Matt Driscoll

Residents demand common-sense changes for pedestrians near the Tacoma Mall. They have a point

During the “Tacoma Mall Pedestrian Action Day” on Thursday April 25, residents gathered at the intersection of South 38th Street and South Cedar Street in Tacoma to raise awareness and concerns.
During the “Tacoma Mall Pedestrian Action Day” on Thursday April 25, residents gathered at the intersection of South 38th Street and South Cedar Street in Tacoma to raise awareness and concerns. Courtesy Molly Nichols/Futurewise

Louis Porter has a nickname for the intersection of South 38th Street at Steele, in the Tacoma Mall neighborhood he calls home.

Porter, who is legally blind due to glaucoma, calls it “blind man’s bluff.”

“It’s the worst,” the 67-year-old says of the intersection he’s often forced to navigate on foot.

Having been struck by a hit-and-run driver more than a decade ago, Porter says he’s acutely aware of the dangers pedestrians like him face in the Tacoma Mall Neighborhood.

He is one of many harboring — and now voicing — similar concerns.

Last week, a group of Tacoma Mall neighborhood residents gathered along South 38th, wielding signs with messages like “Streets are for people too!” and “Honk if you love grammas!” It was all part of an effort to raise awareness about just how dangerous and unwelcoming it is to be a pedestrian or bicyclist in the area, and hopefully inspire changes – sooner rather than later.

That last part is key. Roughly a year ago, the Tacoma City Council officially adopted the Tacoma Mall Area Subarea plan. A dense, policy driving directive, the lengthy process leading up to its passage included numerous community listening sessions and plenty of input from residents and business owners.

Identified as a Regional Growth Center, the idea is to prepare for what the city describes as “substantial jobs and housing growth” in coming years by improving transportation options, inspiring mixed-use development, and instigating necessary changes in housing options and livability.

All of those things are good, and their inclusion in the plan is evidence that city leaders are now listening to and recognizing the needs of Tacoma Mall neighborhood residents like never before.

On the other hand, many of those worthy objectives will take time to accomplish — in some cases, significant time. Short-, medium- and long-term goals range from years to many years to accomplish.

Residents like Porter want to see smaller upgrades — like painted crosswalks, improved traffic and pedestrian signals, bike lanes, increased public transportation and more time given to pedestrians crossing the street — far sooner.

And you know what? They have a point.

“A lot of the things that were’ seeing coming forward, they’re so long term,” says Molly Nichols, the Tacoma outreach coordinator for Futurewise, a nonprofit that works to prevent sprawl while protecting and championing things like the creation of affordable housing and the preservation of farmland and open spaces.

With affordable housing in mind, Nichols first helped residents in the Tacoma Mall neighborhood organize during the subarea plan process. Now, because of the pedestrian concerns she heard routinely raised during that process, she’s doing the same for members of the Tacoma Mall Neighbors group, which was behind last week’s demonstration.

“I think there’s a frustration about how long residents have been talking about this need for improvements,” Nichols says. “To the city’s credit, they’re definitely aware of this and working on it … but in the meantime, what resources could we use to make some more immediate improvements?”

There are certainly many improvements to be made in the Tacoma Mall Neighborhood. Chatting with residents like Porter, or those who work in the area, like Francesca Siena, the store director at Marlene’s Market and Deli, this becomes painfully clear.

Porter points to low-hanging branches along sidewalks near his senior housing development that force him to walk in the street, and crosswalk signals at major intersections that don’t “give verbal acknowledgment when it’s OK to cross the street.”

Siena, meanwhile, says that sidewalks in the area often stink, bicycling is treacherous and downright dangerous, and she’s seen people force to wait as long as six minutes to cross a street – only to be rushed across in little more than 20 seconds, far too short a time for anyone in a wheelchair or using a walker.

Siena says she’d like to see a host of small improvements designed to make pedestrians and bicyclists feel like they “exist” in an area where the opposite is currently true.

“For me, I see that a lot can be done with very little,” Siena says.

While residents often underestimate the work and money that go into city projects easily deemed small by the casual observer, in this case it’s hard not to agree with Siena and the others.

Since the Tacoma Mall opened more than 50 years ago, it’s been the unquestioned epicenter of the neighborhood, with the cars the fed it given first, second and third priority.

Now, that’s starting to change. But more can be done, and it doesn’t have to take years, or huge changes, to make the Tacoma Mall neighborhood a whole lot safer and more welcoming for everyone.

Back at blind man’s bluff, Porter says he’s hoping the city will address the situation before it’s too late.

“It is so unsafe to cross,” he says.

“I’m very hopeful, and I’m very prayerful that and addressment will be made before there’s any loss of life.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.