Tacoma, these days, has more reasons than ever to stand tall. But how tall should Tacoma stand?
We'll find out in about a year.
Because the city's Planning Commission and City Council will spend until November 2007 figuring how much higher to allow new buildings in Tacoma's 14 mixed-use centers.
The longstanding rule – generally 45 feet, or four stories - no longer works for new development investors who must cover mushrooming land prices, squeeze parking into their building footprint and still construct enough saleable space to get a return on their investment.
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If you need evidence that the 45-foot-limit has become a barrier, just look around at Tacoma's neighborhood business districts. From Proctor to Lower Portland Avenue and Lincoln to South Tacoma, what's happening with commercial development?
"There has been little or no new development in our urban villages in forever," said Bill Evans, a city councilman and Proctor District merchant. "You have to ask yourself the question, 'Why?' "
Evans has plans to build a four-story building in Proctor - ground-floor retail, two floors of office and a top floor with three condos.
That gets him near 45 feet. He wanted the elevator to open onto a roof garden, which would make the condominiums more valuable. But the elevator shaft would stick up above the limit, so Evans either must scrap it or try to win a city variance from the rules. That puts him in an awkward spot as a city elected official.
"Every district needs some kind of creative development, and they're not getting it," Evans said. "We need really good development, good design. . . . I don't think because something (exceeds 45 feet) means it's a bad design."
On the Hilltop, the height limit has come back to bite the City Council in its best intentions.
Remember the controversy in June 2005 when the council voted to buy, then close, Browne's Star Grill? The council followed three months later with a $1 million purchase of three adjacent properties and a promise to quickly find a developer to remake the block into something swanky and catalytic.
The council even named the project after its former city manager - the James L. Walton Hilltop Renaissance Project.
Sorry, Mr. Walton, but no quick renaissance will happen on the Browne's block. The council's promise will go unfulfilled until 2008 at the earliest.
After the Community & Economic Development Department shopped the Hilltop opportunity, only two developers competed. Both companies inserted the same caveat in their proposal - they must build well above 45 feet to make it financially worthwhile, or no deal.
The winning proposal from Tacoma-based Prium Cos. calls for 69 feet to get six stories - one level of retail along Martin Luther King Jr. Way and five levels of residences.
Rather than go through a six-month variance hearing-and-review process, Prium opted to wait for the yearlong review of height restrictions and other development regulations in all mixed-use centers, said Martha Anderson, assistant director of the CEDD.
That way, Anderson said, Prium's project would avoid a public review that could raise neighborhood concerns over its size.
Peter Ansara, Prium's chief operating officer, declined to address the issue, saying he wanted to withhold comment until after the council votes to sell the property to his company. That vote could come next month.
Between Tacoma's downtown core limit of 400 feet and the existing 45-foot limit, how tall is tall enough without being too tall?
"I'm one who's hoping we push the envelope a little bit on this. It takes a little political backbone to do it, but we should maximize the potential of this development boom we're in."
I agree with those words, but they aren't mine. They come from City Councilman Rick Talbert. He represents Tacoma's East Side and parts of the South End - two commercially wimpy areas.
Talbert also chairs the council's Economic Development Committee, which selected Prium for the Hilltop Renaissance Project. Last year, he successfully championed a council vote to raise the height limit on Lower Portland Avenue from 45 to 65 feet to accommodate a future office building for the William M. Factory Small Business Incubator.
"What we've learned in Tacoma is that once a project is built, the chances of redevelopment are at least two or three generations removed," Talbert said. "Once something gets put in concrete and the foundation is set, it's expensive to dig up and start over."
Two other factors call for a "think bigger" height limit.
Adding more stories - for offices or residences - naturally increases the customer base for neighborhood merchants and adds to the vibrancy of the districts.
It also fulfills a growth management mandate to steer future growth into already urban areas. In a nearly built-out city such as Tacoma, we have little choice but to build up.
"People don't like the word 'density,' " Councilman Evans said. "(But) if we're going to make our neighborhood business districts what they have the potential to be, they have to have more density."
Yes, but how high?
City planners have discussed - as a starting point - a 60-foot limit that could rise to 75 feet if a developer incorporated some public amenities.
For development predictability and ease of administration, the city has opted in recent years for streamlined, standardized regulations.
In this case, however, the topographical differences between the 14 mixed-use centers calls for differing height limits.
Consider, as an example, the Hilltop's most visible building - the 14-story, 190-foot tall St. Joseph Medical Center. While just outside the business district boundary, its presence shows how taller buildings along the bluff could work.
Then imagine the hospital in the Proctor District.
"One size doesn't necessarily fit all," said David Boe, principal of BOE Architects and a Planning Commission member. "Sixty-five feet in Proctor would be a huge building. On Martin Luther King Way, maybe it's not."
Dan Voelpel: 253-597-8785