The seven candidates for Tacoma’s City Council District 3 hold views on development and how Tacoma should plan for growth that are as diverse as their backgrounds.
Many of the candidates want the city to capitalize on the eventual extension of the Link light rail from downtown to the Hilltop. The extension could break ground in 2018.
Running to represent city Council District 3, which includes the Hilltop, Tacoma Mall area and Central Tacoma, are: Peace Community Center’s director of middle school programs Keith Blocker, restaurant owner Kris Blondin, State Farm employee Whitney Brady, Robert Hill, Pierce Transit spokesman Justin Leighton, Pierce College teacher Tom McCarthy and Army veteran Valentine Smith.
The two candidates who receive the most votes in next month’s primary election will appear on the November ballot. The winner will replace Councilwoman Lauren Walker, who is unable to run for re-election due to term limits.
Perennial candidate Hill, a felon who sometimes goes by the nickname “The Traveller,” was not interviewed. At least 20 people have filed 21 restraining orders against Hill since 2008. He has been convicted of forging a judge’s signature on a temporary restraining order and intimidating a judge.
Question: How do you think Tacoma should plan for future growth?
Blocker: “You can’t be afraid to build up. There’s been some push back on new developments and apartment buildings. I think we have to have a city that’s more dense. We need to be mindful of how we do that because we don’t want to take away the historic aspects of our community.”
At the same time, Blocker said he wants Tacoma to be attractive for the highly educated and young workforce who would like to live and work in the city, but cannot find a job because of a lack of opportunity.
“We need to address issues around housing, making sure our housing is affordable to families and individuals in the city,” he said. “We need to look at ways we can promote the city of Tacoma as a place that people see as being attractive and a place they would want to live.”
Blondin: “Right now with urban development the concern is always about sprawl, and urban studies now are saying we need to go up.”
One good example, she said, is Proctor Station, a six-story residential and commercial project in the Proctor District that has prompted concerns from some neighbors. She knows it’s controversial, but “I think that’s the future, is trying to avoid urban sprawl.”
That said, there is a lot of opportunity in District 3 for that type of development, she said. “The Central Tacoma neighborhood is primed for that kind of urban growth.”
Brady: “The most important thing is with the influx of new residents that we receive, that we aren’t pushing out the residents we have to make room for the influx.”
He said the city should consider the income level of expected residents, and examine what the city considers as “affordable housing” to avoid Seattle’s current problem. Many of Seattle’s long-time residents can no longer afford to live there, Brady said.
Tacoma has a chance to learn from Seattle’s example, he said, “and what could happen if we put this emphasis on big-time development and pricey condos and high-rise buildings and hotels, and try to turn our city into that type of baby Seattle model. I don’t think that’s the right approach.”
Leighton: “We need to start focusing on infill and transfer of development rights, where folks out in the rural areas can transfer the development rights and put them into the city.”
He also wants to evaluate whether to restructure tax abatement programs that delay property tax increases for multifamily developments. Leighton would also want to know how they have helped the city and how they have been used.
“If we want to create communities, we need to have good plans,” he said.
McCarthy: “We have an incredible opportunity to have really high-quality, dense development that can help grow our city and do it in a way that is both responsible to the people that live here, and inviting to the people to move here.”
He said he doesn’t believe the current tax abatement program, which can entice developers to build affordable housing, is working in the Hilltop area.
“Hilltop can have incredible views and wonderful market-rate housing in an area that’s been ready to pop for years,” he said.
Smith: “We need development that not only includes some low-income housing, but fits into the neighborhood so we can avoid this choice in Proctor.”
The city needs a long-range approach to how Tacoma develops, “and maybe come up with incentives to entice people to invest in the city of Tacoma and build these developments.”
Smith is aware of the tax abatement program. He said it should extend to people buying new homes.
“I’d like to see a tax abatement on a major remodel on some of these older homes in Tacoma,” Smith said.
Q: What should the city do to encourage development along the Martin Luther King Jr. Way corridor?
Blocker: “We’ve got to figure out ways we can make this city, specifically the MLK corridor, a place where people want to place their businesses. … It’s going to take some strong leadership and innovative thinking.”
Everyone — the business community, the council and labor unions to name a few — will have to work together to accomplish this goal, Blocker said.
“Everyone’s going to have to put aside their personal interests so we can do what’s best for the city as a whole,” he said.
Blondin: The planned Tacoma Link light rail expansion will be a great asset to nudging along development in the MLK corridor, Blondin said.
“I think if we could get more people excited about that, I think we could encourage more businesses (to) the MLK and Hilltop area. We could get more restaurants. We could get more retail, because (the Link is) a perfect way for people to travel from the downtown and to the hospital.”
Brady: The city needs to expand a program that fills empty storefronts, called Spaceworks Tacoma, in the Hilltop area, Brady said.
“I would love to see micro-businesses and different setups,” Brady said. “… There’s a lot of things that can go in, but it’s about focusing on the community and not trying to go big, or with one size, or hitting it with a sledge hammer to fix the problem.”
Leighton: “There’s vacant land owned by the state that the city has been trying to sell for the state,” said Leighton, of land at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and South 11th Street, previously owned by the Martin Luther King Housing Development Association. “It’s been two-and-a-half years now and nothing has moved on it. We need to figure out why.”
The city should also look at why developers are not willing to locate in the Hilltop, he said.
“There’s a lot of potential and it’s ready to go,” Leighton said. “I think the potential is there. … We don’t want just any development. We want to make sure they are bringing affordable housing to it as well.”
McCarthy: “The best way we can do that is shift policy on the multifamily housing incentive so that it has larger apartment buildings and incorporates an affordable housing percentage component.”
One lot in particular, the Sav-A-Lot parcel at 1105 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, has sat empty for years and likely will for another three or four years until the lease is up, he said. In the Sav-A-Lot parcel, McCarthy sees an opportunity to create a mixed-use building with “stupendous views.”
“You could have a transformation of that urban center,” McCarthy said of that spot. “The affordable housing component will preserve affordability for people who have lived there for generations.”
Smith: “I know we refer to (the stretch of MLK between St. Joseph Medical Center and Tacoma General Hospital) as medical mile. I’d like to see if we could get more medical facilities in and around the area, up and down the MLK corridor.”
Smith said there are many vacant buildings in the area. “Why not give someone tax incentives to remodel the building and turn it into something that’s being used for housing and retail space?”