Downtown Tacoma’s gritty growth stunt

Our urban center is in big trouble. While local and national economies were booming, albeit on false hope and shady business practice, downtown Tacoma was just okay. As the recession persists, downtown Tacoma struggles to maintain a grip on relevance to groups of people who are not otherwise forced to be there.

Students and employees of downtown organizations remain constant, but they are fading into isolation. We the people of Tacoma who don’t need to be downtown have but 2 reasons to be there: food and drink. As “Annie” points out in her response to a recent article in the Weekly Volcano, downtown Tacoma needs a retail anchor. Unless we catch one or two big fish, our small businesses will continue to ebb with time-sensitive trends and fashions.

Parasitic recycling of commercial space in downtown Tacoma has held the region back for decades, while repeatedly stripping away elements of history and identity. Thank goodness we have the Tacoma Dome, neon lights and all, lest we be symbolized by what? The Swiss? Old Spaghetti Factory? These are fine establishments, but not cornerstone material. Where else have people been going in downtown for more than 25 years besides the theaters? Think about that for a minute. Tacoma calls itself Grit City. Does not this imply persistance, longevity and established identity?

The list of household name retail shops in downtown Tacoma currently amounts to squat. Zilch. There is an adequate supporting cast of mom-n-pop shops, but nothing remotely close to must-visits like markets, grocery, sporting goods, or department stores. Unless you are the opposite of diabetic, requiring entire boxes of cupcakes on a daily basis, you are on the outside looking in. You need a better reason to be there often.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: retail anchors don’t want anything to do with downtown Tacoma. There could never exist a more inconvenient downtown road system than the one we currently have in our glorious City of Density. Pacific Avenue is a nightmare, yet it is the only semblance of a direct route from the freeways through downtown. It is our backbone, yet it absolutely strangles the potential flow of traffic through the city.

Crucial problems for Pacific Ave. are as follows. The timing of the stoplights is atrocious. If you are not lucky enough to hit green lights all the way, it can take 10 minutes. We’re only talking about traveling 25 blocks! Even at 4am, amid no other signs of life, you will wait and wait and wait. When trying to park near the UW Bookstore you may end up “going around the block” for several blocks if all the angle-in parking spots are full. Jefferson Street’s diagonal approach through the Convention Center/UWT (CCUWT) exacerbates the situation. It would sure be nice if there were other streets right above Pacific that added parking as well as a better flow to the traffic bottleneck. Instead, Jefferson comes down like a guillotine, severing all flow of traffic behind Pacific. If you don’t care to “go around the block” in the shape of a massive triangle, you hang a U-turn and try again. This 2 lane purgatory is one of the more awkward driving experiences I’ve seen on a city’s main drag.

Most major, urban areas have at least 2 parallel streets handling the bulk of the area’s traffic, especially near freeway access. This creates a circular flow. City blocks are supposed to work like wheels in a tank track. Take downtown Seattle, for example. There live 10 times the people and cars, but one can traverse the sizable area in 5 minutes on a handful of adjacent streets. Traffic clogs exist, but they are generally on the perimeter of downtown Seattle. Lower Queen Anne, Pioneer Square, Capital Hill and the waterfront are all a mess but you only have to deal with them if they are your final destination.

The entire area around the CCUWT is a giant plug, smack dab in the middle of everything. You cannot cross through downtown Tacoma without a) driving all the way down Pacific Ave, subjecting yourself to cruel and unusual Link light rail and stoplight queues, b) traveling all the way up the hill and utilizing the more effective Tacoma and Yakima Avenues, or c) encountering the CCUWT plug.

If our goal is to entice retail business to root down, our capacity for vehicles must be expanded. Now that we have the aforementioned limitations in place, it’s going to take some rather creative efforts to improve the overall capacity. Perhaps a more fluid connection between Pacific Ave and Dock Street can exist? How about a strategically-placed off-ramp direct to the hilltop/Nu Tacoma area, shifting some of the traffic burden up the hill? Fortunately for me, it’s not my job to figure this out. For those of you who do take on this responsibility, I salute you.

A constituency in Tacoma feels that parking stalls are a blight and that good traffic flow can lead to visitors leaving the area too easily. What is this, a prison!? We intentionally degrade our infrastructure to look fancy while people are forced to buy things as a result of being stuck here? This is not a sustainable method for building a positive commercial reputation. The same group who brought you red light traffic cameras must be responsible for seminating such an ideology.

Before we wrap, I have something for the environmentalists. Generally speaking I agree with most of your perspectives, most of the time. I’m sorry if better roads in downtown don’t benefit the environment – we’ll have to make up for it in other areas of the city. I’m sorry that many of you detest cars – heck, I don’t like cars. I’m sorry if you prefer to optimize downtown Tacoma for bicycles and pedestrians – this is traditionally the 2nd biggest city in Washington, not Port Townsend. Please accept the fact that Tacoma is supposed to be an urban hub of traffic, economy, activity and culture; it is not the time or place to conduct a preservation experiment.

I could go on and on, but will reserve myself to field your thoughts and opinions, should I be granted access to them.

Bring on the world

Tacoma restaurants continue to improve and impress. I could have 3 squares per day at Tacoma restaurants I’ve never been to for at least a month straight right now. 5 years ago I had been to just about every relevant restaurant in town. Of course, that was before they started multiplying like rabbits on ecstasy. Whether you are looking for upscale latin, gourmet sushi, or authentic Thai food, the decision is no longer an easy one; there are now several options for each of these within Tacoma proper.

Where am I going with this?

Seattle continues its reign as Tacoma’s big cousin to the north, but little cousin is growing up fast. I was born here and have lived the majority of my adult life here as well. I don’t need stats, charts, articles or anybody else to tell me what is going on. Every day, everywhere, I see growth. The rising job markets, swirling restaurant scene, skyrocketing (still affordable) real estate, college campuses, and ever-desirable geographical location make Tacoma a no-brainer for many living in the Puget Sound region.

As Seattle continues to grow, the byproducts are more business and more people operating within a shrinking, finite supply of actual space. This effectively moves Tacoma closer and closer to Seattle. Will we be ready for it? Can we truly be the destination for multinational corporate headquarters and an unlimited supply of cutting edge employment opportunity like we were promised 10 years ago?

I hope so.

What do you think?