The University of Washington Tacoma and some neighboring business owners disagree over whether the school is betraying its commitment to encourage retail businesses in its storefronts along Pacific Avenue.
The business owners are protesting the university’s plans to use retail space it owns in the Russell T. Joy building on Pacific Avenue for a classroom and possibly for temporary faculty offices until it builds an office building elsewhere on campus.
University officials say letting space in a school-owned building sit empty on an over-enrolled campus doesn’t make sense. They plan to eventually lease the storefronts to retailers but say that trying to market them in a recession is next to impossible.
When the retail space is leased, it can’t be to just anyone. The businesses need to offer goods or services that cater to students, university Chancellor Patricia Spakes said in a recent interview.
“We need to put retail along Pacific Avenue that supports the university,” she said. “That was the concept upon which our campus was built.”
Several factors work against putting retail outlets in the Joy building now.
Among them are a general decline in retail sales and a climbing unemployment rate. Plus, the school has another retail bay – in the William W. Philip Hall at 1914 Pacific Ave. – that has been vacant since the building opened a year ago.
The retailers counter that they have made plans based on the promise of being surrounded by other retailers. They also say a classroom and offices do not attract shoppers.
“The classrooms are great for the university, but honestly they don’t support us,” Ken Grassi, owner of Grassi’s Flowers & Gifts on Pacific Avenue, told Spakes recently at a contentious meeting about the plan.
Students “can barely afford books and tuition,” Grassi said. “They’re not our customer.”
Downtown retailers are protesting both the university’s plans and those for Pacific Plaza, farther down on the avenue. The business owners say converting prime retail spots to nonretail use will reverberate longer than the economic downturn.
The owners of Pacific Plaza are negotiating with the city to allow them to lease some of their ground floor space at 1250 Pacific Ave. to the Tacoma office of the state attorney general.
Pacific Plaza was developed as a public-private partnership, and part of the agreement was for ground floor retail. But retail sales have cratered and unemployment was 9.3 percent statewide last month and rising.
Building owners are looking for tenants, no matter their stripe.
The Downtown Merchants Group has written the university and has drafted a letter to the city about Pacific Plaza. Individual business owners have written to both entities too.
“Retail grows very slowly and dies very quickly,” Phyllis Harrison, co-owner of LeRoy Jewelers, a downtown business for 68 years, said in a letter to the city. “Even in the best of times, small retail businesses are difficult and fragile, though they are the businesses that bring life to city streets and personality to urban centers.”
“We all know that in the world of commercial development, ‘temporary’ easily becomes 10 or 20 years,” she wrote. “Commercial development is not about short-term planning.”
NO SPACE, NO MONEY
The campus has 3,111 students enrolled, about 10 percent more than it’s funded for. In addition, the Legislature gave the university about $20 million less than the $54 million it asked for to build more classroom and faculty office space.
Spakes said the school’s decision to renovate the Joy building at 1720 Pacific Ave. instead of building elsewhere on campus shows the university’s dedication to downtown.
“You can get a heckuva lot more square footage for actually teaching students if you build new, than you can if you renovate an old building, and renovating the old building will cost you more money,” the chancellor told about a dozen business owners Nov. 19 at the gathering at Grassi’s.
“We understand your predicament,” said Corky Brown, owner of BKB & Co., a boutique next door to the Joy building. “We’re all working on a very thin line here.”
Spakes emphasized at the meeting and in the interview with The News Tribune that while a classroom will be created on the Joy building’s ground floor, using the rest of the retail space for faculty offices has not been decided.
The Joy building’s renovation is part of a $34 million construction package the Legislature approved. The university had requested $54 million to renovate the Joy building and to build a structure next to the Tioga building, at the top of the grand staircase on Jefferson Avenue.
The new building was to have held faculty offices, while the Joy building would be exclusively classrooms.
When the funding came through markedly reduced, Spakes said, school officials decided to use the money to renovate the Joy building to complete the campus’s Pacific Avenue face.
That created a conundrum.
The university is out of space for faculty offices and has only four classrooms that hold 60 students, Spakes said. The rest are for smaller classes. That’s a luxury the school can’t afford when serving more students and with its most recent budget cut by 21 percent. A tuition increase made up some of that, university spokesman Mike Wark said, but not all.
In addition, Spakes said, the school is leasing office space “with money we don’t have” to free up every square foot for academics.
THE UNIVERSITY’S PLAN
To ease the problem, Spakes and others at the university came up with a plan to use building fees to pay for constructing a four-story building on Jefferson Avenue.
The Legislature and the school’s board of regents must sign off on the plan. Spakes told the downtown group she’s met with Pierce County’s legislative delegation and hopes the Legislature approves the school’s plan after it convenes in January.
In the meantime, Spakes said, the school has started design work and taken other preliminary steps so work on the building could be done as quickly as possible.
The Jefferson Avenue project is not affected by the state’s almost $3 billion budget shortfall because the school isn’t asking for additional funds to do it.
But the perception that taxpayer money would be used for anything other than education is a factor, one Spakes acknowledged during the meeting with the merchants.
She said that when the school made its initial $54 million request to the Legislature, lawmakers asked a lot of questions about why any space in the Joy building should be for retail.
Spakes said she pointed out that part of the urban school’s concept is to encourage private business to make up for student services the university doesn’t provide, such as food.
She told the merchants’ group that if the school’s plan works, the Jefferson Avenue building will open in fall 2011, about six months after the Joy building renovation is complete.
Meanwhile, the school has to come up with a backup plan for faculty offices. And that includes using retail space in the Joy building.
Retailers count on walk-in customers for a large part of their business. Chances for such customers increase when many shopping opportunities are close together.
For almost 20 years, Grassi’s Flowers & Gifts has occupied two stories at South 17th Street and Pacific Avenue, leasing space from the university and waiting for other businesses to fill in between it and the boutique BKB.
In a letter dated Oct. 26 to Spakes, owner Ken Grassi wrote that during those decades, he’d been encouraged at each lease signing because university personnel indicated that connections to other retail shops and restaurants were just a matter of time.
“I understand the need for classrooms for a growing campus,” he wrote, “but please understand that classrooms will not attract a consumer.
“Please honor the commitment that we have believed in, and held onto for over 19 years to allow only retail on Pacific Avenue.”
He concludes the letter by saying the university’s decision and economic conditions mean he might not be in business there after the end of the year. Grassi’s primary location is at Center Street and Union Avenue.
Grassi’s and other retailers’ frustrations with the university’s ideas for Pacific Avenue are a window into the tension between the school and neighboring retailers, some of whom lease space from the UWT.
Spakes believes getting more students onto Pacific Avenue, even if it means putting a classroom there, will benefit nearby businesses. Grassi and Brown counter that university students aren’t their customers.
“You can get taco bars and those types of things, and that’s what the students want and that’s their budget,” Grassi told Spakes at the meeting. “But if you want quality retail, then you have to support us. It’s that simple.”
Spakes disagreed that that’s the university’s role.
“Yes, the commitment was to retail on Pacific,” she responded. “But what you all are not remembering in that equation was that the commitment to retail was retail that supports the university.
“You can complain about students not wanting to spend their money. I will go meet with the students this afternoon and they will complain to me about Indochine being too expensive to get their meals in. ‘Why are you putting businesses in these buildings that we can’t afford to frequent?’”
“There is a tipping point, a magic point that we’re looking for that balances everybody’s interests,” she said. “In the meantime I need the classroom space.”
Kathleen Cooper: 253-597-8546
The University of Washington Tacoma’s retail space along Pacific Avenue:
• Russell T. Joy building, 1720 Pacific Ave.
Usable square feet: 28,964
Retail square feet: 6,328
• Academic building, 1754 Pacific Ave.
Usable square feet: 75,068
Retail square feet: 19,518
• Walsh Gardner building, 1908 Pacific Ave.
Usable square feet: 24,192
Retail square feet: 2,661
• William W. Philip Hall, 1914 Pacific Ave.
Usable square feet: 14,000
Retail square feet: 2,500
• Cherry Parkes building, 1924 Pacific Ave.
Usable square feet: 47,642
Retail square feet: 7,265