City Hall

Oh, Les Elites de Tacoma!

By Josh Feit August 30, 2010

Whenever we write about our frustration with city planning—grousing that Seattle is not doing enough to encourage density, mixed-use development, biking, mass transit, pedestrian traffic, and nightlife—we get bashed for being bourgeois.

PubliCola's green politics are dismissed as elitist hipster aspirations that overlook the kitchen-table concerns of "real," working-class people who don't have time to prioritize something as gay as the environment.

To which, I submit the manly-man city of Tacoma—average household income $60,789—compared to softie Seattle's average $87,620. (And even without all of Seattle's sissified game-designer salaries jacking up the average, our median salary is still nearly $14,000 higher than Tacoma's.)

When I was reporting on the transit-oriented communities bill in Olympia (a bill that would have increased density around transit hubs) in 2009, I noticed something odd: The environmentalist groups that were lobbying for it were frustrated with Seattle's lackluster support. Meanwhile, they got stalwart backing in Tacoma.

Checking in to that disconnect, I found that Tacoma's mayor and city council are serious badasses about urban planning, with an eye on catering to density and the environment.

Last year, the Tacoma City Council passed the most comprehensive upzoning code regulation in the state, according to groups like Futurewise (a badass bunch themselves---they sue local governments for falling down on the state's growth management policies.)

Not even counting downtown Tacoma, here's what our Rainier-beer-drinking brothers and sisters to the south did in one vote on 15 urban centers all at once (with heights going as high as 85 feet in the Hill Top and Stadium neighborhoods):

• Instituted a bonus system, giving developers the ability to "buy" height if they promise affordable housing, mobility improvements, or transfer of development rights.

• Established aggressive upzoning in mixed-use areas to create an incentive for compact growth.

• Eliminated minimum parking requirements for both residential and commercial parking in the core streets of the mixed-use centers and  in all 15 urban centers citywide.

• Set design standards for mixed-use development in key areas around the city.

• Called for transit and bike/ped connections between mixed-use centers and downtown and inside the centers themselves.

And this year Tacoma adopted a mobility master plan, manhandling the transportation hierarchy by putting pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users on top of the list of spending priorities—and single-occupancy vehicles on the bottom.

The plan also calls for a sweeping buildout of bike infrastructure, including a network of bicycle boulevards, urban trails and cycletracks.

The driving force behind all this green planning is Mayor Marilyn Strickland (pictured above in center), a 48-year-old former city council member who shot back at cranky neighbors during 2009's planning process, telling them they better get with the program. What happened? The council passed the plan, and the voters made Strickland mayor.

And after her election, the Tacoma City Council had to appoint two new city council members. The council received 43 candidates. Whom did they appoint?

David Boe, a man who described himself as “Density Dave," and Ryan Mello, a Cascade Land Conservancy staffer who had been one of the lead advocates for the zoning upgrade.

Seattle did upzone its downtown. And the city did increase heights around light-rail station areas ten years ago.

But while Seattle has greenlighted other upzones around the city (in six urban centers as opposed to Tacoma's 15) it has not yet instituted the upzones themselves. (They first have to go through a neighborhood-by-neighborhood discussion—read: obstruction—process).

"In short—Tacoma has done them, Seattle has not," says Futurewise staffer Sara Nikolic. And done them in one fell swoop.

As for getting rid of parking minimums, Seattle did this in six urban centers and around transit stations.
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