Aging. Rusty. Hideous.
That’s how elected officials and Tacoma Public Utilities staff described the 90-year-old lattice towers that carry power lines on North 21st Street, occupying grassy medians in the middle of the road for a stretch of more than a mile between North Highland Street and North Proctor Street.
But there’s good news, officials say: Sixteen of the 75-foot towers will be replaced starting next year with 12 “sleek” steel monopoles, and that could lead to a transformation of the busy, four-lane road to something more transit-, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.
“There’s a big opportunity to make improvements on a number of fronts ... when we get down these hideous, huge electrical towers that are just ugly and have no use shortly,” City Councilman Ryan Mello said. “We can remove some blight in the neighborhood, which is going to be great.”
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They might be ugly, but the lattice towers are historic. They’re part of the Potlatch Transmission Line, built in 1925 to bring power from the Cushman Hydroelectric Project to Tacoma. The towers will be among the last of the original power line structures to be replaced, according to TPU.
Removing the towers, which TPU says are in a state of “significant deterioration,” will allow the city of Tacoma to transform that stretch of North 21st Street, which has no sidewalks, no turn lanes, no bike lanes and can be a scary place for pedestrians. In October, two girls were seriously injured while crossing the busy road on their way to Mason Middle School.
“This corridor is one of the most dangerous corridors because of how fast the traffic flows,” Mello said.
The $8 million project to replace the towers with monopoles is set to begin in April, TPU said, but the city’s dreams for updating North 21st are not yet funded and there is no hard timeline for the road upgrades.
City and TPU officials will meet with the public at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the University of Puget Sound’s Wheelock Center Rotunda to share their plans for the pole replacement and get feedback on the future redesign of the road.
“We’re very excited about the opportunity created by replacing the transmission towers,” city traffic engineer Josh Diekmann said. “The roadway is currently not serving the community as well as it could and the chance to add additional amenities and to improve traffic flow is a great opportunity to improve the quality of life for our residents.”
Some residents expressed hope that the power lines would be buried when the towers were removed, North End Neighborhood Council board member Jodi Cook said. But burying the lines would have cost five to 10 times as much, TPU officials said.
Still, “At this point, I think everybody is going to be pleased overall visually that the city and TPU are looking to make it a more attractive corridor from a pedestrian standpoint,” Cook said. “So I imagine people are going to be pleased with anything that’s kind of a change.”
A still-to-come feature of the pole replacement project will mean disconnecting the Cushman Substation from the electrical system and determining its future use.
The elegant substation building and towers, built in 1926, are on the National Register of Historic Places, and members of the North End Neighborhood Council are hoping to get the building placed on the Tacoma Register of Historic Places. Cook said that designation would more strictly limit what can become of the three-story building, recognizable by its templelike entry.
Right now, it seems out of place on a lot filled with electrical equipment. Neighbors are hoping for a park or community center of some kind in the future.
“While it’s kind of ugly to look at all the technology that made up the old station, once that’s gone, it would be wonderful to keep it as more of an open space,” Cook said. “Various (North End Neighborhood Council) members have taken a look at different ideas — could that possibly be a park? I know that’s something most people seem to gravitate to.”
Cook pointed out a policy in the city’s One Tacoma comprehensive plan that encourages “the conversion of electrical substations for recreational purposes if the sites are no longer needed for their intended purpose.”
For now, TPU spokeswoman Nora Doyle said, the utility isn’t sure what will become of the building or the property. In fall next year, the substation will be disconnected, and at the end of 2017, the equipment and structures within the fence will be removed and largely scrapped, she said.
“We’re just not there yet on the substation, we’re trying to focus on the power pole work and once that’s taken care of, we can turn to what’s next for this building,” Doyle said. “We know it’s beloved by the neighborhood. It’s gorgeous. We’re just not ready to make any determinations yet about its future.”