Tacoma's Lincoln District is getting a makeover after years of planning and discussion. The first tangible changes in the city's Eastside neighborhood is underway, with utility crews raising the height of power lines to better showcase the facades and signs of area businesses as well as allow for higher buildings. But there will be more work to come.
All totaled, the Lincoln District Revitalization Project will spend about $8 million to revamp the area to not only be a better place to live and play, but also as an increasingly attractive neighborhood for business development and commercial activity in the coming years. Raising the utility poles comes at a cost of about $700,000, while undergrounding the lines would have been cost prohibitive at about $3 million.
City officials took baseline data regarding property values, retail sales taxes and quality of life before the work started as a way to then compare those figures to those collected after the city investments spark private improvements to gauge success of the effort.
“Our hope is that all of the numbers on that matrix will rise,” said Tacoma development specialist Debbie Bingham.
The city will, for example, start work in the spring on the $4.5 million streetscape plan along South 38th Street that will include landmark entrances to the 38th Street business strip at Fawcett and J Streets, public art, benches and sidewalks as well as street trees and planters. The idea is to have the municipally funded improvements spark drives in area residents and businesses residents to do likewise with their properties.
Residents in the area who don’t have the finances to improve their homes could receive interest-free loans of up to $25,000 or low-interest loans of up to $20,000 for down payment assistance to transition from renters to owners. Qualified businesses in the area could use the project’s Façade Improvement Program to receive 10-year loans of up to $50,000 or 50 percent to help cover improvement costs at a below market rate of 3 percent.
The neighborhood also has a host of high-profile and historical locations that have been either vacant or underused for decades. While seen by neighborhoods as historic, none of the targeted structures have been formally designated as such.
Chief among them is the Rex Theater, a former movie venue for which city officials will actively seek private investors to bring new life into the former community hub. The Rex, at 3809 S. Yakima Ave., was built in 1919 and sported 650 seats that allowed theatergoers to see first-run movies before closing its doors in 1958. The theater was state of the art for its time, and it even had a nursery where parents could tend to their children in a quiet room in the back while still being able to view the screen and not disrupt other movie viewers. Times changed and multi-screen houses ruled the day, so the theater closed. The building then became the Tacoma Calvary Temple for 20 years before becoming an adult movie theater in 1980 under the name Rex "Playtime" Theatre. The Rex then changed uses again to be home to a series of churches, most recently Restoration Christian Ministries, which no longer uses the facility. The building has recently sold and the investment group is investigating options.
“They don’t have any plans yet, but they have some investigating going on right now,” Debbie Bingham.
Other historical and cultural buildings in the neighborhood that have been noted as key projects for renovation and reuse include the Vien Dong restaurant site, at 3801 Yakima Ave. and the F.H. Horsfall building, at 801 S. 38th St., which was designed by the famed architectural firm of Heath, Gove and Bel in 1916, according to project documents.
Owners of the Vien Dong building are exploring ways to return the second floor apartments back to the neighborhood’s housing stock after years of the units being vacant. The floor has been torn down to the studs, making needed utility and code upgrades potentially straightforward. The Horsfall remains occupied with retail on the street level and largely empty spaces on its second floor.
Adding to the list of changes in the works for the Eastside, albeit outside of the Lincoln revitalization process, is likely the biggest change of all. The Eastside Community Center plans to open in 2018, through a partnership anchored by Metro Parks Tacoma, City of Tacoma, Tacoma Housing Authority, Tacoma Public Schools and Boys & Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound. The $30 million center will be outside the Lincoln will located on the First Creek Middle School campus and provide recreational and educational programs as well as serve as a community hub for classes, events and forums.
The next neighborhood set for revitalization is South Tacoma Way, which might include the creation of a Local Improvement District to fund improvements in the coming years.