Inside Pao’s Donuts at the western end of Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue, a steady stream of cash-only customers lines up at the register. One by one, they walk away with doughnuts by the dozen. Outside, a line of cars waits at the drive-thru, their tires triggering a bell as they arrive at the window.
Meanwhile, in the shop’s seating area, a group of graying regulars sips coffee from Styrofoam cups.
It’s a scene that plays out day after day at Pao’s — a slice of Tacoma’s West End that’s both dependable and comforting to those who know it and love it. It’s been this way for years.
Outside Pao’s doors, though, is a neighborhood bracing for change and the upheaval that comes with it.
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In the coming years, as a city, we’ll have an opportunity to help transform Tacoma’s West End and Narrows Business District into new and better places. It will take vision and a commitment to stick to it.
What’s equally clear is that not everyone will like it.
“Everybody’s wanted change in Tacoma for so long, and now the change is coming fast,” said Carol Wolfe with Tacoma’s office of Community and Economic Development.
Tacoma City Councilman Anders Ibsen, who represents the West End, agreed.
“Change is always hard, in the sense of knowing and loving a neighborhood,” Ibsen said.
Both, rightfully, view an increased interest in private development in the area as an opportunity to be seized. The area has a number of vacant lots that are ripe for development, they point out, and the city finds itself in position to take advantage of this. For some, things like increased density, mixed-use developments, and a focus on the pedestrian above the car — all of which will play a part in the city’s vision — would be welcomed improvements.
For others, of course, the opposite is true.
People who appreciate the area as is will worry about a loss of neighborhood character, a lack of affordable housing options and what an influx of new residents will mean for the way of life they’ve grown accustomed to.
Everybody’s wanted change in Tacoma for so long, and now the change is coming fast.
Carol Wolfe with Tacoma’s office of Community and Economic Development
Roughly a block away from Pao’s, the former home of the Imperial Dragon Chinese restaurant sits closed.
As The News Tribune’s Kate Martin recently reported, there are plans to build a six-story apartment and retail building with 113 units in its place, the first example of what city leaders and many residents hope is a coming neighborhood renaissance.
It’s one of two redevelopment proposals currently working its way through the city’s pre-application permitting phase, according to Wolfe. The other is a three-story residential building with 12 units, located behind the Imperial Dragon site.
News of the proposed development at the former home of the Imperial Dragon elicited mixed reactions. On The News Tribune’s Facebook page, people fretted over parking, the addition of yet another large apartment building in a city that suddenly feels like it’s sprouting them and the impact on quickly rising rents.
“I’m very sympathetic,” Ibsen said when asked about such sentiments. “I grew up going to Pao’s and going to the Swasey library. The Cloverleaf, that’s my home away from home.
“It’s also very hard when you’re struggling to pay rent, and it seems like the only apartments you see are ones you could never afford.”
There are valid concerns. At the same time, change in Tacoma — and in the West End — is inevitable. Like it or not, as the housing crunch continues to impact the greater Puget Sound-area market, people increasingly will be drawn to Tacoma. The city will need to act thoughtfully and purposefully to accommodate them.
The West End, with its local amenities, access to public transportation and “good bones,” as Ibsen put it, is a natural landing spot. It’s also important to keep in mind that each new housing unit — even the pricier ones — is an asset in the big picture, helping to alleviate the shortage that’s responsible for the crunch we’re all feeling.
“Ultimately, even for the people who can’t afford to rent those places — and it’s hard to hear this — but those places are still helpful overall to the affordability crisis,” Ibsen says.
For perspective on change, Ginny Eberhardt, a member of the West End Neighborhood Council, is a good person to turn to. She’s lived in the area for 68 years, since the streets were unpaved.
Although Eberhardt doesn’t adore all the changes in her neighborhood — like the pot shops, for instance — she’s embracing a chance to re-imagine things there. She welcomes new mixed-use developments, where the zoning allows for them, and believes they’ll help reinvigorate the neighborhood where she went to elementary school and has spent her life.
“We have been overlooked. It’s been extremely frustrating,” Eberhardt said when comparing past to present, and the vibrancy that’s been lost over the years. “We want good businesses coming in down here, like we used to have. Now, maybe this will spur other people to come in and do the right thing and revitalize this area.
“We’ve been asking for it for years.”