Michael Mirra spots an empty potato-chip bag, blown by the wind onto an otherwise pristine playground. Without missing a beat, he picks it up.
The park, the kids climbing on its big toy, and the homes that surround it have particular significance to Mirra as the executive director of the Tacoma Housing Authority. He looks out for all of it in the nearly 200 urban acres and more than 1,300 dwelling units just off of Portland Avenue that make up what he earnestly refers to as “the largest redevelopment of its time in the history of the city.”
We’re at New Salishan, marking an important achievement for Tacoma and the city’s East Side.
“Building Salishan for the last 15 years was (Tacoma Housing Authority’s) preoccupation. THA is not a large housing authority, by some measures. Salishan was a large project, by any measure,” Mirra observes, crumpling the empty bag in his hand as we walk.
“It’s one of the largest redevelopments of its kind west of the Mississippi. And it took everything we had,” he continues. “It took our reserves. It took our bonding capacity and our credit limits. … There are people at THA who threw their hearts, lives and marriages into building (Salishan).”
The impetus for our leisurely stroll is a landmark more than a decade in the making.
What’s striking to anyone who’s watched Salishan transform from a World War II-era development, hardly built to last and, later, plagued by perceptions of rampant poverty and crime, is the absence — at long last — of construction noise and for-sale signs.
That’s because, in May, the single-family home portion of the New Salishan development was finally completed, the culmination of a $300 million redevelopment effort that began in 2001. D.R. Horton, the private builder responsible for the final 215 single-family homes of Phases 2 and 3 of Salishan’s redevelopment, has finished its work, with all but two of the homes sold and closed. The two remaining properties, Mirra tells me, have buyers lined up and are expected to close by the end of the month.
It’s one of the largest redevelopments of its kind west of the Mississippi. And it took everything we had.
Tacoma Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Mirra
“That is a notable milestone,” Mirra says in his understated style.
The history of Salishan — THA’s largest public housing development, transformed into a mixed-income community now full of low-income renters and both market rate and low-income qualified homebuyers — reaches much further back than the last 15 years.
The very name that it now goes by, “New Salishan,” implies a storied past as “old Salishan.”
“The history of Salishan really started with the attack on Pearl Harbor. When that particular war started for this country, the federal government realized two things: That a lot of people were headed to the Pacific Northwest to build the ships and planes that won that war, and second, when they got here, they would make a housing shortage a lot worse,” Mirra explains.
In response, the federal government built Salishan as an emergency wartime measure — constructed specifically to house war workers and their families. Similar communities were constructed across the region, including Holly Park and Rainier Vista in Seattle.
“They were all built fast,” Mirra says of the uninspiring, nearly identical box-like homes that originally made up Salishan, dating back to the early 1940s. “I’ve read that Salishan was built with lumber cut from the timber that was growing on the site. That denotes the emergency.”
Tacoma City Council created the public housing authority in August 1940, noting “a shortage of safe and sanitary dwelling accommodations … available to persons of low income at rents that they can afford.” Then THA managed Salishan for the federal government when World War II made the housing shortage worse.
Once WWII ended, the federal government bestowed the development upon THA, and the bulk of the next 60 years saw Salishan’s original 855 units serve a crucial role for a diverse slice of Tacoma’s neediest people. It began as one of the city’s first racially integrated neighborhoods and, later, served as an important landing spot for the influx of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees who accompanied the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War.
But by the end of the 20th century, Salishan had become burdened by perceptions of gang activity and violent crime — perceptions that all too often had a basis in reality. As a 2002 editorial from The News Tribune noted, “In the late 1980s, Salishan residents (had become) trapped in a wave of drugs and gang-related violence.”
At the same time, the homes that made up Salishan were also falling into disrepair. A trip to the development revealed chipped paint, failing structures and plenty of boarded up windows.
By 2001 it was abundantly clear that something needed to be done.
The redevelopment of Salishan, which broke ground in 2002, has frequently, and rightfully, been described as ambitious. Not only did THA hope to turn 855 outdated housing units into more than 1,300 up-to-date dwellings, a mix of more than 900 affordable rental units and more than 300 single family homes for sale, but the agency also had a vision for creating a diverse community in every sense of the word.
Once complete, New Salishan would be a mix of homeowners and renters, races, ethnicities, languages, ages and income levels. As Mirra describes, “The challenge and the charm of Salishan is to help people now live across those lines.”
The old Salishan, everyone thought of it as poor, poor, poor, poor. But the new Salishan … To me it doesn’t feel like the projects. The old one did.
Longtime Salishan resident Jeannie Daniels
To those who’ve seen both eras at Salishan, like Jeannie Daniels, who lived at Salishan with her mother in the ’80s and returned as a single mother in 1996, the transformation is clear.
“It’s changed a lot,” Daniels says from the living room of the five-bedroom unit she rents from THA and shares with four children and one grandchild. “The old Salishan, everyone thought of it as poor, poor, poor, poor. But the new Salishan … To me it doesn’t feel like the projects. The old one did.”
Gloria Horsley harbors similar sentiments. She also has a history at Salishan dating back to her childhood and now shares a rental unit with her 28-year-old daughter, Taneisha Purse, and her 5-year-old granddaughter, who will attend kindergarten at Lister Elementary next year.
They reminisce about some of the overlooked virtues of old Salishan, like more room for children to roam and fewer rules. And they agree that New Salishan is not yet the neighborhood it could be —– a community center for the children and more food and grocery options would help. But while they have fonder memories of the past than an outsider might imagine, they like the new Salishan.
Horsley watched empty plots of land turn into the neighborhood she calls home today.
“I love the neighborhood. I love the fact that it’s now a mixed community, it’s not just everyone over here is low-income,” Horsley says. “We watched it grow.”
Purse, who’s spent most of her life renting at Salishan, agrees.
“I remember seeing dirt piles everywhere. So watching them build everything and put streets in, it’s just like, ‘Wow, that looks really good,’ ” she tells me. “My daughter says ‘Mommy, there’s so many big houses. Can we have one, one day? And I say, ‘You know what, we will.’ ”
The sale of new homes proved to be an essential part of the financing for the utilities, including the new electrical grid, new water distribution, new sewer system, and an innovative storm water management system. Even through the rollercoaster of the Great Recession, the anticipated home sales and the financing it supported allowed the project to stay on a track.
You think about how many opportunities this neighborhood has, and the potential is just mind-blowing. This neighborhood is going to get bigger and better.
Salishan homeowner David Longwell
Private single-family home sales also allowed New Salishan to achieve THA’s vision of neighborhood diversity, mixing income levels and race and ethnicities. Compared to the general market in Tacoma and Pierce County, Salishan has significantly higher percentages of Asian, African American or black, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Island and Hispanic homeowners. Also, by design a quarter of the home sales were reserved for low-income buyers at or below 60 percent of the area median income.
“Having a mixture of different incomes and the different lifestyles people have, it opens a lot of people’s eyes,” says 40-year-old David Longwell, who purchased a market-rate home at Salishan a year and half ago and now serves on the board of the Salishan Community Association.
“You think about how many opportunities this neighborhood has, and the potential is just mind-blowing. This neighborhood is going to get bigger and better,” he continues with confidence.
“Sit back and watch and see what happens. It’s going to blow your mind.”