but sure felt like it. I found myself chatting with strangers while waiting for traffic signals to change just to break the solitude. Yes, it was a Thursday, but a good urban place needs to have life seven days a week.

Weather is part the reason that downtown feels empty. When much of the year is wet and drippy, people learn daily habits to stay dry, habits that they don’t change for the short months of summer. A few more downtown arcades or colonnades would be helpful in creating different habits, but would only be a partial fix.

(Many years ago, I took a wintertime trip to Phoenix. My traveling companion and I decided to make do without a rental car, thinking that our lodging location would allow us to explore on foot. Walking the streets of downtown Phoenix is an even more lonely activity than walking the streets of downtown Tacoma. More so that the winter drizzle of Tacoma, the summer sizzle of Phoenix has taught the locals never to be away from their cars.)

But there is a bigger reason for an absence of people in downtown Tacoma. There are few downtown residences. Many of the buildings are two or three stories and dedicated solely to office space. There is an architecturally interesting residential area at the north end of downtown, near the Theatre District, but it’s too little to make downtown a lively place.

Offering lunch to downtown workers will keep a few restaurants alive. But keeping a downtown vibrant takes residents who are on the sidewalks throughout the day.  When those people are out and about, downtown feels like a more interesting place, drawing more visitors and supporting more businesses. It’s a virtuous cycle that begins with people who live downtown.

If your community is considering downtown public places that will provide places for people to gather, good for your community.  But you should ask where the people will come from to use those public places sixteen hours a day, seven days a week.


House names - A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Ross Chapin’s pocket neighborhoods where many of the cottages have names.  More recently, I wrote about rock songs that address urbanism.  After those two posts, I was intrigued to hear the following lyrics in “Shangri-La” by the Kinks.

And all the houses in the street have got a name

‘Cause all the houses in the street they look the same

I don’t think the Kinks would have a problem with Chapin’s neighborhoods. They just weren’t familiar with the concept when they wrote the song.

Olympics - If anyone has any lingering belief that the Olympics inevitably lead to urban renewal, take a look at these stories about the disuse of the facilities left behind after the Athens and Beijing Games. Olympic-initiated urban renewal is certainly possible, but there are more ways to fail than there are to succeed. I hope that London succeeds despite the lack of good precedents. I’ll be watching with interest.

Scheduling Note:

Petaluma Urban Chat - The standing date for Petaluma Urban Chat has been moved to the second Tuesday of each month. The Aqus Café meeting place and 5:30pm start time remain unchanged. The next meeting will be Tuesday, September 11. We have something fun planned for the October meeting, but advance planning is required. If you’ve been thinking about joining our small band, please come in September so you can be included in the October event.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. He has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He also was the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and four dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Wire November 22, 2012 at 06:00 PM
Wires first experience of Phoenix was 1969 visiting my older sister as they lived in Northwest area brand new homes made of Adobe bricks with cement floors. Hundreds of new homes, they didn't have great civil engineers planning as they forgot about those monsoon rains causing massive rain water run off. The streets had no sidewalks no gutters. What do you need for 10, to 15,000 dollars for a new home. They talked and joked about their flooding and would open their sliding door let the flood waters in the house and out the front door. We never experience the life downtown. Twenty years latter three of us went to PIR (Phoenix International Raceway) to watch our first Indy car race. We didn't drive the freeway as we thought we drive the straightest shot 25 miles west of town. The road we drove was Baseline Rd. what we saw was cultural shock. Homes made of plywood, no glass widows, no solid door but a door way with a blanket or quilt over the openings. Few homes along the way what there was this was it. In America. Another twenty years those plywood home gone with 180,000 dollar homes Phoenix had tried to make flood rivers to redirect those monsoons rains. Sis still has her house but it's a rental. Don't think the flooding happens as much. Ten years later it takes an hour or more to drive east to west or south to north all those homes just to find open land.


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