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It’s supposed to be Tacoma’s gateway. Now neighbors complain of homeless, drugs, litter

Unsavory activity on a pedestrian underpass is causing local businesses and property owners to worry over the future of Tacoma’s growing transit corridor.

Members of the Dome District community say they’ve witnessed frequent littering, urination, defecation and drug use on A Street between 25th and 26th Streets. The street was converted to a pedestrian and bicycle-only underpass as part of Sound Transit’s commuter rail line from Tacoma to Lakewood in 2012. It was meant to make it easier for people to access the other side of the tracks and nearby parking lots.

“We see criminal activity going on all the time,” said Barbi Podemski, who manages the Armour building, which houses Home Instead Senior Care and Erickson McGovern Architects, just east of the underpass. “It’s a blight in the neighborhood.”

City officials, including Mayor Victoria Woodards, say they have increased security and are working toward other solutions.

“City staff have been working diligently to explore all options that might be available for this issue impacting the Dome District,” Woodards send in an email to Dome District business owners last month.

‘Transit-rich area’

The underpass sits beneath the commuter rail tracks and features an ADA-accessible ramp and “The Locks” — the well-known communal sculpture inspired by the Pont des Arts in Paris.

It’s not as inviting as it was meant to be, according to some. They say the underpass is indicative of a larger problem in the Dome District — that Tacoma’s transit gateway doesn’t exactly say “welcome” at the moment.

The city touts its Dome District, which spans east of Interstate 705 and north of Interstate 5, as “one of the region’s most transit-rich areas.”

That’s only expected to grow in the future. Two new stations for Sound Transit’s Tacoma Dome Link Extension (TDLE) project and Pierce Transit’s new Bus Rapid Transit expansion to the Tacoma Dome are planned in the coming years. The TDLE alone is projected to have more than 20,000 riders per day after completion in 2030.

As transit development grows, some worry those passengers are going to see what the people who work and live there see.

“It has been ongoing and a frustrating issue! The solutions have been slow coming,” Dome Business District president Janice McNeal told The News Tribune in an email.

Alex Grinkin is the operations manager for Crawl Pros, an insulation contractor business located just north of the underpass.

“I feel for them, too,” Grinkin said about people who are living in the underpass. “...but when your gateway is filled with not exactly your best citizen, I would say — it’s not reflective of what you want your town to be.”

One person staying in the underpass named Beans said the walkway provides shelter from the rain and a place to converse with others. He said he’s seen drug use there but that it’s not everyone.

“I’ve seen it before ... When I’m here and some of my other friends come around, we run them away,” he said.

Tacoma Police Department officers patrol the area regularly, spokesperson Loretta Cool told The News Tribune.

“Occasionally, officers will walk through during the day,” Cool said. “At night when the gates are closed, patrol checks the area around the closure.”

Years-long concerns

Safety concerns are not new there.

In 2017, the state Department of Transportation and city staff, police, and outreach workers, cleared “The Jungle” — a large homeless encampment under Interstate 705. Many displaced people moved a few blocks to the underpass. They told The News Tribune’s Matt Driscoll at the time that they weren’t sure where else to go.

The results of clearing the camp are still lingering, it seems, as are the frustrations of local property owners, who say they’ve been in touch with city staff for years. Podemski provided email correspondence between city staff and property owners dating back to March 2018.

“The stakeholders in the Tacoma Dome District are frustrated and angry at the city’s lack of response,” Podemski said in an email to The News Tribune.

The city did respond to concerns in the summer of 2018 by installing fencing and gates on either end of the underpass. Sound Transit staff close the gates at 8 p.m. and open the gates at 6 a.m.

“The City also provides weekly cleaning services in the area and installed public trash cans to address concerns regarding litter and debris,” city spokesperson Megan Snow said. “TPD routinely monitors the area, and neighbors have recently reported they are pleased with the results of enforcement actions.”

David Armstrong, vice president of operations with candy distributor Brown & Haley, works at the store across the street from the underpass. He said he’s seen improvements and thanked staff last month, but stresses that laws need to be enforced when it comes to illegal activity on the site.

“We warned when this underpass was put in, that this would be a security problem,” Armstrong said in an email. “After over 5 years of pleading with the City, I’ve actually seen an increased Police presence in the Dome District, which is much appreciated.”

Others say problems persist.

McNeal feels the gates don’t seem to be working and told city staff as much in an email in January. She added that the matter has become more urgent after a man died from a stabbing on 25th Street the month before.

“Citizens are being threatened and no longer feel safe using this transit corridor,” she wrote.

One property owner, who only wanted to be named by his first name, Dennis, said he purchased the building across the street from the underpass three years ago.

Dennis said he doesn’t see himself developing his property “for at least a decade because (city officials) have to resolve the balance between compassion for the homeless and safety.”

Solutions

Property owners met with Mayor Woodards several weeks ago to discuss their concerns and potential solutions.

They’ve asked for increased lighting and security in the area. Options are still being discussed, Woodards told the owners in an email in September.

“I am getting a briefing from staff in the next week in order to fully understand the issues, what’s been done in the past, and what might be done moving forward by either the City or our community partners as we balance constitutional rights with activities that impact quality of life,” she wrote in the September email. “I know this issue impacts you very immediately, and I am exceptionally appreciative of your patience while staff looks comprehensively at the options available.”

Council member Robert Thoms, who represents the Dome District, said he’s serious about tackling the safety issue.

Thoms said he’s made two mid-biennium budget requests to help address the matter. One would increase the number of officers per police sector across the city — for a total of eight new officers. The second would expand the city’s Business Improvement Area (BIA) by two people. The BIA provides maintenance, security and streetscape improvements downtown, but its service area doesn’t quite reach the Dome District, Thoms said.

“Every day that we grow, every day that the intensity of use grows higher down there, we have a greater responsibility to provide safety (and) security,” Thoms said.

Thoms added that it would behoove the city to make its growing transit corridor and gateway as welcoming as possible. He said he is working to try to get fellow council members on board.

“What I challenge all my colleagues on the council to say is — ‘What is your definition of welcoming?’”

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