Decision due soon on use of former Weyerhaeuser mansion for events

Staff writerApril 9, 2014 

At long last, it appears that the city of Tacoma, which controls the land-use rules that apply to the former Weyerhaeuser family mansion on North Stevens Street, is ready to render its verdict.

JOHN GILLIE — Staff writer

For nearly nine months, Tacoma North End neighbors near wooded Mason Gulch and the would-be buyers of one of the Northwest’s most iconic timber-era mansions have battled over the mansion’s fate.

The potential owners want the mansion — now a theology school — to become an elegant venue for weddings and corporate events. The neighbors say almost anything else would be better.

Now, at long last, it appears that the city of Tacoma, which controls the land-use rules that apply to the former Weyerhaeuser family mansion on North Stevens Street, is ready to render its verdict.

Tacoma land-use planner Philip Kao said he expects Peter Huffman, the city’s interim planning and development director, will make a decision on the conditional-use permit application for the 15,000-square-foot Tudor-style home by early May.

Issuance of that permit and the conditions it sets for use of the mansion as an event site could well determine whether Seattle’s Blue Ribbon Cooking School buys the mansion from its present owner, Corban College. Corban, a divinity school, is switching to a different site.

“There are many good uses for the mansion,” said Rod Dempster, spokesman for the neighbors opposing the conditional-use permit. “A party house is not one of them.”

Many neighbors complain that weddings flood the neighborhood with cars and with tipsy revelers who consume all of the neighborhood street parking and steal the peace and tranquility of the well-groomed, upper-end community.

They’ve posted signs and hired lawyers and held meetings to oppose the mansion’s conversion.

Blue Ribbon’s owners say they have crafted a plan that will minimize the disruptions and keep the celebrations under control.

Vanessa Volkman, Blue Ribbon co-owner, was unavailable for comment this week.

In the past, Volkman has pledged to work with the neighbors to minimize the disruptions that events might cause.

The opponents expect that Huffman’s decision won’t be the last word on the mansion’s use.

And planners say they expect either or both sides of the controversy to ask for reconsideration of the decision and to appeal to the city’s hearing examiner.

If the decision is appealed, it seems likely that at least this summer’s events planned for the mansion may go on unhindered by new rules while the appeals are pending. Blue Ribbon has been actively booking events at the site throughout the battle.

The city has issued a violation to Corban to halt the events that go beyond their traditional rules for use of the mansion grounds — no alcohol and early curfews. But enforcement of that citation has been held in abeyance while the conditional-use permit application is pending.

Neighborhood groups say that last summer’s event season proved how disruptive the event center can be. Corban leased the mansion to Blue Ribbon for events last year.


Much of the decision-making on the conditional-use permit ultimately might hinge on a traffic study commissioned by Blue Ribbon’s owners.

Blue Ribbon submitted that study and a revised parking plan late last winter to the city. Kao said the city’s traffic engineers are analyzing that study now.

Under that plan, the catering company proposes to expand parking within the walls of the mansion grounds and, in the case of extra-large events, shuttle attendees from the grounds of nearby Sherman Elementary School to the mansion.

With changes, the catering company maintains, the street parking use in the neighborhood will be tolerable.

Neighborhood groups have lobbied the Tacoma School District not to rent the school grounds for parking. Thus far, the school district has declined to rule out remote parking at Sherman.

The neighbors say that the traffic study doesn’t paint a realistic picture of what will happen during most larger events.

The study, for instance, assumes that the average occupancy of cars coming to the event will be three persons. Dempster said that number is unrealistically high. Most event attendees travel to the event two per vehicle, or in some cases, arrive solo.

The study also underestimates the number of inside-the-walls parking spots available to event attendees after permanent mansion residents’ cars, event staffers’ vehicles and suppliers’ trucks are considered, the neighbors contend.

And the event venue opponents say it will be difficult if not impossible to force event-goers to park at the more distant elementary school lot when street parking in the neighborhood is closer.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663

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