Sometimes a train is just a train.
Sometimes an art museum is just an art museum.
Sometimes a historic bridge is just a bridge.
And that’s OK. I like trains and museums and old bridges. They make me happy.
But for reasons obvious to some but mysterious to others, second cities like Tacoma can never seem to view such urban benefits through any lens other than economic development. Perhaps like the starving person who thinks only of food, an economically struggling city thinks only of money.
Like when the City Council debated the route for a proposed extension of the Link light rail system. It seemed at times that moving people from one place to another and getting people out of single-occupant cars and into mass transit was the last factor that mattered.
What would the extension do for economic development of the chosen neighborhood? Would it spur “transit-oriented development?” How would it would serve low-income residents was a consideration focused not so much on their transit needs but on their economic needs.
That is how the winning route was chosen, one climbing from downtown up Stadium Way and then doubling back down Martin Luther King Jr. Way. It will spur rebirth in the Hilltop, backers said.
It could happen. But I wonder how many people who live or work toward the southern end of MLK will want to take a detour back through Stadium to get downtown when a direct route up and down the hillside is quicker.
But if the dominant criterion was to move people – especially people who are prone by economics or temperament to ride transit – then a route that extended up Sixth Avenue likely would have prevailed or maybe the route up Portland Avenue in the East Side.
The arts? Tacoma is rightly proud of its museums dedicated to visual art, glass art, state history and automobiles. But we have what we have less because we love art and history than because someone decided it would be a fruitful economic development niche.
Seeing the century-old Murray Morgan Bridge restored is a testament to the truth that it is not only historically significant but does the job of connecting the downtown and the port as well as a newer structure. But the campaign to keep it won the day mostly because the bridge was sold as the best way to spur redevelopment on the eastern side of the Foss Waterway.
The University of Washington Tacoma? The health care monoliths along the so-called Medical Mile? Higher education and health are nice, it seems, but first we needed to know what they might do to trigger an economic rebirth of the city.
Not that measuring the economic reverberations of our choices isn’t a good thing. It’s just that it shouldn’t always be the first thing. It’s just that a lack of direct economic benefit shouldn’t be enough to stop an initiative, especially when the track record of sure-fire plans to spur jobs and investment hasn’t been very sure.
Over the next three months, civic-minded volunteers will once again conduct a series of discussions titled Conversations RE: Tacoma. The annual series brings people together from both inside and outside the city to talk about how the built environment affects how we live and how to make it better.
This year’s prompts are the impact of transit-oriented development, attracting housing downtown and how the arts contribute to a vibrant, livable community. I have been asked to moderate the three panels and might ask participants to talk about whether these things are attractive in themselves or whether they are simply the latest economic development program.
I figure if you’re doing all those things right – as well as creating good schools and parks, as well as providing city services like public safety and infrastructure – the economic development will follow whether we planned it or not.
I’m sure the panelists and those in the audience will have much to say about it and many other facets of urban life in a city that remains – both for good and ill – an incomplete canvas.
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657
JOIN THE CONVERSATION
Conversations RE: Tacoma is an annual lecture series dedicated to discussions of issues of urban design and the built environment. The 90-minute programs begin at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $7.50 in advance and $10 at the door. Program descriptions and ticket information is at retacoma.com
Sept. 19: From Here to There, the Impact of Transportation and its Integration into the Livable City.
Panelists: Ali Modarres, director of urban studies, University of Washington Tacoma; Tina Lee, senior planner, Pierce Transit; Rick Williams, transportation management director and parking consultant, Portland.
Where: LeMay American Car Museum
Oct. 10: Wanted: Housing, Attracting Development of Downtown Housing and the Creation of Urban Neighborhoods.
Panelists: Mark Huppert, Preservation Green Lab; Tom Dolan, architect and author of “Live/Work in Plain English”; Bruce Mann, professor of economics, University of Puget Sound.
Where: Carwein Auditorium, UW Tacoma
Nov. 21: Getting the Vibe, The Social and Cultural Role of a Vibrant, Livable Community
Panelists: Candi Hall, director, DASH Center; Cathy Cochrane, communications manager, Arts WA; Mayumi Tsutakama, grants manager, Arts WA; Amy McBride, arts administrator, City of Tacoma.
Where: Museum of Glass