Civic leaders examine image and issues

Affordable housing and the image of downtown dominated conversation during a town hall meeting at Urban Grace Church on Feb. 25. The panel discussion brought together Mayor Marilyn Strickland; developer Blaine Johnson; Reverend Eric Jacobsen, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church; Michael Mirra, executive director of Tacoma Housing Authority; and Benjii Bittle, deputy executive director of Broadway Center for the Performing Arts.

Tacoma has an affordable housing crisis, according to Mirra. If it was food rather than shelter under discussion, the city would have "widespread malnutrition with pockets of starvation."

He examined the Winthrop Apartments, a former luxury hotel that was converted into subsidized apartments in the 1970s. The condition of the aging structure has been a concern of city officials in recent years. The Winthrop is showing the effect of decades of under-investment, he said, noting it needs millions of dollars of repairs.

Several Winthrop residents attended and fielded questions from the audience. They pointed out maintenance issues in the aging building, as well as the fact some families with young children are crowded into small units.

Johnson discussed his investment 10 years ago in the Passages Building, an office complex on Broadway. At the time, drug dealing and prostitution were rampant. Since then he has built a condominium building and rehabilitated another old building, the Vintage Y, into condominiums. He and his wife moved into the latter. Downtown now has millionaires living near the very poor, something Johnson feels creates vibrancy.

"We like the texture of a live environment. People of all economic strata are involved in this," he said. "A lot of people are paying attention to this laboratory we are living in."

Strickland discussed moving downtown in the mid-1990s after returning to Tacoma from Atlanta. Tacomans should accept the fact they live in a mid-sized city.

"Tacoma will never be Seattle, Boston or San Francisco," she said. One strength is our inventory of historic buildings, she said. "I am done blaming Tacoma Mall for no retail downtown," she added.

Strickland said she runs across people in the region who have not been to Tacoma in a while. The city still struggles with an image problem, according to the mayor. "People outside of Tacoma who do not know us think we are dirty, dangerous and dumb."

While Bittle is proud that Broadway Center serves as a focal point of activity, he would prefer to share that duty. "I would love not to be the anchor. I would love to have a Nordstrom's next door sharing that role."

Mirra discussed decades of federal government policies after World War II that built up the suburbs and left many big cities a shell of their former selves. Improving schools is crucial to getting more middle-class families to live in Tacoma, he said.

"The conspiracy of suburbia caught up with us," Johnson observed.

"The Winthrop is the best example of our paralysis," Strickland said. "That building is falling apart. Those people who live there deserve better."


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