After a heady burst of growth in its early years, Tacoma’s reborn Thea Foss Waterway four years ago entered a difficult period of adolescence.
Planned developments were canceled, two of three major residential buildings on the Foss’ west side entered foreclosure and a big hotel and office project got bogged down in political and legal challenges.
Now, there are early cautious signs that development on the Foss may resume, albeit at a much more deliberate post-recession pace.
“I think that we’re going to be seeing a steady pace of development,” said Joe Zawacki, Thea Foss Waterway Development Authority president.
Zawacki said that despite the economic hits the development business has taken in the last few years, the waterway’s attractiveness, its proximity to downtown, its on-water ambiance and its pleasant mix of parks and buildings, remain unchanged.
“We’ve got the walkability, the water views and the sites that continue to be big assets,” he said.
During the down times, the waterway authority, tasked with turning the formerly polluted industrial backwater into an urban showplace, has made steady progress improving the waterway’s shoreline and preparing it for the next wave of development if and when that comes.
In the next several months, the fruits of that background labor will begin to emerge on the waterway, said Su Dowie, the waterway authority’s interim executive director.
Several major and minor projects are moving forward:
• The Foss hotel. The authority and three different developers have spent nearly a decade trying to create a waterfront hotel on Dock Street. Now, it appears ground could finally be broken for that project in the next few months.
The hotel site is a vacant parcel on the waterway’s west side between the Esplanade and the Thea’s Landing condominium projects. Two developers struggled for years to create a hotel proposal that would meet bank requirements for financing. They reconfigured the design multiple times adding and subtracting hotel rooms and mixing in condominium units atop the proposed hotel. They never succeeded.
Now a third developer, Bellingham’s Hollander Investments, wants to build two hotels on the site connected by an office structure. Hollander, which owns downtown’s Marriott Courtyard as well as several other Northwest hotels, appears to have the financial muscle to build the first phase, a 102-room hotel, but has encountered legal and political roadblocks that kept the hotel project in limbo.
The owner of downtown’s Hotel Murano and a hotel workers union were behind those challenges. They argued that Hollander’s hotel wouldn’t be deluxe enough to the site, and they worried that it would be staffed with non-union employees as is Hollander’s existing downtown hotel.
The Hollander hotels opponents first blocked the approval of an environmental agreement for the hotel at the Tacoma City Council. Then, when a new council approved that document, the opponents challenged the hotel’s shoreline development permit through a series of hearings and court cases.
Last month, the Washington Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the case, freeing Hollander to seek building permits for the hotel. If those opponents don’t challenge those building permits, groundbreaking could happen in the next few months, said the project architect, Dave Murphy.
• The Foss Waterway Seaport. The Seaport, a maritime heritage, event and education center, is midway through a multi-million dollar phased rehabilitation of its home, the century-old Balfour Dock on Dock Street. The heritage center is now closed during reconstruction of the building’s north wall.
That project will open up the north end of the structure with a dramatic glass wall that will reveal the contents to visitors.
The building, owned by the waterway authority, has already had its overwater dock redone and its roof repaired. Once the north wall is complete next spring and the building reopened, work will begin on the west wall, said Tom Cashman, the seaport’s executive director.
The west wall reconstruction will re-create the large doors through which agricultural products were unloaded from rail cars and stored in the building until they were shipped out aboard vessels. Those openings will be glass instead of solid doors.
“When we’re finished you should be able to see all the way through the building from Dock Street to the waterway,” said Cashman.
When the seaport is finished, it will be the most comprehensive maritime heritage center on the West Coast, said the seaport.
Housed in the last of what was once a mile-long series of warehouses that lined the waterway and Commencement Bay, the seaport will give visitors a taste of Tacoma’s rich maritime history, said Cashman.
• The Murray Morgan Bridge. The historic drawbridge was for decades the main access from downtown Tacoma to the Tideflats. Closed because of structural and mechanical deterioration several years ago, the bridge is now being rehabilitated to again carry vehicular, pedestrian and bicycle traffic over the Foss to the waterway’s east side.
Project manager Tom Rutherford said he expects the bridge will reopen to traffic late this year. Contractors will be doing finishing work on the structure through February.
Of particular importance to Foss redevelopment will be an elevator along the bridge’s west approach that will allow new egress from downtown to the Foss Waterway level. That elevator will replace a pedestrian ramp that carried walkers from downtown to the waterway and the Municipal Dock in the bridge’s shadow. That dock, demolished several years ago because of its deteriorating condition, was once the axis of transportation in Tacoma with a fleet of boats headed from the dock to numerous communities around the Sound.
• Waterway Park. This nearly 2-acre park at the southeast end of the waterway is halfway through its creation. Environmental remediation is nearly complete on the park site that once was the location of a plating company. The park already has a dock that allows access to the water for human-powered watercraft such as kayaks, canoes, dragon boats and rowing shells.
The waterway authority is looking for further grants to pay the costs of landscaping and equipping the park.
• Float plane dock. The Tacoma Waterfront Association and the waterway authority have been collaborating on siting and building a new dock that will accommodate float planes. The dock would allow both private plane owners and commercial operators to provide transportation to Tacoma.
No ordinary float will do for a float or seaplane because the wings require a large clear space adjacent to the dock edge not constricted by pilings or superstructure.
• Esplanade expansion. Ultimately, the waterway will have a pedestrian esplanade following it for its full length. New efforts are under way to expand the existing esplanade further north near the Murray Morgan Bridge.
• New waterfront site. The recent demolition of the old Colonial Fruit and Produce warehouse north of Johnny’s Seafood Co. has made that land available for potential development. That plot, now in private hands, is being offered for sale.
• Former Prium office building site. This site north of the 21st Street cable-stayed bridge over the waterway was once destined to be the site of an office structure built by Tacoma’s Prium Co.’s. Prium walked away from the site during the recession after it had invested substantial money preparing it for development and buying purchase options from the waterway authority. The site now is a temporary parking lot. The authority’s Dowie said the land should eventually be sold for an office building site. That office building would provide badly needed daytime customers for Dock Street merchants, she said.
• A new Master Redevelopment Strategy. The authority has spent months preparing a new Master Redevelopment Strategy that lays out the game plan for the next several years. That plan is to be considered for adoption soon. The new plan, among other things, suggests reducing the retail requirements for structures built along the waterway. Until more offices and residences are built along the waterway, said Dowie, retail could remain a struggle. The new plan would allow filling some of those now-vacant retail spaces with offices at least until the waterway area reaches a critical mass that will support more retail operations.
John Gillie: 253-597-8663