Cleanups and revival of Tacoma’s waterfront also stokes land-use debate

Rachel Torgerson helps launch a family attempting their first voyage on a Walker Bay, one of several small training sailboats provided by the Sea Scouts during the Tacoma Maritime Fest along the Thea Foss Waterway earlier this year.
Rachel Torgerson helps launch a family attempting their first voyage on a Walker Bay, one of several small training sailboats provided by the Sea Scouts during the Tacoma Maritime Fest along the Thea Foss Waterway earlier this year.

The Thea Foss Waterway’s revival, in conjunction with the cleanup of Commencement Bay, is a remarkable Tacoma success story on multiple levels.

Aside from the laudable conservationist aspect of removing decades of accumulated industrial contaminants and improving water quality, the redevelopment of the western side of the waterway opens a whole new playground for the city. On a sunny afternoon you can enjoy a meal or adult beverage while taking in the view of paddleboarders, kayakers and other boaters making their way along the waterway, as well as the sweep of city landmarks from the dome and the car museum out to the bay. The esplanade — a $5 word for the broad concrete walkway along the bank of the waterway — makes a great place for a stroll, a jog, a bike ride or somewhere for the kids to burn off energy.

The revival and cleanup weren’t cheap projects, but the cleanup and associated redevelopment chronicled in last Sunday’s News Tribune have already made some return on investment in the form of commercial investment. They add to the inventory of publicly accessible waterfront and could take some pressure off other well-loved and heavily used stretches of recreational shoreline, such as Ruston Way. It’s a civic-amenity project that simultaneously makes the city a nicer place to live for those who live here and more attractive to visitors — some of whom might be enticed to become residents.

But it’s not all sunny days, cold beer and fish and chips. The esplanade provides a great view into Tacoma’s ongoing debate and quandary over what destiny has in store for the city, especially when it comes to matters like industrial lands, operations and jobs.

That esplanade, for example, provides a great view across the Thea Foss to the tall, empty boatbuilding shed of the now-closed Martinac operation; when the light hits the interior just right you can still see the ways where tugs and fishing vessels were launched.

Developers and planners have eyed that eastern side of the waterway as a place to extend the newly spiffed-up Tacoma, but such visions collide headlong with the fact that the eastern side of the Thea Foss is also the western edge of the Tideflats, traditionally the city’s industrial heart.

With more people living, working and playing along the waterway, pressure will build for nonindustrial uses to make the leap to the other shoreline. That’s going to create some contentious fights over land use between those already there and those who might move in.

Or maybe the more accurate term would be increase fights over land use. At the risk of telling you we told you, we warned that the fight over the Tideflats’ future wasn’t going away even if the methanol plant did. In fact, the fight was going to continue and intensify even if the methanol plant had never been proposed.

The battles aren’t quite the same. The methanol plant was a single big project proposed for an existing industrial area. The ongoing debate has to do with conversion of existing industrial space to other uses, nibbling away at the margins.

How deep a bite should those nibbles take? No farther east than D Street, or no farther north than 11th? Where does the line get drawn? Should there even be one, or should the property go to whoever can throw enough money on the table? Should redevelopment be blocked if there’s no apparent demand for that property in its current use, such as would seem to be the case with Martinac? Or will potential industrial users be discouraged from considering the Tideflats if they fear getting dragged into perpetual battles over the use of the property?

And what happens when the new residents move into their waterfront properties only to discover they’re also now living next to an active industrial zone? Maybe they won’t mind; the current Foss Waterway residents must be able to endure the concussive boom of slack being taken out of a stretch of container cars as locomotives power up to move a long freight from a standstill in the rail yards next door. Or perhaps they’ll clamor for something to be done, namely pushing all that noise farther away.

The view from the esplanade is nice, but to get a real appreciation for the dilemma, take a flight over the Tideflats via Google Earth. There’s a lot of property there, and a lot of industrial activity and employment within it. Whether there’s enough room for people to live there too is Tacoma’s next big decision.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at