Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: What are people really saying when they talk about ‘protecting the character’ of a neighborhood?

We’ve heard it time and time again in recent months.

“We need to protect the character of the neighborhood,” people say, whether referring to the threat of the towering Proctor Station and developments like it in the North End, the push to create a conservation district in Tacoma’s Narrowmoor neighborhood, or from folks in the North Slope Historic District concerned over a proposal to encourage more density and a mix of housing options in traditionally single-family zones.

The obvious question is: What defines a character of a neighborhood, and what are Tacomans really saying when they talk about protecting it?

The answer, of course, is varied. In talking to people, what quickly becomes clear is that the “character” of a neighborhood — and what, exactly, needs to be protected — is an amorphous idea that means many things to many people.

In the North Slope, Julie Turner told me that, in her opinion, protecting the character of her neighborhood is about safeguarding the historic family homes and apartment buildings that give the area its flavor. For Turner, a longtime resident and board member with the North Slope Historic District, it’s also about making sure that the types of people who have always lived there — like teachers, nurses and those who work downtown — are able to stay there.

In other words, in the North Slope it’s about maintaining the structures and the residents.

In Proctor, on the other hand, the size of the mixed-use Proctor Station development, and the threat of similarly large projects, has neighbors on high alert. Though it’s located in the middle of one of Tacoma’s business districts and fits with the zoning guidelines established for those districts, Proctor Station’s height is out of scale with the rest of the neighborhood, neighbors argue. The cost of the pricier units — some in the ballpark of $3,000 per month — also stokes fears of a coming affordability crisis.

In other words, in Proctor it’s about maintaining an established way of life.

Over in Narrowmoor, a West End sanctuary of roughly 300 homes known for its majestic views of the Tacoma Narrows, residents like Mike and Nancy Fleming, who have lived in the area for nearly three decades, are part of a movement hoping to earn a conservation district distinction for their slice of Tacoma. As they recently explained to The News Tribune, protecting the character of Narrowmoor, for them, is about holding on to the views and open space they fell in love with long ago.

In other words, in Narrowmoor it’s about maintaining aspects that residents say make the neighborhood like no other in Tacoma.

The theme in all of these concerns is rooted in attempts to keep Tacoma, at least to some extent, from changing too drastically.

That’s a difficult proposition, given the harsh reality that nothing ever stays the same.

And the reality is, in the coming months and years, talk of neighborhood character and how we protect it will only get more complicated. The city is currently in the process of a Lincoln District revitalization project that aims to improve one of Tacoma’s most ethnically diverse areas.

Meanwhile, a planning and review process for crafting a subarea plan for the Tacoma Mall neighborhood is also in the works. As Tacoma 2025 Advisory Committee member and longtime Pierce County Black Collective member Korbett Mosesly recently pointed out to me, this neighborhood boasts a census block with the largest number of African American families in Pierce County.

In these areas, balancing the need for new development with an essential desire to not displace longtime residents will take a diligent effort.

All of this comes amid a backdrop of expected and, to some extent, inevitable growth. The Puget Sound Regional Council says the central Puget Sound region should prepare for roughly 1.7 million more residents in the next 25 years. Most of that growth, the council says, will happen in metropolitan areas.

In Tacoma, they’ll have to live somewhere.

Some of these new residents will be traditional single-family homeowners. Some will occupy the types of housing Tacoma desperately needs and is currently working to cultivate, the so-called missing middle of duplexes, triplexes, apartments and townhouses.

Many seem to have come to terms with this eventuality and are even embracing what responsible growth will mean for the future of our city.

That said, sometimes — not always, but sometimes — arguments for “protecting the character” of Tacoma neighborhoods have an unspoken current of wanting to make sure change happens somewhere else. As Tacoma Planning Division Manager Brian Boudet told me this week of the backlash, “There is always that person who lives right next door.”

That’s true.

And, often, when we talk about protecting the character of Tacoma’s neighborhoods, it’s what people aren’t explicitly saying or even explicitly thinking that bears examination.

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