What to do about trash, litter in downtown Tacoma? City has $400,000 plan for it

The city of Tacoma is embarking on a plan to address cleanliness in its downtown Theater District, an area stakeholders say has been plagued by litter and blight for years.

The proposal, totaling roughly $400,000, would install 28 secured, covered trash cans and centralize commercial solid waste collection, preventing businesses from leaving dumpsters near heavy vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

“This is in recognition of a growing Tacoma,” said Council member Robert Thoms, who helped sponsor the initiative. “It’s important we have a city that’s safe for people who live here and those who come visit. It shouldn’t be riddled with trash.”

The pilot area extends from Sixth Avenue to 11th Street between Court D and Court A.

In that area, about 56,000 gallons of waste is collected per week, while 32 percent of commercial trash containers are left on the curb all the time, according to a recent presentation by the city’s Solid Waste Management department.

The new “Bigbelly” trash cans are considered “smart” waste bins. They are solar powered and equipped with foot pedals to open and prevent scavenging. They also hold more trash, requiring fewer pick-ups.

Each Bigbelly would cost roughly $4,500 to install, with an estimated total of $128,000. That doesn’t include annual maintenance, which is estimated to be $47,000 per year for collection and disposal, cleaning, pressure washing, graffiti removal, repair and replacement.

Transitioning to a central collection system, where businesses deposit their trash at the same location, would cost about $205,000, with an annual operations cost of $52,000. Recycling would cost $185,000 to set up, with $24,000 in annual operations costs. Where that central location would be has not yet been determined.

“We’re also dealing with safe and clean issues,” said David Schroedel, executive director of Downtown Tacoma Partnership. “When (people go downtown) if it’s clean, they’re more likely to feel like it’s being cared for, and they’re more likely to come back.”

The problem

The Downtown Tacoma Partnership, an organization representing an area of about 400 residents, has noticed an increase of blight and litter in the city’s Theater District. Formerly called the Business Improvement Area (BIA), the organization provides maintenance, cleaning, beautification and other services to a 13-million-square-foot area downtown.

Sxhroedel said staff has noticed particular trash trouble in the Theater District, citing unattractive garbage cans left along streetscapes, crowding out pedestrians and parking. Unsecured trash cans overfill, are tipped over or rummaged through, strewing garbage across the streets, he said.

Schroedel pointed to three, 300-gallon trash cans along Ninth Street near the Original House of Donuts as one example.

“They sit up there 24-seven and get filled over the course of the week, and when they get full, the people using those cans just leave stuff next to the cans,” Schroedel said. “And in some cases whatever they’re leaving there doesn’t fit in the cans to begin with, like a mattress or something like that.”

It’s not just misuse from other people that’s been a cause of the blight.

“My team has been out picking up the cans after they’ve been spilled over just because of a wind storm,” Schroedel said.

It’s also an infrastructure problem. Buildings in the Theater District don’t have solid waste receptacles built into structures as part of building code, like newer buildings, and many businesses don’t have any place, like an alley, to hide their garbage from a busy streetscape.

“Right now I think they’re creating a hazard, and just from curb appeal, they’re pretty dastardly looking as well,” Thoms said of the trash cans.

City staff says the area received a high volume of 311 complaints — more than 100 calls over the last year and a half. The Downtown Tacoma Partner receives about 300 calls a month, Schroedel said.

“The BIA has expressed frustration on this issue for years, and that they have picked up the yeomans’ work of trying to address the trash issues and that maybe the city hasn’t responded appropriately,” Council member Lillian Hunter said at a City Council study session on Oct. 29. Hunter is also a sponsor of the initiative.

Hunter and Thoms said the changes stemmed from what they’d seen while attending a show at the newly renovated Pantages Theater last year.

“We were just appalled at the level of trash and what the landscape was ... for this grand opening,” she said.

The plan

The city is looking to install the Bigbelly trash cans as of the first quarter of 2020. Similar trash cans are already used by Metro Parks and along Sixth Avenue.

The centralized collection program might take longer as the city decides on a location. That could mean having to pay to acquire land. Wherever the location, the goal would be to have it “aesthetically pleasing” with possible security cameras and lighting to ward off scavenging.

A centralized collection site doesn’t come without its barriers. Available real estate is already scarce, and what is available could be difficult to access. It also requires commitment from business owners, who would be asked to carry their trash to the specific location instead of leaving it right outside their front doors.

At this point, city staff say that they’re on board.

“That’s a pretty big barrier to tell our Starbucks customer that you have to take your garbage two blocks away, but it’s reached the point where people are dumping over their containers and they have to clean them up every day because we have issues with people going through for day-old pastries,” said Michael Slevin, city environmental services director, at the Oct. 29 study session. “Businesses have now reached the point that they would prefer to work with us to centralize the garbage and keep the downtown clean.”

The city would monitor the effectiveness of the Bigbelly trash cans through the amount of trash picked up and through the number of 311 calls.

“I look forward to seeing this show some results (and) if we can extrapolate where we might implement this in other parts of the city,” Thoms said.