A half-million-dollar grant has launched the City of Tacoma toward pre-approving up to 30 million square feet of new development in south downtown.
The two-year process is high-level master planning with high stakes. Instead of requiring environmental and traffic studies for each project, the city is developing a broad plan for the Dome and Brewery districts, the University of Washington Tacoma and part of the Foss Waterway.
The project will examine the area's roads, power, water and sewer needs, giving city leaders a tool to help them decide what infrastructure investments to make during the next decade. It also will plan for parks, trails and open space.
More significantly, the process is designed to write an environmental impact statement for the entire area, which developers then can use to skip a time- and money-consuming step: individual environmental review. The city estimates developer savings of about $5.8 million.
"After the sub-area plan, when you or a developer want to do a project, you just come in and get your building permit. All the work's already done," city planner Ian Munce said in late September, at a gathering of more than 60 people representing south downtown business and property owners.
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This could shave months from a project timeline and save developers from having to spend money on individual traffic studies and water plans before they're sure an idea is feasible.
"Half of getting someone interested in property is having them understand what the process is going to be to get to permit time," said Mike Cohen, a South Sound developer who now is working on Point Ruston. "The time factor is one of the most important things to any developer."
But speeding up development time shortens the time residents have to react to things they might not like. And under a 2010 state law, once such an area-wide environmental impact statement is approved, a development that follows it can no longer be appealed on environmental grounds.
In a recent interview, Munce said that's why this process is important. Broad involvement is needed to find the sweet spot that allows Tacoma to prime the pump for private development and plan for future public infrastructure investments.
"If we get this right, we'll have a sub-area plan with clear policy and regulation and it will await private investment to bring it to light. Or public investment, in the sense of UWT being the big players" in the area, he said.
Tacoma is one of the first to embark on master planning under the new law.
"This is the new standard for metro areas to do your work up front so you make it more attractive to investors. It doesn't guarantee you anything but maybe gives more of a competitive edge," Munce said.
Broad environmental review is a good tool, said city councilman Ryan Mello, who also is the Pierce County director for sustainable-community nonprofit Forterra. This process isn't designed to address the things that affect people's quality of life.
People don't mind big buildings, Mello said. They mind big, ugly buildings.
"Tacoma's still very weak, in my opinion, on design standards," he said, and environmental review "is not the venue to tackle that."
A planner for the City of Bellevue said Tacoma's process will be hard work.
"You've seen very bucolic illustrations of all this wonderful development with big trees and everyone is going kumbaya, but then when it gets built everyone is furious," said Michael Paine, Bellevue's environmental planning manager.
"You have to do enough work that people feel certain that what they want to happen will happen," he said. "And if it happens to not be the case, woe to the politician who happens to be around at the time."
Sprawl and roads
The Puget Sound Regional Council won a $5 million federal grant to plan for dense urban communities around mass transit. The City of Tacoma received $500,000 of that for south downtown, which is the nexus for transportation including the streetcar, commuter trains and buses.
The goal is to guide population growth. About a million additional people will call Western Washington home by 2040, regional planners say, and about 100,000 of them should head for Tacoma.
"That's how the long-range plan would like things to develop, otherwise we're doing the same old thing of sprawl, sprawl, sprawl, and build roads, build roads, build roads," Munce said. He acknowledged that people so far have voted with their feet to live somewhere besides downtown Tacoma. "We're trying to redirect where people will go and put the investments in place."
City planners arrived at the 30-million-square-foot figure by looking at the most recent Pierce County Buildable Lands report, which showed the potential for 45 million square feet of redevelopment in all of downtown under current zoning. The 1.5-mile area affected by the sub-area plan, is the most underutilized part of downtown.
By comparison, downtown Bellevue is about half a square mile and has 15.3 million developed square feet.
Munce said this plan won't commit the city to spend anything, just write a to-do list.
In many places, the sewer and power lines are decades old. Deciding to work on that will be a separate policy decision.
Since the mid-1990s, state law has allowed "planned actions," which assess the impact of development on a geographic area before a specific project is proposed. Cities from Tukwila to Vancouver have done them. Planned actions are designed to help developers avoid an appeal under the State Environmental Policy Act, but such appeals are allowed.
Developers say many SEPA appeals are made with the intention of stalling out an unpopular project.
Last year, saying it wanted to further encourage dense development around transit, the state legislature modified state law to allow cities with more than 5,000 residents to make "sub-area plans" for parts of the city. If they do, they have to do an environmental impact statement for the sub-area.
The 2010 law has a list of public notification requirements leading up to final approval of a sub-area plan and EIS. But for those cities that accomplish it, the new law has a sweetener: Projects under the approved EIS can't be appealed on environmental grounds.
"The public still perceives SEPA as the gold standard," Bellevue planning manager Paine said. But he can see the benefit of the new tool.
"When you have a broad landscape you want to remake, this is an ideal instrument," he said, "because you can address a lot of the issues but you don't subject every single project that comes in to every hurdle that you have to get over."
Richard Weinman, a Mercer Island planner and land-use consultant, worked for years on planned actions, including the 6,000-acre Suncadia Resort. He said the appeals shut-off is noteworthy, but not worrisome.
"That's one of the controversial aspects of these new techniques. Because it's been done this way for so long, people are more comfortable with project-by-project review and are uncomfortable giving up leverage that provides," he said. "But none of these things are written in stone. Plans aren't forever. If it turns out consequences aren't what you expected, you can change it."
The process for south downtown's EIS is only beginning. One community meeting was held in September. Another is planned for Dec. 1. The city has convened regular meetings of stakeholders in the neighborhoods. Private business groups such as the Hillside Development Council and the Dome Business District Association are working on their ideas for the draft EIS, which then will work its way through the city's planning commission and City Council. Both of those bodies will hold public hearings.
Deciding on the scope of the environmental review is important. The draft EIS will include only the things people say are priorities, Munce said. At the September meeting, he used air quality as an example.
"If you think air quality should be central to development plans, if you submit it now we must consider it. Otherwise it might be just a paragraph in the final analysis," he told the group. "Up-front SEPA only works if we do huge outreach at the beginning."
Will up-front SEPA really draw investment? One local developer says yes.
Having an environmental review already done is huge, Point Ruston's Cohen said, because it allows a developer a much firmer idea of what they'll have to spend to mitigate any issues. Right now it's an educated guess.
Developers typically won't buy a property until they're sure a project is feasible. They can't know that until they do some studies, and they can't do studies until they tie up the land. That usually involves some earnest money, then months of hiring consultants and working with government agencies on requirements and permits before a single shovel of dirt is turned.
By then, a developer has spent quite a bit of money and still has no guarantee of return.
"You can spend $100,000 on a traffic study relatively easily," he said. "After you do the study, then the city determines what kind of requirements they'll impose, so you go in semi-blind."
"It's the difference between driving along a rural road and seeing a farmer's field. That farmer will sell a quarter-acre lot to build a house, but now I have to go plat the property. Then I have to figure out utility, water, sewer, power, all of that, and what it will cost," Cohen said. "Or, if you're driving along that same road and someone was offering those lots for $70,000 and all of that was taken care of."
Cities shouldn't wait for private development to create a place where people want to be, said Seattle-based urban designer and planner Mark Hinshaw.
"I think many people in local governments - and some are my clients - overstate the incentive that (up-front SEPA) is. It clearly is an incentive to developers," he said. "But a far more powerful incentive is for developers to see city investing in infrastructure early. Parks, new streets, civic structures, committing their own dollars to the line rather than saying, 'we want you to come do it.' "
Munce said the University of Washington Tacoma will be a part of the public investment. The school is helping lead the up-front SEPA process, and facilities director Milt Tremblay said it will help the urban campus grow more smartly while saving money.
"We do building by building, lot by lot right now," Tremblay said. It doesn't make sense to plan a campus that way. Getting environmental review done for the entire area will help the campus better predict building costs, which helps it when it asks the Legislature for money.
A faster development process also can help things be built more quickly, which could lure some projects from other UW campuses, Munce said.
Hinshaw said the UWT is a magnet for activity now, but it won't be enough in the long run.
"People in a community don't necessarily view campuses as for them," he said. In Tacoma's Stadium District, "Wright Park is clearly open to anyone. You can use it day or night. It's one of the great parks in the region. You just know it. A campus isn't the same."
At the September meeting, many audience members agreed that in the chicken-egg game of downtown development, the people must come first. Public institutions, like parks and schools, will draw people. People then draw developers, many said.
"How you develop the amenities downtown will affect who wants to live there," Dome District property owner Forrest German said.
Paying for infrastructure upgrades is another issue.
Munce said part of the sub-area plan will tackle that by determining what improvements can be paid for with existing rates, and how much extra might be needed. Then it's about phasing.
"Here's how the cost can be shared," he said, "so the first person coming in isn't paying for everything."
UWT's Tremblay said the best example of how this might work is South 21st Street, which comes up often as a major point of concern. The five-lane road is the southern boundary of the campus, provides entry to and exit from a major highway, and scales a steep hill. It's car-congested, difficult to drive on, and dangerous to walk across.
Putting it in the sub-area plan makes it part of the collective action, Tremblay said. It would be very difficult for the Holiday Inn, now under construction on South 21st, to improve the road all by itself just because their project was the first major new construction in years on that street. But if there's a plan to share the cost, Tremblay said, everyone could help.
Or, a so-called catalyst project - something big and desirable - could prompt the City Council to help move it forward by agreeing to upgrade a large swath of sewer lines. And a third idea, Munce said, is drawing thresholds, where infrastructure is fixed based on a certain number of developed square feet.
Envisioning south downtown with that much development can be difficult in the middle of a recession. But Munce said the economic slowdown makes the timing just right.
"I don't mean to be cavalier about this, but this is the perfect time to do it. You haven't got all this development coming through the door," he said. "Unfortunately it looks like we have a little time here to do this work. And we'll be ready when the market does pick up."
HOW YOU CAN GET INVOLVED
What: A community meeting to hear ideas about the future of south downtown.
When: 4-7 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Carwein Auditorium, Keystone Building, Room 102 on the University of Washington Tacoma campus.
Online: www.cityof tacoma.org/planning, click on "Dome/Brewery Subarea Plan & EIS."