Loren Cohen tells me he played SimCity as a kid.
For the uninitiated, SimCity is a long-running computer game in which players get to design their own cities, from scratch.
And for Cohen, the managing partner at MC Construction and a principal with the 97-acre Point Ruston development, in the process of transforming a polluted Superfund site into a sprawling resort-like urban village, it’s easy to imagine the game’s appeal.
After all, Point Ruston is — quite literally — building a community from scratch. By the time the last construction crew packs up and leaves — eight years from now, potentially later — the development is expected to include 1,200 residential units, a waterfront hotel and half a million square feet of commercial retail space.
The vision is taking shape. On Monday afternoon, moviegoers flowed out of the fancy new multiplex theater, construction workers in hardhats made progress on a new condo building that’s a quarter sold, a crew readied for the grand opening of Point Ruston’s new Farrelli’s Wood Fire Pizza, and an afternoon rush of caffeine seekers filled the Jewel Box Café.
Cohen, dressed in a suit and tie, met me there, in a confessional-style booth tucked in the back of the swanky restaurant. He’d agreed to give me the lowdown on the latest planned addition to Point Ruston.
Some 40 units of affordable housing.
“You can make the argument that it’s not in our bottom line’s interest,” Cohen acknowledged of the plan, which calls for 20 percent of the 200 units in Point Ruston’s next residential apartment building to be reserved for individuals and families making less than the area median income.
“But I think the stronger community is the diverse community,” Cohen continued. “I think adding (affordable housing) to the mix of Point Ruston will be better for this community in the long run.”
You can make the argument that it’s not in our bottom-line’s interest. But I think the stronger community is the diverse community. I think adding (affordable housing) to the mix of Point Ruston will be better for this community in the long run.
Loren Cohen, Point Ruston principal developer
If the plan comes to fruition, Tacoma economic development specialist Debbie Bingham said, Point Ruston will become the first Tacoma development of its size and scope to take advantage of 12-year multifamily property tax exemption incentive program for low-income housing.
First approved by the Legislature in 1995, and tweaked in 2007 to create the exemption now available in Tacoma for developers including affordable housing in their projects, the program gives a dozen-year break on property taxes developers would otherwise have to pay on land improvements.
Bingham said she expects Point Ruston to file the necessary paperwork “within a week or so,” and — assuming everything is by the book — she said it generally takes “about eight weeks” to finalize the deal, a decision that will require City Council approval.
Cohen said the new apartment building, which will also include commercial space, will be across the street from the already completed Copperline building, and it will be similar in “scope and scale.” Potentially, he said, it could be finished by the summer of 2018.
“It is leaving dollars on the table,” Cohen continued of Point Ruston’s decision to include low-income housing in the new building. “But it’s not a loss. It’s losing profit. … We’re doing it because we think it’s going to be good for Point Ruston. We think it’s going to be good for this neighborhood, and I hope good for Tacoma in general.”
What exactly will affordable housing at Point Ruston look like? By rule under the tax exemption, the rental units must be affordable to those making no more than 80 percent of the area median income, which in Pierce County ranges from $40,560 for a household of one, to $67,120 for a household of six, according to Tacoma Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Mirra.
The rule further states that a household can be asked to pay no more than 30 percent of its monthly income toward rent, which Cohen said he expects to result in rents in the ballpark of $1,025 per month for a one-bedroom, just under $1,200 a month for a two bedroom, and about $1,350 a month for a three-bedroom.
Mirra said that the “most dire need” for affordable housing in Tacoma is for those at the bottom of the income ranges spelled out in the 12-year multifamily exemption, and he cautioned that, “under the tax exemption, the affordability lasts only 12 years.”
Still, it’s improvement.
“Affordable housing at Point Ruston is an important civic good,” Mirra said.
Affordable housing at Point Ruston is an important civic good.
Tacoma Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Mirra
Cohen said he hopes the move will inspire other large developers to take advantage of the 12-year tax exemption for low-income housing, which so far has been little used in Tacoma, aside from a handful of much smaller projects.
At Point Ruston, the SimCity-player-turned-real-life-developer said he expects future buildings in the development — or at least those on the Tacoma side, as Ruston does not have the affordable housing tax exemption — to continue to take advantage of the program.
“This is us saying our money is talking,” he said. “This is us saying we’re committed to this.”