Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: A focus on the Lincoln District that’s long overdue

A revitalization effort in the Lincoln District is underway.

Getting it right will take dedication and attention to detail.

Lincoln, essentially our international district, is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Tacoma. According to city data, 52 percent of neighborhood residents identify as people of color. A further breakdown finds 17 percent identify as African American, 12 percent as Hispanic/Latino and 6 percent as Asian. Only 48 percent of Lincoln residents identify as white, while citywide 65 percent of Tacoma identifies as white.

Then there are the businesses. A walk around the corner of South 38th Street and Yakima Avenue — where the iconic Vien Dong restaurant teems with regulars every lunch hour — is likely to include any number of dialects wafting through the air. Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodian, Spanish and Korean are just a few of the languages spoken by business owners in the neighborhood.

The unique qualities of the district are an unmistakable asset, and they must be preserved in any effort to improve it. In other words, in making Lincoln “nicer” we can’t allow the people and businesses that make the neighborhood special to get pushed out by new development and new money.

That’s a delicate task.

Thankfully, city officials recognize the balancing act as they prepare to embark on the preliminary design stage of what will be a $4 million project to make Lincoln’s main arterial, 38th, more attractive and pedestrian friendly. “One thing we have focused on is keeping the unique character and diversity of the neighborhood while bringing effective economic renewal,” says the area’s City Councilman Marty Campbell, who has made pushing for city investments in the district a priority during his time in office.

What we’ve seen so far are efforts like the streetscape project and the creation of a steering committee that came before it, along with smaller efforts like the mural project on the side of the Viet My Gift Shop. Private investments have come too, as evidenced by the opening of Hong Kong Supermarket last year, and the reopening of Jubilee and the Flying Boots Café.

All of this is directly related to strong community involvement in the area — the district has at least four active neighborhood groups — and leadership from the likes of Campbell and Mayor Marilyn Strickland. Strickland articulated her vision for lifting up the underserved Lincoln Business District and South Tacoma Business District at the council’s 2014 retreat, under the umbrella of the city’s equity and empowerment initiative.

For all its charms, however, there are significant challenges facing Lincoln.

The alleys in the business district are too narrow for garbage trucks, for instance, which means the trash gets taken out to the street and creates an impression of uncleanliness. While the area is walkable, the number of cars that speed past on 38th makes pedestrian access difficult, creating a sense of danger for anyone on foot. And the area suffers from a disproportionate share of derelict building and other nuisance issues. As of May 18, 101 of the 3,306 parcels in Lincoln had open code violations, according to the city. That’s roughly 3 percent of Lincoln’s parcels, a figure approaching double the citywide average.

There are also perception issues. According to residents and business owners in the area, they engage in a constant battle against the impression that the area is dangerous. “All we hear about is violence, gangs and crime,” says Kevin Le, who has owned and operated Vien Dong for over two decades. “I try to tell my customers it’s not that bad.”

Not just citizens and business owners must combat negative perceptions associated with the neighborhood. The city also will be forced to take on the perception among many that Lincoln has been historically neglected.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m a big hater of Tacoma, because I love Tacoma, but it’s a city government that works on crisis management,” Terry Wilmer tells me. He’s a neighborhood activist who has lived in the area for 16 years and thinks the city spends its time putting out fires seen as more pressing than the longstanding issues facing Lincoln.

“The Vietnamese business community is the quietest you’ll ever meet,” Wilmer continues. “Privately, some of them are probably seething, but they’d never say that. Because they’re very polite, they get nothing from city.”

So is this the start of a new chapter for Lincoln? Le tells me he’s hopeful.

What’s clear is that if Tacoma wants to transform Lincoln from a handful of well-known businesses to a destination district — a bustling epicenter of activity where people go and then decide what to do — such a shift will take a sustained effort and commitment from the city.

The end goal must be reinventing Lincoln without ruining it.