McMenamins Tacoma site tour goes behind the scenes of all that scaffolding
When McMenamins Elk Lodge opens next year, it will be a venue unlike any other in Tacoma.
The complex at 565 Broadway will offer a 45-room hotel with terrace views of Puget Sound, along with a pub, three restaurants and a live music venue.
All that will draw crowds — some expected to be up to 1,000 people — to a part of downtown that doesn't have parking dedicated for the lodge.
Where will all those fun-seekers, diners and overnight guests leave their cars?
Most of the parking lots are several blocks south of the Elks Lodge. Some garages in the area are not open for overnight parking. Street parking is available overnight — if you can find it. Any of the options usually involve a bit of a hike, often on steeply sloped streets.
Over the years, as efforts to restore the historic Elks Lodge unfolded, the Great Recession was in full swing. Developers for a companion project dropped out and funding for the Elks project came together slowly. Eventually, Portland-based McMenamins took the helm of the project.
But dedicated parking for the site seems to have been lost in the paperwork shuffle.
At one time, plans for a vacant lot to the north of the historic building included structured parking, apartments and hotel rooms. That idea might return, albeit in a different form, but not immediately.
Most other ideas — none of which are formalized — include visitors parking blocks away and walking, or taking the Tacoma Link light rail.
“We will work it out,” Mayor Victoria Woodards said when asked if there would be a problem if other downtown venues have events at the same time as McMenamins.
HOW WE GOT HERE
Plans for the Elks Lodge site were very different a decade ago. The lodge was to be a standalone entertainment venue — not the hotel it's becoming.
To the north, on what was a city-owned lot, developers planned a new building with more than 250 parking spaces topped by retail outlets, apartments and hotel rooms managed by McMenamins.
But proponents for that northern structure couldn’t shore up financing, and a last-ditch effort to convince the city to spend public dollars on structured parking similarly failed.
City staffers and elected officials said they couldn’t justify using most of a state grant intended for downtown revitalization on a parking garage.
For one thing, a consultant’s analysis in early 2012 showed the parking venture could lose $10.3 million over 20 years — at a time when the city faced a $31 million shortfall.
“We were in the recession at the time,” Elly Walkowiak, assistant director for the city’s Economic Development Department, told The News Tribune. “It was not a risk worth taking.”
Later that summer, McMenamins bought the lot from the city for nearly $1 million.
As a condition of that purchase, the company agreed to construct and open for business a building that could include several uses, including a hotel, restaurant, brewery, distillery and event space. If the plan didn’t work out, the city had the option to buy the land back for what McMenamins paid.
To date the property remains a bare. Construction workers park on a small, gravel parcel facing the entrance to Interstate 705, while goats occasionally eat the vegetation on the upslope area.
July 2017 marked five years since the sale. Walkowiak said she asked several city officials whether the city should buy the land back from McMenamins.
“I was told that was not what we wanted to pursue,” she said.
'People get used to it'
There's some on-street parking along Broadway and Commerce Street, which border the Elks Lodge. Ten parking stalls in a lot next to the building were mentioned at a recent project overview when attendees asked about parking.
That’s more than what’s demanded by city code, which does not require any parking for the $34 million renovation.
The city’s planning goals and policies, City Manager Elizabeth Pauli said, aim to encourage people to walk, bike and take a bus or the Link downtown .
“And I hope they have that result,” she said. “You not only bring more people, you bring more people who are more interested in the walking, biking, transit lifestyle.” .
As for the Elks Lodge, the citizen Parking Technical Advisory Group, which advises the city on parking issues, hasn’t had “formal conversations” about parking for McMenamins, said Eric Huseby, parking services manager for the city. It’s expected to within the next year, he said.
In a recent News Tribune interview, Mayor Woodards didn’t seem overly worried about the prospects of a parking crush downtown.
“McMenamins operates in urban cores,” she noted. “They know how to make it happen with very limited parking. I suspect they will do the same thing in Tacoma.”
Some of the company’s other properties don’t have much or any dedicated parking, said co-owner Mike McMenamin.
“People get used to it rather quickly, if you are used to living in the city,” he told The News Tribune.
PARKING IN GARAGES, LOTS AND ON THE STEET
If you can’t park at the Elks Lodge, or next to it, then where will you park?
Woodards pointed to a city-owned garage with nearly 500 spaces off Ninth Street across the street from the Pantages Theater on Broadway. That’s about a fifth of a mile south of the lodge.
Another garage stands about a block south of the Elks. Formally titled the Broadway and Commerce Garages but known to locals as Graffiti Garage, it has no overnight parking at the moment.
But it will have 68 spots available to the public for overnight parking by the time McMenamins opens, according to a representative of Diamond Parking, which operates the garage.
That is, unless it’s redeveloped in the next few years with parking, retail and apartments, an idea developers are exploring, according to city records.
There also are garages on the northeastern corner of South Ninth and Commerce streets, with more than 100 spaces, and the Rialto Garage at 909 Market St. with 136 spots.
Meanwhile, a parking lot with nearly 50 spots south of the McMenamins property and the adjacent Spanish Steps could be replaced by a garage.
“If there is substantial demand for parking in the future, we will look into building a mixed-use garage structure,” said Han Kim, a partner at Seattle-based Hotel Concepts, which paid $1.8 million for the property in 2017.
As for nearby parking lots, one run by Republic Parking at 916 Broadway (across the street from the Pantages and Theatre on the Square) has 36 slots, according to city records.
As for street parking in the area, a hodgepodge of regulations govern how long people can park and for how much.
On Broadway, south of the Elks Lodge, people can park for up to two hours for $1 a hour. North it's free, but with a two-hour limit. Uphill in an alley, parking is free, but sometimes only for 90 minutes.
At the moment, parking restrictions in the area end at 6 p.m. By the time McMenamins opens, said Huseby, the city’s parking services manager, parking limits should at least be uniform.
Six on-street parking spots will be lost north of the Spanish Steps during construction of the Link expansion, said Sound Transit spokesman Scott Thompson.
On the plus side, the rail line will pass by the Elks Lodge on Commerce, Street with a stop at the bottom of the Spanish Steps.
On the minus side, the project is not expected to be completed until 2022. For now, trains stop about 10 p.m. unless a high-capacity event requires them to run later, Thompson said.
As for down the line, the city’s parking advisory group is examining two parking studies for spaces near the Elks Lodge.
One study showed that demand for street parking north of the Elks is growing. Huseby said that if more than 85 percent of parking spaces in an area are taken, the city takes measures to encourage parkers to move on. That includes charging for parking or limiting how long a vehicle can stay there.
During peak parking hours, the study found, the downtown business core and nearby St. Helens districts showed more than 88 percent of parking spots being used — and demand growing.
To the south of the Elks, during peak parking hours, vehicles took up three quarters of available street spaces, from South Seventh to South 23rd streets, the second study showed. Overall, more spaces were left open after 2:30 p.m., and more parking was available to the northeast — near the Elks Lodge.
WHAT MIGHT CHANGE?
City leaders expect the Elks Lodge to be busy. On-street parking is already relatively full and will continue to grow in demand with Mcmenamins' arrival. That could force some changes in restrictions.
“When we put those two-hour parking changes in (immediately next to the Elks building), what we said was, ‘This is going to change when McMenamins is going to come in.’ " Huseby said.
And if business owners in the area complain because hotel customers are taking up street spots, there is precedent for extending parking restrictions beyond 6 p.m. to encourage people to move their cars, Huseby said.
As far as dedicated parking McMenamins would have some control over, for now, it comes down to the former city-owned lot on Commerce Street at the base of the "goat slope" on the northern side of the lodge.
That’s where the company sees promise.
Mike McMenamin said he could see a multistory parking garage with hotel rooms on the site.
Still, he noted, “It wouldn’t be as big as what was proposed (in 2009),” which “would overshadow the Elks and be out of scale.”
McMenamin did not offer a time line for developing the site, which isn’t helped by construction costs being higher now than nine years ago and crews scrambling to keep up with construction here and in booming Seattle.
TAKE THE BUS
McMenamins has not been in touch directly with Pierce Transit, but “it has been on our radar,” said Rebecca Japhet, the agency’s communications manager.
“Fortunately,” she said, “there is robust transit service in the area.”
Three bus routes have stops at Sixth Avenue and St. Helens, which are about one-tenth of a mile from the Elks Lodge.
“And, while less convenient,” Japhet said, “we do also have a plethora of routes in the Ninth and Broadway area (about 0.4 of a mile away).”
And in a pinch, visitors in the future would be able to use the park and ride lot near Freighthouse Square near the Tacoma Dome and take the Link to a stop at the base of the Spanish Steps.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
More than a century ago, when the Elks Lodge and other male-only civics clubs were in their heyday, streetcars were the main method of transportation in Tacoma.
Today, in a city that hosts a car museum, McMenamins looks like a futurist to some observers as it embraces the Elks Lodge’s historic significance, with no rush to add a modern parking structure.
The Spanish Steps originally were installed to allow pedestrians access between two streetcar lines, said Michael Sullivan, an architectural historian who has consulted for the McMenamins project. One ran along Pacific Avenue to points south. Another ran up Broadway to points north.
“To some degree, the buildings are positioned there from the days before automobiles,” Sullivan said. “It might be time to get back to thinking about transportation systems that are more efficient and compact in an urban setting like that.”