Male tourists must hate downtown Tacoma. The lack of directional signs makes it impractical – if not nearly impossible – for visitors to find their way around without asking for help.
Paula Rees warned City Hall about it four years ago this month. The Seattle consultant, in her $97,000 study aimed at boosting downtown’s retail prospects, described Tacoma’s signs as worse than abysmal.
“The current sign directionals – for both pedestrians and vehicles – to find Tacoma’s amazing tourist attractions and public amenities is actually so poorly considered, it can even (be) considered an eyesore, which is working against you,” Rees wrote in her report to her client, the city’s Economic Development Department.
The Downtown Merchants Group got its first peek Thursday at a sweeping European-style sign concept for more than 70 scarlet signposts, topped by illuminated globes marked with the international symbol “i” for information and loaded with stacked, color-coordinated directional signs and locator maps.
Bravissimo. Excelente. Ausgezeichnet.
“Very European, very inviting and very universal,” gushed Patricia Lecy-Davis, president of the merchants group and proprietor of Embellish, a downtown salon.
The City Hall proposal raises one tall red flag, however. Its estimated price tag could choke a taxpayer – $2 million.
Spencer Beier, the city’s Public Works Department point man on the sign assignment, had instructions to craft the initial concept based on the latest worldwide urban trends and without regard for cost.
He fulfilled his assignment. Beier described the proposal – developed with input from a few downtown stakeholders – as a “Cadillac version” with a “staggering” cost.
“I’d love to have (the signs up) as soon as possible,” said Carly Stedman of the Tacoma Regional Convention & Visitor Bureau. But “you’ve got the luxury edition. … I’d hate for this not to get passed” because of the cost.
Don’t you think a city whose next museum attraction will pay homage to the American automobile deserves a Cadillac sign system?
The City Council’s Economic Development Committee will get a more detailed cost analysis and sign location proposal this fall. Ultimately, the full council would have to approve it. But before we dismiss the proposal on price alone, consider the need.
Drive north on Pacific Avenue at downtown’s highest traffic intersection, South 21st Street, and the only directional sign you’ll see points you out of town on Interstate 5.
Stand at the new heart of downtown, Tollefson Plaza, and do a 360-degree spin. You won’t see a sign to tell you where you are or help you figure out where to go.
Do 360s at the main intersection outside the Pantages Theater and outside the front doors of the Sheraton Hotel. Same result.
Dale Rush, the premier bellhop and valet at the Sheraton, sees the discombobulation every day.
Once hotel guests unpack, he said, they come back down to the lobby with one common question, “What is there to do in this town?”
“I know there are a bazillion things to do, but when we get out in front of the hotel, there are no signs to the Link (light rail) or anything,” Rush said. “Once they get away from the hotel, they’re pretty much on their own. These people are lost.
“We need to do more to help people navigate the renaissance.”
Gail Rieber, who owns a portrait photography studio downtown, said she often encounters lost folks asking for directions.
“You see people getting out of cars with these perplexed expressions,” she said. “Having signs is so important.”
Yes, it is.
Rees, in her 2003 report, lumped Tacoma in with many other American cities as sign-deficient – especially for pedestrians. Blame it on a century of automobile dependence “heavily influenced by a (Department of Transportation) aesthetic – or non- designed communication system,” according to Rees.
Now that we’ve pointed the finger of blame, let’s point our visitors – female and male – in the right direction.
Dan Voelpel: 253-597-8785