Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Place Review: Downtown Tacoma

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 (

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