A new three-story town house towers over a once-tranquil backyard in South Tacoma.
A stand of trees that kept the yard and its 1950s-era rambler cool were removed to make way for the development, and glare reflecting off the side wall of the new building is already heating up the little house – weeks before the hot summer arrives.
“I’ve lived here nine years and never had to pull a shade,” said Jill Reintjes. “All of those white houses emanate light and heat.”
It’s not good for the environment, she said, and it’s not good neighborhood planning.
Tacoma city officials are beginning to agree.
Some Tacoma City Council members are beginning to voice concern over the spate of townhouses built or under construction near the Tacoma Mall – construction that’s benefiting from the city’s controversial multi-family tax exemption.
They talked last week about a variety of options for addressing their concerns, including suspending acceptance of new applications for the property tax exemption in that part of the city until they find a long-term solution.
Town houses still could be built near the mall, council members noted. But the developers would not be eligible for the tax credit.
The council’s concerns focus on the high number of small town houses being built, and the apparent lack of neighborhood planning.
Councilman Jake Fey said the development occurring along South Pine Street wasn’t what officials envisioned when they established the exemption. As he drives by and looks at the development, Fey said he wonders “where in the heck the kids are going to play except in the road or alley.”
“It’s bad enough that they’re not providing open space,” Fey said, adding that the city doesn’t have to offer an incentive for the developers to build such developments.
Mayor Bill Baarsma offered the Sali-shan development on the city’s East Side as an example of good urban design, adding that the development that’s occurring around the mall is not as good.
The tax exemption program, begun in 1996, is credited with helping fuel the condominium boom that has revitalized downtown Tacoma. But it’s available to developers in 17 “mixed-use centers” throughout the city, including the Tacoma Mall Mixed-Use Center.
To qualify, a development must create at least four new housing units. Originally, the new construction was exempt from property taxes for 10 years, although taxes were still paid on the value of the underlying property.
Now, after a change in the state law, the standard exemption is eight years. If at least 20 percent of the new units in a development are considered affordable, the exemption can last 12 years.
The program was intended to encourage dense, urban-style development in part to comply with the state’s Growth Management Act, which aims to stop suburban sprawl and concentrate people in cities.
The City Council shot down a staff proposal last year that would have placed limits on the kinds of projects eligible for the tax exemption.
The council has yet to take action, and it appears council members differ on how to solve the problem.
Council members Mike Lonergan and Rick Talbert said that town houses are some of the only affordable houses being built in Tacoma, and Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg said she was concerned that Tacoma is losing families.
Council members agreed last week they need to approve three pending applications, including one that was continued from the April 29 agenda. Developers who have followed the rules shouldn’t be penalized while the city figures out how to change the rules, council members said.
There are 34 multifamily projects in the mall area under construction or waiting to begin, representing a total of 722 units, according to a memo from Ryan Petty, director of the city’s community and economic development department.
In the last 12 months, the city has received 13 applications for the property tax exemption. Of those, 11 were in the Tacoma Mall area and nine of those were for town house projects, the memo states.
Loretta St. Andre, who recently moved from the South 96 Street and South Hosmer area to the new Pine Villa Townhomes, doesn’t see why the City Council thinks there is a problem that needs fixing. She likes the quiet and the spaciousness of her town house.
But she agrees that it’s not a good area for young children.
Reintjes, who lives in the shadow of St. Andre’s new residence, understands the desire of city officials to encourage more dense urban development. She grew up in South Tacoma, but spent much of her adult life raising a family in Brooklyn.
But Tacoma officials failed to plan for the development that’s booming in her neighborhood, she said.
“Why didn’t somebody think ahead?” she asked. “This is not the first geographic area where poor planning has resulted in God-awful mishmush.”
Jason Hagey: 253-597-8542