In 1979, Joseph Stiles of Tacoma purchased a house built circa 1908 near McKinley Avenue and East 37th Street.
“When I got out of the military, I got hired and worked for the city of Tacoma for 33 years,” Stiles told The News Tribune in a recent interview at his house.
“This was all I could afford,” he added, making a sweeping gesture to the cozy home’s interior, complete with a chiming clock, as the sharp slant of the afternoon fall sun gave an amber glow to the living room.
“I bought this place back then because I like old stuff. It had character, and I wanted to make sure to keep this place as good as possible.”
But change is coming.
Plans call for one of the neighborhood’s homes on McKinley Avenue to be replaced with new apartments, specifically 20 market-rate studio, 400-square-foot units renting at $1,050 a month.
The building also will have one parking space for the entire building, in line with standards for transit-oriented developed projects in the city that have reduced requirements on parking per unit.
While the details are clear for Stiles now, the first he learned about what was happening was in news coverage of the eight-year multifamily tax credit granted for the development.
That’s not unusual.
Small projects planned within already established coding regulations for a site typically are not required to offer any advance notification to neighbors.
The city has called for reviewing the processes for development notification, spurred by other conflicts between neighbors and developers, notably one in the South End.
Whether that process will eventually include small projects (20 apartments or less) like the McKinley apartments is yet to be determined.
To notify or not
The neighborhood’s story is one of many playing out amid Tacoma’s reinvention as an alternative to Seattle for home buyers and renters.
With each announcement of new apartments, new storage facilities, new warehouses, new senior living, new medical facilities, growing pains for Tacoma’s neighborhoods become more evident.
Complicating matters for Stiles’ neighborhood is the array of zoning in the area.
The site for the new McKinley apartments is zoned urban residential mixed use (URX), which means it is geared toward higher-density housing.
Residential commercial mixed use zoning (RCX) is to the west, across McKinley.
Single family zoning (R2) — is to the east, across an alley behind the site of the new apartments and where Stiles and his neighbors reside.
According to information from the city, the project includes 20 units in a 10,200-square-foot building, approximately 32 feet tall. One parking space is provided and otherwise has no required parking.
The building takes up most of the lot.
The number of units is notable not just for the number itself but the requirements, or lack thereof, related to public outreach.
According to the city, apartment projects with 20 or fewer units are exempt from a SEPA review.
Simply put, the McKinley project is allowable outright per the codes that apply to that site, which do not require any environmental review, public notice or public comment/review opportunity.
As of Nov. 1, the site work permit and building permit were still under review and awaiting revisions.
Stiles knew the house had been sold in February. He did not know the specifics of what was to come until he read about the developers’ property tax credit approved by council Oct. 22.
Had that not been covered, Stiles might not have found out until demolition started.
“I have to tell you, I was ... what’s the word?” He finally gets it out.
Even the property tax exemption program has no separate requirement for outreach or public notice, other than what appears on the council’s agenda from the city’s planning department when a project is up for consideration.
Developers “are required to follow all building code/land use requirements ... that all other projects are required to follow. So, if nothing in the development triggers outreach or public notice, none is required by this program,” according to Debbie Bingham, project manager for the city’s Community and Economic Development Department and who made the presentation about the project to the council.
And Stiles said he still hasn’t heard from anyone connected with the new apartments.
The developer of the McKinley 20 project, Primero Courtyards LLC, did not respond to a voicemail or questions sent via email from The News Tribune.
The McKinley development story is not unusual.
Residents who have called Tacoma home even in the not-so-boom times increasingly feel left behind once a yellow “public notice” sign appears on a property in their neighborhood.
Kyle Price, who leads the North End Neighborhood Council, sees that as one of the biggest hurdles.
“I think the big effort involves educating the public about planning,” Price told The News Tribune via email.
More often than not, redevelopment notification for many who don’t notice or receive rezoning mailers or public notices comes via the first workers appearing on site to survey.
Paul Chromey is a familiar face at council meetings, advocating for neighbors in the South End and East Side and as a volunteer with the city’s Safe Streets program.
Chromey most recently was active in the Pacific Lanes redevelopment that’s bringing the Grand Pacific apartments near South 72nd Street and Pacific Avenue, a development that got the city’s attention when it comes to notifications.
The late-to-the-process feeling Stiles and his neighbors are struggling with now “is exactly what our Safe Streets Neighborhood is trying to get changed at the city level,” Chromey told The News Tribune via email.
Chromey said early involvement is critical.
“Our neighbors watch the City’s Permit Planning website to watch where new (pre-application) permits are being filed,” Chromey said. “Then we get engaged with the developer and city permit planning.”
Chromey added that’s why SEPA monitoring is important. If that review is in place for a development, neighbors can weigh in.
He said his neighbors have learned that timing is everything during the comment period.
“At this point, this is where those neighbors have to act. Any issues of safety and health can be addressed by the neighbors through the SEPA,” he said.
Those issues can include noise (related to construction start time), asbestos abatement with test results provided and dust control.
Short of a SEPA review, residents can go through the Planning Department to request a meeting with developers, but that means they have to already know about the project.
Price of the North End Neighborhood Council described it as a learning curve that residents there tackled through social media outreach and lots of meetings. He’s quick to note “there’s no silver bullet” to getting everyone in the loop.
“Planning is not a very interesting topic for a lot of people, but we’ve just kept chipping away at educating people to help make the process more transparent,” he told The News Tribune.
“The general level of knowledge about planning, at least across the North End, is certainly better now than it was five or 10 years ago.”
Proctor residents also have experienced what the McKinley neighbors did with a lack of notification.
“For Proctor Station, a lot of people felt like they were caught off guard because with the zoning for the mixed-use center, the project didn’t need a variance. Not a lot of pre-notification was required, and the neighbors, generally, didn’t understand the zoning for the mixed-use area,” Price said. “Now, there are a lot of educated people, but even Proctor III caught some people off guard initially.
“Since Proctor Station, we’ve hosted a number of meetings with city planners, who’ve been very generous with their time in coming to explain things to the neighbors.”
One of those meetings was in August at the University of Puget Sound Wheelock Student Center. Despite it being a Monday evening in the summer, the room was packed with about 100 participants to hear why and how Proctor III came into play.
The NENC also posts planning notices on its Facebook page, and it encourages people to sign up to receive notifications from the city.
“Without needing a variance, there won’t always be a lot of notifications, but there will still be some, like with SEPA. We hosted a SEPA meeting on Madison 25, and that resulted in a more neighborly setback on the Madison side,” Price said.
He acknowledged that the rate of development in that neighborhood spurred most of the action.
“The new buildings have pushed people to get involved and informed,” Price said. “Nothing motivates like change. ... The city does try to reach people, but they have holes in their methods sometimes, and I don’t think that’s necessarily anyone’s fault. It’s hard to know what everyone needs to know.”
Council member Chris Beale acknowledged the issues that came to life in the Grand Pacific apartments development. Beale told The News Tribune in early September and said in a council study session later that month that the city was looking at potential solutions.
Those solutions could include a neighborhood pre-construction meeting for larger projects and postcard notifications for smaller projects, not just to homeowners but renters.
A resolution passed by the council Oct. 8 calls on the city manager to review “how the city engages the public during construction projects and bring results and recommendations on how to improve neighborhood engagement and protection standards to the City Council Infrastructure, Planning and Sustainability Committee.”
Beale, along with Council members Lilian Hunter and Catherine Ushka, worked on pulling the resolution together, along with planning staff and residents.
The resolution’s genesis pointed back to Grand Pacific, and residents, such as Chromey, who came forward with their own questions and suggestions for the city.
“They haven’t been particularly pleasant or happy conversations, but they’ve been important conversations and discussions,” Hunter said at the Oct. 8 meeting.
“I think ultimately we’re going to end up with policies and procedures that will help clarify for everyone what’s going to happen. Nobody likes an ugly surprise and there have been some surprises,” Hunter said.
She added that “it’s not just the city’s responsibility” but that new processes would have developers involved in outreach, too.
It is not yet clear whether the process will cover projects of 20 apartments or less.
“We are very early in the process and no decisions have yet been made,” said Maria Lee, a media representative for the city.
Regardless, the improvements to boost outreach didn’t come in time for Stiles and his neighbors.
Two weeks after that resolution passed, the McKinley project was approved for its property tax credit, along with Proctor III.
Stiles said he understands the need for housing in Tacoma but not in the form of 20 units behind his house with one parking space.
“Every house along there (the McKinley block) was built between 1908 and 1920,” he said. “It does not fit the character and nature of the neighborhood.”
“If it would just be designed different, I’d be fine with it because what I heard one time they wanted to put a fourplex. But that was right after they bought it. ... I could probably deal with that. But 20 units on one lot?” Stiles said.
“I think the city of Tacoma may be naive if they think more than 20 people are not going to live there.”
Meanwhile, he has filed public records requests to gain more information about the home still on the property and code complaints on file.
“I will not let this proceed without a fight,” he told The News Tribune via email on Monday. “There are some very mad people about this.”