Business Columns & Blogs

Competing interests at stake in Tideflats

Land, they’ve told us for years, is a terrific investment because they’re not making any more of it.

The current unpleasantness in residential and commercial development aside, the principle isn’t entirely without merit, especially if the land in question is the kind with water next to it.

That kind of land has always been in high demand. How many homes in Tacoma have had a few thousand dollars added to the selling price on the mere suggestion of a “peek-a-boo view” of water?

And they really aren’t making any more of it, aside from those countries such as Dubai that have built entirely new islands to create more waterfront properties.

So until someone floats – literally and figuratively – the idea of creating a new island bobbing in the Sound off Point Defiance, the current inventory of land adjoining water is what we’ve got to work with.

Which means the one growth market we can count on is arguing about what we do with it.

TNT reporter John Gillie’s articles in last Sunday’s paper detailed the discussions about the future of the Port of Tacoma and the Tideflats. The questions about how to use the region’s industrial lands are, as the articles noted, part of a larger debate that goes on in every community with a water view: What is the best use of this land?

In answer to the queries, “Should we continue operating traditional industries there? How about a container port? Or maybe more mixed commercial use? Or should we encourage more recreational or residential development?” Tacoma’s answer has been “Yes!”

The problem is not just that two uses can’t occupy the same space at the same time. They often don’t make compatible or comfortable neighbors.

Maintaining an authentic working waterfront while also giving the public increased access to the water works fine in artists’ renderings, but the combination breaks down in reality. You don’t really want the tourists wandering around the stacks of containers, dodging the straddle carriers.

But you do want residents and tourists to be able to get close to the water, because it’s what they want. The throngs of people walking and jogging along Ruston Way attest to that, and the jobs created in eateries suggest there’s an economic model in that approach.

Most coastal American cities, like Tacoma, developed with working waterfronts – fishing piers, shipyards, canneries, port warehouses – then carved out public access as some of those uses moved or shut down.

The slow-motion dismantling of the Asarco smelter and the eventual conversion of the site to residential and recreation is the latest chapter in the evolution of the waterfront.

But some uses are a function of location. Since ships don’t navigate land well, the port is not going away any time soon. But it could change shape and size, as traffic shifts to other ports, or to air cargo, or an economic boom brings more ship calls here.

Nor is the public likely to lose its desire to live and play next to water, especially now that it’s had a taste of the possibilities.

This is a lull in the longer-term tussle over land use along the water. No one has the money to develop something, whatever its purpose, nor is there the business demand to justify that development.

That condition won’t last.

When the recession does end, the first place for renewed development will be the waterfront.

Expect a renewal of some pitched and largely irresolvable arguments between competing uses for that property.

Irresolvable, that is, unless you’ve got some spare fill dirt with which to construct some waterfront of your own.

And once you do, expect people to fight over that, too.

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