Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: The city goes all in on revitalizing the Lincoln District

Matt Driscoll
Matt Driscoll Staff

Thursday night Lincoln District residents got, in the words of one city staffer, a “full-court press” from their local government.

Considering how historically ignored and underserved the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in Tacoma has felt over the years, it was the right play call. For too long Lincoln has been an afterthought.

The purpose of Thursday night’s open house at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department building was to explain and gather community engagement for what’s being called the Lincoln Revitalization Project. It’s been in the works for a while; I wrote about it back in June.

The undertaking marks a new, holistic approach from city hall in how it addresses neighborhood upgrades, part of an effort to spread equity throughout the city, which means channeling focus and energy on neighborhoods south of Sixth Avenue.

One of the catchphrases city folks like to use when describing this relatively new line of thinking is, “equitable is not equal.” It’s an admission that simply spreading resources evenly across the city won’t be enough to put places like Lincoln on an even playing field. In other words, the Lincoln District needs more at this point than Proctor does to blossom into the neighborhood its residents deserve.

Talk is cheap, of course, but it’s a refreshing declaration that’s been a long time coming.

True to this new approach, every city department short of human resources and IT was represented Thursday night in Lincoln, along with Tacoma police and the Fire Department. A presentation that was supposed to last 30 minutes stretched much longer, as department heads took turns explaining to the mostly full auditorium what it will all mean.

Earlier in the day I texted Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who later delivered opening remarks at the meeting. I posed a question I often ask in situations like these, “What’s the story for me to tell here?”

“What started as a streetscape project has evolved into examining the needs of the neighborhood and making it a destination,” the mayor replied.

That much was abundantly clear Thursday night. If all goes as planned, Lincoln will be transformed into a bustling epicenter of activity where people go and then decide what to do.

Perhaps more importantly, chronic public health and safety needs — like mental health and chemical dependency — will be better addressed. And the cultural beauty that makes Lincoln unique will be highlighted, not lost. As Strickland vowed, “It doesn’t mean you strip away the patina, the history and the culture.”

Later, the mayor added, “This is not an attempt to push low-income people out of the Lincoln District.”

It’s an important backdrop to the work, and one worth monitoring.

Yes, the Lincoln Revitalization Project was birthed out of the City Council’s 2014 retreat, and initially the scope was limited to bringing the kinds of streetscape improvements that we’ve seen elsewhere — crosswalks, sidewalk improvements and general beautification — to South 38th Street. Planning is roughly 60 percent complete on this side of things, officials say, with community input still needed for important decisions like what form gateway entrances take, what the landscaping looks like and what sidewalk amenities are included.

But city leaders say they quickly realized that Lincoln is different — in its cultural makeup and the obstacles it faces, from open code violations to language barriers — and there was an opportunity for a much bigger, and needed, investment. “We have not only an opportunity, but an obligation to do much more,” City Councilman Marty Campbell, who represents the Lincoln District and Tacoma’s East Side, told me.

“We wanted to make sure we were coming in and making substantive changes.”

In terms of dollars and cents, that now means targeting roughly $7.3 million for Lincoln. Over half — $4.5 million, to be exact —will go toward the South 38th streetscape project. But the city also plans to pony up $1 million for neighborhood beautification and human and social services investments, $1 million for economic development and arts programs, $750,000 for utility infrastructure upgrades and $24,000 for emergency preparedness programs.

That’s a lot of money. But for the residents of Lincoln, perhaps the most telling evidence of the city’s commitment to invest in them came from the simple fact that so many important folks from city hall came out Thursday night, looked them in the eye, and pledged to do better.

It was certainly a step in the right direction, and even typical cynics, like longtime neighborhood activists Terry Wilmer, left feeling optimistic about the future. Something about the city’s latest plan for Lincoln feels different, he told me.

That’s the idea.

Now it’s time to hold Tacoma leaders to the big promises made Thursday night.