Business Columns & Blogs

Bill Virgin: Is Tacoma taking Seattle-like growth tactics too far?

By Bill Virgin

Contributing writer

Proctor Station in the Proctor district in Tacoma in April.
Proctor Station in the Proctor district in Tacoma in April.

“Don’t Californicate Oregon” read the legendary bumper sticker sported by those unhappy about the northward migration of the tanned and wealthy who would, it was feared, do to their state what had been done to the Golden State.

That delicious combination of words so immediately and efficiently communicated the sentiment that other states in the West borrowed and tweaked it to express their own revulsion at an influx of Californians.

Washington has had its own fearful bouts over Californians, usually in the Puget Sound area and typically sparked by increased traffic congestion and rising home prices.

Those problems are, if anything, more intense than ever, although you don’t hear nearly as much muttering around these parts about Californians being to blame. Rather than Californians moving here to escape pricey housing markets, the current problems brought on by so many people trying to cram into one small area are more home-grown, with successful companies attracting workers from all over the map.

But there is a somewhat similar phenomenon playing out at the micro level, as residents warily and uneasily watch development trends sweep into their own community.

There’s no catchy phrase to sum up and capture that wariness and unease, but it’s no less real for lacking one. Until one of our readers comes up with something better, we’ll have to work with this clunky version:

Don’t Seattle-ize Tacoma.

It’s not so much transplanted Seattleites themselves that are the problem. No doubt many of those who see their destiny in a city long in search of one are coming to town looking for less stratospherically priced housing. If anything Tacoma could use that influx of spending; even better would be if the cohort of new residents included business owners and entrepreneurs bringing companies and jobs to town.

The bigger problems are the attitudes and strategies about where those people are going to live when they get here.

Those issues, and the community’s unease, were illustrated recently with stories about proposals for new, large residential developments in the Proctor District and on Sixth Avenue.

Seattle, like Tacoma, has long been a city of neighborhoods, with distinct and recognizable looks and personalities, mixing single-family homes, small apartment buildings and small-scale commercial developments.

You can still find those neighborhoods in Seattle, but the city planners would just as soon you didn’t. Instead the city is going all in on the “cram and stack ’em high” model of urban development, best illustrated by what’s happening in South Lake Union and Ballard.

One tricky aspect of this strategy is that some neighborhoods are improved by that approach. South Lake Union was a nondescript district of warehouses, commercial buildings, some housing and vacant properties; calling it a neighborhood would be overly generous. A local parallel might be downtown Tacoma, or along the Foss Waterway.

Ballard, on the other hand, was the quintessential Seattle neighborhood. With hulking buildings disrupting the scale of the place, and with increasing housing and commercial-space prices driving out small businesses and some residents, its personality and attractiveness are on the wane. Increasingly, it’s just a place name.

The Proctor District is another example of a neighborhood that wasn’t in need of fixing. Even Sixth Avenue, stretches of which in recent memory weren’t appealing or active, maintained a certain balance and scale with its thin strip of commercial buildings backed by homes and smaller apartments.

The most frequent reason given for the need or desire to disrupt these neighborhoods is that we’ve got to put all those people somewhere and by pushing density we can also make housing affordable — a dubious proposition at best. Some of the world’s most densely packed cities are also some of the world’s most expensive to live in.

But there’s also a quality-of-life aspect that matters here. While Tacoma often has envied and tried to copy its big-city neighbor, when it comes to urban development policy “We’ll be just like Seattle!” may not be something to aspire to.

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