We know that.
Recently released 2010 census figures confirm what clogged freeways and new subdivisions on converted farmland already told us. Despite the recent recession, the Puget Sound region continued to teem with new residents in the past decade. Pierce County alone added nearly 100,000 people – the equivalent of a new Lakewood and Puyallup combined.
Zoom in your Google map for a neighborhood-level look at the numbers and you’ll see the growth wasn’t distributed equally. Central urban areas grew little for the most part, while outlying areas far off the freeway transformed from farmland into new cities.
The state’s 20-year-old Growth Management Act was supposed to put the brakes on sprawl and channel growth into existing cities. But the shape of the South Sound’s growth in the first decade of the new century raises the question of how well the law is working – and how the region will accommodate hundreds of thousands more residents expected in the next 20 years while keeping its quality of life.
Consider these snapshots of growth in the area:
In Tacoma, you can’t miss the high-density, high-rise apartments near Tacoma Mall. They and new condominium projects downtown helped add 5,000-some people. But overall the city grew by only 2.5 percent, and most established single-family neighborhoods lost numbers. Mature cities such as Federal Way, Puyallup and University Place grew modestly, and Lakewood actually lost population.
In Frederickson, on the fringes of Pierce County’s Urban Growth Area, factories and humongous commercial warehouses form a growing “employment center.” But the real industry here is housing. With a population of 18,719, the unincorporated Frederickson community is as big as two Sumners and larger than Ellensburg.
In Yelm, horses graze in a pasture neighboring the Walmart Supercenter, its parking lot bustling with customers. Some 25 eateries now line the city’s main street. Try to get through town during the afternoon commute, and you’ll be in a jam. The former timber town doubled in size – from 3,289 to 6,848 – between censuses.
In DuPont – considered a model of growth management by some – handsome Craftsman homes hug together in cul-de-sacs along well-paved streets with curbs, gutters, sidewalks. There are fine parks, new schools and job offers. But there’s no grocery store for 8,200 residents in a city that grew 234 percent through annexation and development.
“I think the census is a mixed bag,” said Tim Trohimovich, co-director of planning and law at Futurewise, a Seattle-based nonprofit environment advocacy group. “The fastest-growing city in Washington state in absolute terms was Seattle. So it is a success.
“But we are seeing, in our opinion, too much growth on the fringes of the urban growth area, where people have to drive to work, where people have to drive to school, where people have to drive to shopping. These are well-separated from where the jobs are.”
Yonn Dierwechter, an associate professor of urban studies at the University of Washington Tacoma, says he sees sprawl too.
But he also reflects: “The GMA (Growth Management Act) system is certainly flawed, but it is still useful.”
It’s tough to evaluate what the region would have looked like without it, Dierwechter said.
“Better or worse? I would say the latter.”
PUSH AND PULL
It was 20 years and 1.9 million people ago (in total population) that Washington enacted its Growth Management Act.
The idea in 1990 was to divert tides of people from eddying out into all the crevices of the landscape; channel them into places that could accommodate their numbers; and preserve open space, critical habitats, shorelines and farmland.
It wasn’t meant to halt growth, but to better direct it by creating boundaries for development and rules for how to grow, especially in rural areas.
On the ground, it’s a challenge. Two words: South Hill.
The already swelling area south of Puyallup was often cited by land-use policy critics as an example of untamed growth before the law was enacted.
People slapped “Pray for Me, I Drive Meridian” bumper stickers on their cars. Pierce County residents complained about miles of strip-mall-style sprawl and no coordinated planning.
When the county’s first comprehensive land-use plan was adopted under growth-management laws in 1994, opponents argued that the urban growth area was excessive. The county said it was developed in consultation with “stakeholders with various competing interests.” Critics took their case to the Central Puget Sound Hearings Board and lost. The broad growth boundaries stood, and the growth continued.
And South Hill boomed by 65.8 percent in the past decade. It now has 52,431 residents – surpassing its long-established neighbor Puyallup by 15,000. The stream of newcomers vaulted it to a spot as the state’s 20th most populous city or place, larger than Bremerton, Olympia or Kirkland.
Critics still argue that expansive lines allow large developments like Frederickson – 20 miles from the county seat and nine miles from South Hill Mall – too far from the region’s urban cores. They worry about cities such as Orting wanting to add farmland to their urban growth area so it can be sold to businesses such as assembly plants and storage facilities that will create jobs for local residents.
Planners and residents counter that a web of public processes, including community plans, regulatory oversight and public hearings, ensure that the rules are followed and that they hue to the intent of the act.
Frederickson residents “are confident that future growth will remain consistent” with the vision of a community plan adopted in 2003, said Amy Pivetta Hoffman, president of the Frederickson Clover Creek Community Council.
“We are proud of the successes that Frederickson has enjoyed over the last decade,” she added. “Significant economic and infrastructure” growth have occurred hand in hand with residents coming to fill new homes, she added.
Even so, the Puget Sound Regional Council – the agency charged with overseeing growth management – rapped Pierce County’s knuckles. The council told the county in a letter last year that it needs to work on “bending the trend” of movement into outlying areas back toward greater metropolitan areas. The council, which sets guidelines for the amount of growth that should occur in the region, wants the county to limit the population it allows in unincorporated areas.
Pierce County is worried about possible sanctions.
The penalty, if one is levied, likely would be denial of transportation dollars, doled out to the region by the council, which oversees growth management strategy for Pierce, King, Kitsap and Snohomish counties. No one wants that, Pierce County planner Dan Cardwell said in an interview.
The county, he said, will be exploring strategies like establishing mixed-use centers and urban reserve areas that might be trade-offs for growth in other places.
One big issue: There are vested applications, platted lots and planned communities for thousands of houses already on the books, and developers have a right to build them within the urban growth area. Washington has some of the country’s worst vesting rules for development and “spent whole decades platting subdivisions, but not building whole communities,” UWT’s Deirwechter said.
It’s OK to grow in areas like Frederickson if cities like Tacoma grow too and overall building slows in unincorporated areas, planners say.
Pierce County’s working document estimates that unincorporated areas could grow by 58,000 to 63,500 people over the next 20 years. By comparison, proposed population targets show Tacoma absorbing around 80,000 people in the same time – a 20 percent per-decade increase. That seems a tall order considering the city’s 2.5 percent growth rate in the past decade.
But critics of unincorporated growth worry that the region hasn’t done enough to push growth to higher density apartments, condominiums and other multifamily units in the core cities.
Some progress can be seen. New high-density subdivisions and town homes have popped up on infill parcels throughout Tacoma in the past decade. In Ruston, the ambitious Point Ruston residential/commercial district is in the works on the Asarco smelter site, though progress has been stalled by the recession.
Tacoma and other cities have used multifamily housing tax breaks to entice developers to bring projects to their downtowns. Though high-profile condominium projects went up in Tacoma over the past decade, many went unsold during the housing bust – the census counted one-third of downtown’s housing units vacant as of last April.
Dierwechter, an urban studies expert who’s written extensively on the issue, says he believes a “post-sprawl future is already visible” in central Tacoma and Puyallup, University Place and Sumner. Federal Way is asking for proposals from developers who might build mixed-use high-rises with high-density housing in the city.
The solution “is making cities affordable and spectacular places to live so that people don’t want to sprawl,” said Ryan Mello, a Tacoma City Council member and Pierce County Conservation director for the Cascade Land Conservancy. That includes improving education systems so people don’t flee to escape urban school districts, he said.
But he admitted, “This isn’t easy work. There’s no silver bullet.”
How best to balance the region’s visions for its future with developers’ rights, the housing industry’s need to grow and people’s dreams is what Mike Crowley calls “the billion-dollar question.”
“There is always tension between where government planners want to see population grow and where the market chooses to see population grow,” said Crowley, a former Tacoma mayor who’s now executive officer for the Master Builders Association of Pierce County.
“Builders are going to build what the market is telling them to build.”
LIVING THE DREAM
The yearning among many of us to own our own homes is in our American DNA. And as the economy boomed and housing prices rose in many cities, families hunted for homes farther afield – and builders supplied them.
That brought homes and changing economies to cities such as Orting and Fife, once known more for growing crops; it boosted population in Lacey, which turned 40 during the past decade, by 36 percent, as the area along Interstate 5 between Tacoma and Olympia filled in with housing; and it’s continued to make Spanaway and Graham – Grahamaway? SpanaGraham? – two of Pierce County’s housing hot spots.
The lure of semi-rural spaces is also part of their charm, many residents say.
Stephanie Crone, now 50, recalls her sweet introduction to Yelm in the early 1980s: “When I first got here, people would say, ‘There’s that girl from California.’ That’s how small-town it was.”
Her parents, Stanley and Linda Mungarro, retired and moved to Yelm last summer, also from California.
“We’ve been visiting her for over 20 years, and every time we came up we never wanted to leave,” Linda Mungarro said. “It’s just beautiful.”
The couple bought a home in one of the newer developments in town and especially enjoy walking to shopping, parks and restaurants.
“If we get snowed in, we can still get around,” Mungarro said. “It still has that down-homey flavor. You know your neighbors, and you can walk over and knock on their door any time.”
Housing prices drew Vicki Yount to Yelm from Puyallup about nine years ago.
She and her husband, Samuel, an assistant fire chief with South Pierce Fire & Rescue, have enjoyed raising their children, ages 6, 8 and 19, in the area.
“It’s been wonderful; there’s a sense of community,” said Yount, who opened a hair salon about three years ago. “It still has the really small-town feel.”
But rapid development brings change, challenges, consternation.
More businesses have come to Yelm, so there are more choices in food and services. But there’s more traffic, too. The local school district needed new elementaries and expanded facilities to accommodate new families. And water bills have skyrocketed in recent years to help fund infrastructure expansion.
Frederickson resident John Austin loves the feel of his community. It’s a good mix of businesses and homes, he says. He worked on an economic development board to help lure more industry to the county business growth center that’s home to a Boeing plant.
But he and other residents complain that they don’t have a park, despite county guidelines that call for about 76 acres of parkland in a community their size.
Austin is president of Friends of Stan and Joan Cross Park, a group working to raise money to develop land the Crosses donated.
And there’s no town center, either, just Canyon Crossing, a collection of convenient services and a Safeway.
“There’s only fast-food restaurants,” he said. “No slow-food restaurants.”
Just off I-5, DuPont’s got a Starbucks, a Subway, a McDonald’s and other businesses. There’s a section of 20th-century homes dating to the town’s chemical company past, acres of new homes, a town center, miles of walking and running paths, and 13 parks.
But no grocery store.
If you’re military or retired military, you can make your way onto Joint Base Lewis-McChord for shopping, but it’s not always easy – given traffic – or convenient. If you’re civilian, you likely drive to Lacey or Lakewood.
That’s a common complaint, but one DuPont residents live with in trade for commuting convenience and community cachet.
Farrelli’s Wood Fire Pizza waitress Aryelle Selck moved to town with her military family in the early 1990s, when she was 5.
She’s seen big changes in population, but not in attitude.
“I just like that everyone is really welcoming,” she said. “It’s not necessarily a small community, but we act like a small community.”
Former Olympia resident Dana Colwell and her husband found commuting convenience in DuPont. She drives to Puyallup; he drives to Federal Way.
Colwell likes the feel of the place, but she wants her small town to have that grocery store.
It’s also difficult “to get a strong sense of your neighborhood,” she says, because so many military families come and go.
City Administrator Dawn Masko calls her town a success story. Single-family homes in Weyerhaeuser’s Northwest Landing and the Patriot’s Landing military retirement community were planned, and that part of town is nearly built out, she said.
Last month, a developer announced plans for The Trax at DuPont, a $35 million mixed-use project with 179 apartment units, a recreation area, a swimming pool, underground parking and 12,000 feet of ground-floor retail space.
That’s the way managed growth is supposed to happen, Masko and others say.
Up the freeway in Fife, Assistant City Manager Steve Marcotte agrees.
The once-tiny city came close to doubling its population in the past 10 years as former farmlands began growing homes instead. It’s now home to 9,173 people, up from 4,784 in 2000.
Like DuPont, the city planned for its growth in the midst of the metropolitan Tacoma area.
Fife’s new industrial-residential identity includes modestly-priced homes, and “a lot of the people who live here actually work here, too,” Marcotte said.
The city had only one quarter-acre park in 1990. Now it has ballfields, a new museum and more parks and is working on a trail network, he added.
Fife doesn’t have its own grocery store either. But there are hopes of attracting one. Pierce County Library is working to build a branch there.
But still, there are growing pains.
In all communities that grow quickly, people arrive before the improvements do, Marcotte said. “So you get strains on your amenities, on your transportation, on your schools.”
Things are coming along, but Fife, like every city along the I-5 corridor, is a work in progress, Marcotte said.
Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659
Staff writers Lisa Pemberton and Matt Batcheldor contributed to this report.
Editor's note: This story was corrected to clarify that Yonn Dierwechter is male.