Tacoma mixed-use plan heads for decision

The Tacoma City Council is set to vote Tuesday on new development regulations for Tacoma’s mixed-use centers, which aim in part to increase density in commercial centers and allow taller buildings.

Updates to the mixed-use center plan have been under discussion since 2007, involving more than 50 public hearings. The plan aims to focus Tacoma’s future population growth in 16 centers to prevent sprawl and foster economic development.

“The intent is to help rejuvenate what in many cases are commercial areas that may not be operating that well,” said Brian Boudet, urban planner with the city. He said Tacoma’s mixed-use centers were its response to the state Growth Management Act of 1990.

Builders and environmental groups alike have supported a mixed-use center plan that concentrates growth and creates incentives for developers to build up, not out.

But a recent amendment proposed to the zoning plan could increase the area where greater building heights are allowed, creating more spots where 65-foot and 85-foot-tall buildings could go up near single-family residences.

The city mailed 10,000 notices to residents on about July 20 informing them of proposed amendments to the mixed-use center zoning ordinance, including the proposal to expand zones known as “height bonus areas.”

In these areas, the city would let developers add height to their project as an incentive to include improvements such as ground-level retail operations, public art or energy-efficiency upgrades.

In the Stadium District and parts of South Tacoma Way and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, buildings could be as tall as 85 feet, or roughly seven to eight stories, in the height bonus areas. In other neighborhood centers, buildings in the height bonus areas would be capped at 65 feet, or roughly five to six stories.

The original ordinance proposed to create height bonus areas in neighborhood centers only within 200 feet of established core streets, such as 26th Street and Proctor Street in the Proctor District and Division Avenue and North Tacoma Avenue in the Stadium District.

But the amended ordinance would extend the height bonus areas throughout a larger part of the neighborhoods, in some cases nearly doubling the area that could have taller buildings.

In Tacoma’s Martin Luther King mixed-use district, the amendment would nearly double the area that can accommodate seven- and eight-story buildings, increasing it by 99 percent.

In the Stadium District, the area allowing 85-foot-tall developments would increase by 98 percent.

In the city as a whole, the proposed amendment would expand height bonus areas in neighborhood centers by an average of 52 percent, according to a July 8 city memorandum.

Tacoma City Councilman Mike Lonergan said he’s concerned that increasing the number of five- to eight-story buildings will take citizens by surprise and clash with existing neighborhoods. The amendment to expand height bonus areas wasn’t part of the city planning commission’s recommendations to the council in May. Rather, Councilman Jake Fey introduced the amendment in its final form at a council meeting July 14.

“It makes some sense if you picture an eight-story building right on the main street,” Lonergan said Thursday. “But if you carry that out to the edge of a residential neighborhood, it doesn’t make sense. It only makes sense if you don’t live there.”

Fey said that restricting tall buildings to within a 200-foot radius of main streets places unnecessary limitations on developers.

“What are you going to do if you own a whole parcel, and you have this 200-foot line in the middle of your property that means you have to do something different?” Fey said. “If we are going to do this, we want development to have an actual chance of occurring. It’s all about having enough density allowed and not having so many limitations.”

Fey said expanding areas that allow taller buildings has been discussed many times by the council, especially in the past month while he’s worked on his amendment.

He said planners have included precautions to ensure homes aren’t eclipsed by skyscrapers, including a requirement that developers build landscape buffers between tall buildings and nearby homes.

Another design requirement would mandate that buildings abutting neighborhoods gain height gradually, with each story above 25 feet set back an additional 10 feet from the neighboring homes.

Fey called the design standard “the wedding cake effect.” He said it would make the buildings seem less tall than they are and help them blend in with nearby residential communities.

“The wedding cake effect is that you have transitions,” Fey said. “You don’t have an 85- or a 65-foot building next to a house.”

Council members will decide whether to accept Fey’s amendment Tuesday when they take a final vote on the mixed-use center zoning updates.

Other parts of the mixed-use center plan would reduce or eliminate off-street parking requirements for businesses in core areas, add standards for windows and doors on the ground level of buildings, and create incentives to encourage pedestrian and transit improvements on main streets.

Lonergan said there’s conflict between the council’s goals of spurring development and maintaining the character of historic neighborhoods. The council must find a compromise that does both, he said.

“We have to find what works to redo these business districts,” Lonergan said. “The job of the council and the planning commission is to balance all of these different demands.”

Melissa Santos: 253-552-7058