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Tacoma development: For sure, they’re all hot zones

As early as November, the Tacoma City Council might make it possible for taller buildings to be constructed around the city.

But the zoning tweaks, the latest step in a 15-year effort aimed at focusing business hubs to neighborhoods, are a point of contention for residents and developers alike.

Some worry that historic buildings will be demolished in favor of taller developments. Others say rezoning has brought blight to neighborhoods that were once strong.

Zoning rules walk a fine line, according to Donna Stenger, a public works employee who’s working on the project.

“We’re trying to balance those neighborhoods with economic development,” she said this week. Not everyone comes out a winner.

The process to encourage development in specific pockets around the city started in 1993, when the city established neighborhood business districts and allowed greater development in those areas. The idea, Stenger said, was to decrease sprawl and, through zoning, encourage businesses and residents to fill in areas within city limits.

In 2007, the city reviewed and tweaked the mixed-use zones. Now the Planning Commission is wrapping up a review of the zoning requirements.

The commission will pass its recommendations on to the City Council, which will hold hearings in the fall and, if all goes as planned, pass new rules in November, Stenger said.

Here are some areas where residents and developers are particularly concerned:

CENTRAL TACOMA

At a recent public meeting, dozens of residents from Central and North End Tacoma showed up to protest the changes considered by the Planning Commission. Their concerns centered on historic buildings that could be bulldozed for taller structures and views that could be ruined.

But Stenger said they have to look no farther than Sixth Avenue to see an example of successful rezoning: Few buildings have been torn down, she said, and the area has become a bustling and diverse business hub.

Not everyone sees the growth as a good thing.

“Success is in the eye of the beholder. Some would say that Sixth Avenue is quite successful. … Others see it as a total failure. It depends on your perspective,” Stenger said.

Steve Apling, president of the Central Neighborhood Council, thinks the development has been problematic.

“When Highway 16 went in, it almost died,” he said of the Sixth Avenue district. “Now it’s a victim of its own success – there’s no parking.”

He sees the issue as an unintended but serious consequence of changing rezoning rules without careful consideration. And he warns that bigger problems might be on the horizon if some changes aren’t made to the plan under consideration.

Apling is concerned that similar redevelopment will occur on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, which borders Central Tacoma.

“The structures there are in appropriate scope and scale with the nearby single-family residential neighborhoods. We don’t have skyscrapers next to family homes,” he said. But, he said, some developers are eyeing the area for buildings as high as 65 or 85 feet, which he said would ruin views and look out of place.

He said the Central Neighborhood Council is opposed to any buildings in the area that are higher than 45 feet.

Stenger said the commission is carefully considering the height limits in neighborhoods.

She said there are rules in place to prevent historic buildings from being demolished.

“If the building is designated as historic, then it has the protections. If the building is just old and has not been designated, then it’s subject to demolition,” she said. “But we have put some incentives in the code to discourage that.”

For example, she said, new developments are required to have a certain amount of parking, but renovations to older buildings don’t carry similar requirements.

“Not every building you see will be torn down,” she said.

TACOMA COMMUNITY COLLEGE

The master plan for Tacoma Community College calls for a walkable, centrally arranged campus with parking on the outskirts.

The city’s zoning code, however, requires that anything built there will be within 10 feet of the sidewalk.

The discrepancy would mean one of two things: The college would have to completely rearrange its campus or have to ask for exceptions every time it started a project, which would be costly, according to administrators who spoke at a recent public hearing.

“You’re telling TCC that all future buildings on a 155-acre campus should be on the edges,” said Matt Lane, an architect who’s worked on the school’s master plan.

“In practice, it would force TCC to submit variance requests for virtually all buildings,” Lane said, which would be costly and impractical.

Others worried that building height requirements would stifle campus growth.

“I think you will hear that TCC has been a very good neighbor,” said Laurie Jinkins, a member of the Board of Trustees at TCC.

She said the campus has put millions of dollars into the area, and that allowing more lax development there would benefit both the school and its neighbors.

TACOMA MALL

The area around the Tacoma Mall, once populated by quiet single-family neighborhoods, has been the focus of development of apartment buildings for the last decade.

The buildings fit in with the city’s goal of increased density, but some neighbors aren’t happy.

Judy Ritchie, for one, said the neighborhood around her store, Judy’s Intimate Apparel, has grown dangerous.

“Our neighborhood has changed dramatically since you changed the zoning,” she said.

“In all the years that I’ve been there, I have not felt unsafe until now,” she told the Planning Commission.

Robert Summers, a resident of East Side Tacoma, told the commission that rezoning is fine, so long as there are streets to support the increased burden.

“My concern is you want to increase the population density, and the infrastructure has to support that density,” he said. With more density comes “more delivery trucks, more traffic. … It’s a real mess.”

Niki Sullivan: 253-597-8603

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