The year that was 2015 was filled with pivotal decisions and events that will shape Tacoma’s future for years to come. Here is a round up of the top stories of the year:
Key historic sites get new lives
The big development news for Tacoma’s downtown this year surrounded Old City Hall and the former Elks Lodge, which are now set to be renovated by the redeveloping juggernaut McMenamins of Portland, Ore.
McMenamins first started renovations of the historic Elks Lodge earlier this year after the company finished a similar project in Bothell. Then came news this fall that the pub and hotel firm is in talks with city officials to redevelop Old City Hall into a 60-room boutique hotel. The complex would include four signature bars showcasing the jailhouse, clock tower and rooftop greenhouse; a rooftop restaurant; soaking pools; community/private meeting and event spaces; and a gift shop at this historic landmark site in downtown Tacoma. The former Tacoma City Hall is located just yards away from the Elks Lodge property, making for a potential double whammy of the combined Tacoma icons.
The Old City Hall announcement came after the city bought the building earlier this year from the Stratford Company for $4 million, which had not been keeping up with maintenance needs of the building, causing fears that it would be neglected beyond repair. City officials then called for development proposals this fall, bringing four proposals to consider. Those proposals ranged from converting the site to a hotel to a gallery and bar to an office building.
McMenamins is known as a developer of historically minded venues with 18 other properties in the Pacific Northwest, including Olympia’s Spar Cafe and the Olympic Club Hotel and Theater in Centralia.
Roads repairs on the way
Tacoma voters approved both Proposition 3 and Proposition A that will raise taxes and fees for the next decade to generate an estimated $325 million to go toward road repairs in the city.
Proposition 3, which soundly passed, will raise property and utility earnings taxes, while Proposition A, which edged a win by just two dozen votes, will raise sales tax. All taxes associated with the propositions will generate $175 million of new revenue. In addition, these measures would leverage an estimated $120 million in grants and an additional $30 million from the city’s general fund.
Point Defiance slated for makeover
Metropolitan Parks of Tacoma spent years drafting a master plan for Point Defiance facilities, including the zoo and aquarium. The work has been approved and is already underway.
The anchoring feature of the planned exhibit space is a clear tunnel visitors can walk through to see aquatic life swim around a 250,000-gallon exhibit tank without the need of a wet suit. The new, three-story facility will begin construction next summer with a planned opening in 2018. The $48.5 million aquarium will be built between the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater and the Rocky Shores exhibit and span 34,000 square feet.
The current aquarium is the oldest facility on the zoo grounds, dating back to 1963. Once the new facility opens, plans call for the current site to be converted to an exhibit space mimicking a South American rain forest, although details and funding sources have not been developed.
Bond dollars are funding a host of other improvements at the zoo, including construction of the sea lion exhibit, which will eventually include California sea lions. Work on that exhibit starts in January and is slated for completion by next summer. A new environmental learning center will start taking shape next spring and open in winter 2017 through a collaboration between the park and Tacoma Public Schools' Science and Math Institute (SAMI) that will serve as classrooms for SAMI students and staff, as well as zoo visitors. Renovations to the walrus exhibit will start next fall and set to open in the summer of 2017. The next large project will be the renovation and expansion of the polar bear exhibit, which is set to start in 2018, with a completion date of summer 2019.
More information about plans can be found at: www.metroparkstacoma.org/DestinationPointDefiance.
County’s plans for Eastside hub killed by voters
After months of public meetings, lawsuits, counter suits and a petition drive against Pierce County, plans to consolidate some county operations into a new hub on the site of the former Puget Sound Hospital on Tacoma’s Eastside were quashed by voters.
At the heart of the issue was that many government offices are scattered around Pierce County in leased spaces that are either too small or in need of costly renovations, with the county wanting to return the high-profile former hospital site on Pacific Avenue to productive use by filling it with county offices.
Pierce County Facilities Management had conducted a two-year analysis of all facilities in 2009 with the goal of improving services and saving money by consolidating and co-locating most general-government offices into a one-stop shop of county services. The group issued its report in 2013, a study that recommended a new general government building rather than continuing leases in outdated facilities.
The plan was then to build the office complex under a lease-to-own agreement with Pierce County for a 300,000-square-foot administrative office hub that would house about 1,300 county employees, including the Pierce County Health Department, on nine floors as early as late 2016.
But some Tacomans believe the hub might make county services less accessible since the Pacific Avenue and South 36th Street site is located outside of Tacoma’s downtown core and has limited transit service. They won the day by mounting a referendum to stop the project, which voters approved in November.
Point Ruston loggerheads lead to partnership talk
Ruston and Tacoma averted lawsuits and counter suits by signing a deal that would have all permits for the Point Ruston project be processed by Tacoma’s building department rather than by Ruston’s. The $1.2 billion residential and commercial site straddles the Ruston-Tacoma city line.
The city-to-city agreement came after Tacoma City Council approved a petition by the Point Ruston developers to annex the 43 acres of their development located on the Ruston side of the city limits into Tacoma. The annexation petition followed years of contentious exchanges between Point Ruston owners and the Ruston city officials concerning permits and changes to the 97-acre master plan at the former Asarco smelter Superfund site.
The most recent opening at the waterfront location was a state-of-the-art movie theater that screened its first movies this fall.
Tacoma Link expansion takes shape
Sound Transit has developed draft plans for the 2.4-mile expansion, which includes one relocated and six new stations from the Theater District through the Stadium Way and Hilltop neighborhoods. The expanded system will run primarily in-street along Stadium Way, North 1st Street, Division Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr., Way. Staff will spend the next two years advancing engineering work on the project and refining cost estimates. Assuming all funding is secured, construction would begin in 2018.
The existing 1.6-mile light rail line serves six stations between the Theater District and the Tacoma Dome. Trains run every 12 minutes and provide nearly a million rides per year.
By comparison, the expansion is much more challenging, since the trains will have to navigate their way up the hillside as well as run along already busy traffic corridors. Initially, estimates projected a loss of about 50 parking spaces along the route, but that number has grown to 68. That fact worries some transit watchers since the expansion does not include any plans for parking garages around the stations. One possible solution is to stripe the roadway around the stations to mark off 20-foot parking spaces to promote more efficient parallel parking, which could “create” parking spots by cutting down on large gaps between vehicles.
Congestion relief gets a boost with funding package
The $16 billion transportation package signed into law earlier this year was marked with celebrations through the fall, including the ceremonial unveiling of road signs that will dot Pierce County as construction crews start their work to widen roadways, improve overpasses, replace bridges and finally finish State Route 167. That roadway had been first envisioned decades ago.
Gov. Jay Inslee unveiled the signs at Port of Tacoma because the rally for a statewide transportation funding package started on the tideflats with a group of policy makers gathering at the port in April of 2013 to finally get the last section of SR 167 done so freight could travel more easily between the shipping terminals and the distribution centers in East Pierce and South King counties.
The completion of SR 167 will create a more streamlined drive for freight in and out of the shipping terminals, but also help unclog Interstate 5 and other major roadways by removing 18-wheelers from the mix. The statewide transportation package includes funding for construction of the final road section leading into the tideflats, as well as a host of other projects, including improvement on I-5 along Joint Base Lewis McChord, a new interchange at Port of Tacoma Road and trail projects along Schuster Parkway.
Pierce County is the most trade-dependent county in Washington, which is the most trade-dependent state in the nation.
Money for the transportation projects will come from bond sales and a host of higher taxes, most notably an increase to 11.9 cents per gallon of gas.
Tacoma’s future could look a lot like its past
The early years of Tacoma’s growth around the turn of the last century saw strips of small businesses on street level storefronts with the proprietors living above their shops. That practice largely disappeared with the advent of suburban living, shopping malls and chain stores.
But that past could be part of Tacoma’s future now that the city council approved a set of zoning and business license changes that would allow shop owners in commercial areas to live at their locations and for entrepreneurial residents to operate retail and light-industrial businesses in their homes.
The return of residential options downtown and the area’s stock of historical buildings in search of reuse prompted a search for ways to bring new life to underused buildings and housing options for new residents. The concept had been more than three years in the making and would, essentially, extend the concept of artist lofts to other businesses. The change is not only meant to promote creative reuses of historic buildings that often have under-used living spaces above retail stores but to also provide for more housing options as the city grows and to promote sustainability by cutting down on commute times and congestion.
The Puget Sound Regional Council, the governmental agency tasked with managing the area’s population issues under the state’s Growth Management Act, has projected that Tacoma will grow by 60,000 residents by 2020.
But as the city updated its comprehensive plan to create higher density zoning for the predicted new residents, some residents of Proctor worries that future developments in their neighborhood would create traffic troubles and diminish the area’s neighborhood feel. Much of their worry centered on the six-story Proctor Station development and plans for more buildings like it in the coming years.
Northend and North Slope residents also worried about higher buildings blocking their views and clogging their neighborhood streets with in-fill developments.
Tacoma graduation rates now top state average
Tacoma now has a school district others envy. The school district’s graduation rate last year reached 82.6 percent. That is not only the highest rate since the state began tracking rates in 2003, but also shows the fifth straight year of gains, toward the district’s goal of 85 percent by 2020.
On top of the sharp increase in graduation rates at each of the district’s nine high schools is the narrowing of what some have called the “education gap” between white students and minority students and between students from affluent homes and those from poor households. The “graduation gap” between white and minority students is now less than 4 percent. The graduation rate for students receiving free or reduced lunch, a federal standard to determine poverty, was 61 percent in 2013. It is now 76.8 percent.
The full-court press to improve the district’s high school graduation rate as well as student scores on standardized tests began in 2012, when the school board set student achievement goals at a time when graduation rates were hovering at 55 percent. The dramatic turnaround between when the district was labeled a “dropout factory” in a national publication in 2007 until now has come from community involvement toward specific goals, transparency in district policies and efforts as well as openness around the district to listen.
The release of the district’s graduation rate increases came as the district also learned that four of its schools have been named as Schools of Distinction, a state award that focuses on improvement that honors to the top 5 percent of schools in Washington. Those Tacoma schools are Geiger and Stafford elementary schools and Lincoln and Wilson high schools. The announcement marked the fifth year in a row for Wilson, which set a state record. Geiger has won the award four times while both Stafford and Lincoln are newcomers to the statewide honor roll. But Lincoln has the distinction of hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this year as well as being home to the state’s reigning Teacher of the Year Nate Bowling.
City scraps billboard recommendations
The decade’s old battle between city officials and the owners of billboards around Tacoma went from collaborative takes and hearings to what could be viewed as a declaration of war.
City Manager T.C. Broadnax recommended to the City Council this fall that the city reject the billboard recommendations from the Planning Commission, a Community Working Group and staff-developed alternative and just enforce the current city code, a move that would eliminate most billboards in Tacoma.
The city is home to 311 billboard faces, and only three are compliant under the zoning rules the city now plans to enforce. The city had hopes to reduce the number of billboards by at least half, but none of the recommendations reached that goal.
Billboards have been at the center of community and business debate for decades, 33 years in fact. The city wanted to limit their location, while billboard owners wanted their expansion. Clear Channel sued in 2007, just as rules passed in 1997 were set to go into effect. That led to an agreement in 2010. The agreement recognized Clear Channel’s vested rights in its conforming and legally nonconforming signs as well as included an exchange program that would allow for digital billboards. Tacomans largely didn’t like the idea of digital billboards, so city officials drafted billboard rules in 2011 that banned digital billboards as well as established a 10-year plan to remove billboards that did not comply with the rules. Tacoma also filed for a declaratory judgement to determine if the 2010 agreement was binding. Clear Channel countersued, which led to the most recent standstill agreement. That prompted the most recent round of planning and community group recommendations.
The city now is preparing to enforce rules that would forbid billboards within 500 feet of each other as well as within 500 feet of residential area, schools, open spaces and historical districts.
U.S. Open swings into success
Pierce County’s Chambers Bay Golf Course hosted the U.S. Open this summer and the weeklong event drew more than a quarter of a million spectators to the area and brought international media attention as the largest sports event the county has ever hosted.
The event was also profitable. Pierce County incurred about $3.9 million in overall expenses and saw just over $5 million in revenue, resulting in a net gain of approximately $1.1 million.
“The bottom line is that the 2015 U.S. Open was a great event, and we want to see it return,” said Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy. “These are just Pierce County’s numbers. We expect the results of an independent study on the Open’s economic impact to the Puget Sound region and the state to be released soon.”
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, supported by 36 local, state and federal agencies, provided security and traffic control for the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.
Economic impact from the event was estimated at $140 million to $150 million in direct and indirect effects that will trickle in during the coming years.
All eyes turned to ‘lost’ film
The storied tale of Tacoma’s roots in filmmaking was largely a matter of footnotes in textbooks and promotional photographs of silent movies that were lost to the ages.
That ended with a chance discovery and a series of called-in favors.
Historic Preservation Coordinator Lauren Lauren Hoogkamer was researching Tacoma’s historic totem pole and found that the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City possessed a copy of the 1927 film “The Eyes of the Totem,” a nationally released silent movie that was made by Tacoma’s Weaver Production Co. The film included scenes of downtown Tacoma, Mount Rainier, Thornewood Castle and various landmarks in Pierce County. But it was feared that the movie had been lost to history, a victim of the nitrate film used at the time that decays over the years.
Local historians and film lovers then mounted a campaign to restore the movie. Money flowed in and the repairs were made. The film re-premiered this fall and will be shown again during the First Night festivities on New Year’s Eve.
The historical significance of the film can’t be understated, largely because very little is known about it other than its production, its cast, and its shooting locations. No one has seen the movie in decades, after all.
Possibly more important than the bygone images of local landmarks is the place the movie itself played in film history. Weaver Productions was located at a complex at Titlow Beach and produced silent movies during the pre-Hollywood days of movie making. A few cottages used to house movie stars during filming still remain, but the production company was lost in a fire, along with many of its props, films and documents. The story of Tacoma’s place in film history has largely been lost to time that is now being rediscovered thanks to local filmmaker Mick Flaaen, who is working on a documentary about its films.
Race relations take center stage
Project PEACE (Partnering for Equity and Community Engagement), a partnership between the city, the police department and its citizens, culminated on Oct. 29 when a community meeting at UPS welcomed more than 200 citizens to discuss issues in the community.
Project PEACE included a series of five meetings between community members, police officials and city leaders about what the resident would like to see from its police, particularly when it comes to matters of race.
“The Tacoma Police Department is committed to building and maintaining a culture of positive community engagement, which is essential to maintaining strong working relationships between the members of our department and the residents that we serve,” Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell said at the Project PEACE kickoff. “Recent events in communities across the country have prompted our police department and our city to re-examine our efforts and interactions with our community members.”
The notes from those meetings will now be analyzed, and the plan is to bring the results back to City Council and the police to implement possible policy changes in the coming year.
‘Wild West’ of marijuana rules rides into sunset
City and county governments around the state are cracking down on the largely unregulated world of medical marijuana dispensaries now that state lawmakers have merged medical and retail marijuana rules. The move streamlines the oversight and levels the marketplace between the untaxed and loosely regulated medical field with the tightly controlled and heavily taxed recreational industry.
The crackdown in Tacoma translates into the fact that the bulk of the city’s dispensaries will disappear, from the current 60 clinics to about 12 because the dispensaries are either too young to be grandfathered or failed to follow industry standards concerning security, oversight, business practices and quality controls.
Tacoma was one of the first cities in the state to allow medical marijuana dispensaries, which set up shop like any other provider of medical services. Dispensaries mushroomed up near schools, parks and residential areas. Flashing signs and pot-themed murals dotted the landscape, in clear violation of dispensary rules that called for discretion and subtlety. Shops clustered together with three or four on the same street.
The City Council remained patient in hopes that the growing industry surrounding patients with beneficial medicines would police itself or that the marketplace would shake out the fly by nights from the business-minded operators. That didn’t happen. So now the city hasn't any other option than to crack down on the medical marijuana dispensaries, and the easiest way to do that is to mirror the state’s regulations.
The state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board is hashing out the specifics of how the licenses will be issued next summer, but the basic requirements are that stores must have been opened since 2013, have remained current on all applicable business licenses and paid all required taxes.
CLICK set for ‘all in’ option
An effort to lease the municipally owned Click Network to a for-profit Internet Service Provider morphed into plans that could lead to the fiber optic system expanding so that it could be a phone, Internet and cable television provider in the coming years.
The Tacoma City Council rejected a plan fronted by Tacoma Public Utility officials that would lease out the network and then the council unanimously opted for a resolution that would develop a business plan in the coming months to go “all in” by boosting the network so that it could offer phone, cable and Internet services.
Lease options could still pan out if the business plan proves too costly or unsustainable, but all options should be explored to develop a municipal product that is high quality enough to make financial sense for both the city and customers.
The council decision, which was followed by cheers from the audience, came after the TPU board offered split endorsements of both plans. TPU now has until April to plot a course to expand Click and present that business plan to the City Council for another round of hearings.
Click formed 17 years ago, at a cost of $200 million, to provide a fiber optic network that would allow TPU to install “smart meters” on homes to monitor energy usage. The excess capacity on that high-speed data system allowed for the formation of Click Network, a municipally owned cable television provider, as well as a web of cables that private companies used to connect retail Internet customers. Costs of running the network were split with Click covering 75 percent of the bill and TPU assuming the rest. TPU then backed away from smart meters, however, and shifted 96 percent of the costs of running the network onto Click. That shift generated a “paper loss” of some $7 million more than what Click generated in revenue each year.
TPU then set out to explore ways Click could cover that gap. That research included talks with communications giant Wave Broadband, which in turn offered earlier this year to lease the network for $2 million a year for 40 years and vows to maintain the network. News of that lease proposal prompted Tacoma-based Rainier Connect to match that offer and also vow to provide low-income Internet access plans. Wave matched that. As those lease offers flowed through hearings and study sessions, plans of an “all in” option bubbled up when the council wanted more information about alternatives. The bundling of phone, cable and gigabyte Internet services under a municipal system, according to TPU projections, would cost $31.6 million over five years. It could start turning a profit after eight years under those projections.
Citizens for a Healthy Bay celebrates 25 years
A bit of a sleeper success story of the year was the fact that Citizens for a Health Bay turned 25 years old, making a milestone in the decade’s long effort to turn former environmental hazards into landmarks. The effort started after the Tacoma tideflats had a handful of sites that were among the most contaminated waterways in the nation. The non-profit Citizens for a Healthy Bay came together in 1990 to work on cleanup efforts and monitor water quality throughout the process. They were among the nation’s first Superfund Cleanup sites.
Seven of the eight sites originally listed on the Superfund list have either been cleaned up or are well into the cleanup process thanks largely to the oversight of CHB.
The Occidental Chemical Co. site is the last holdout on the Superfund registry and contains some particularly nasty chemicals to clean up. The cleanup site is much larger than the actual footprint on the Hylebos Waterway and contains chemicals that are volatile and so acidic that they have dissolved rock.
But CHB has now set its sights on upstream pollution as well as the environmental review of the planned gas-to-methanol plant. Northwest Innovation Works has proposed the construction of a $3.4 billion plant on the Blair Waterway. Construction could begin as soon as 2016 and begin operations in 2020. Methanol from the plant would then be transported by ship to Asia, to be used in the manufacture of plastics.
Methanol is a colorless, flammable, volatile liquid when it is at room temperature. It is a known toxin that can lead to blindness and damage to the central nervous system at high doses. But the biggest environmental concern regarding methanol is that it is explosive as a vapor and burns with a flame that is nearly invisible in daylight. The conversion of natural gas to methanol also requires a large amount of electricity, enough for 320,000 households, before it is piped to storage tanks. The plant will also use a large amount of water, a factor equally concerning to CHB members.
The first public hearing on the project is set for 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 21 at the Tacoma Convention Center.