Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Reimagining the Tacoma Mall Neighborhood, and the need to balance growth and equity

Some of the newest housing, The Pacifica and Pine Crest Town Homes near the Tacoma Mall, are visible over Ronald McDonald on the commercial strip along South 38th street. August 28, 2015
Some of the newest housing, The Pacifica and Pine Crest Town Homes near the Tacoma Mall, are visible over Ronald McDonald on the commercial strip along South 38th street. August 28, 2015 Staff photographer

The Tacoma Mall Neighborhood, as the city calls it in the latest effort to revive and breathe life into it, is an easy place to overlook. I can say so with certainty, because I’ve been regularly guilty of it myself.

Mention the area and most people think of the mall, and the fast food joints that line 38th Street, the parking lots, and, well, the mall again. The fact people actually live there can be an afterthought.

Unless — of course — you’re one of the people who does.

But when you start compiling a list of areas of Tacoma deserving of the city’s love and attention, the parts that make up the Tacoma Mall neighborhood — which, in reality, is actually several neighborhoods — have to be near the top.

Amid the bustle of commerce, one of the most racially diverse populations of Tacoma calls this place home. Take the area’s largest census tract: If two of its residents were to meet, there would be a 76 percent chance that they would not be the same race.

Many more people are coming, if the projections are correct. The city and the Puget Sound Regional Council have designated the 485-acre area around the mall as a “Regional Growth Center,” meaning it’s a “focal point” for future jobs and housing concentration.

Just how focal? By 2040, the city expects just over 8,000 new residents and 7,600 new jobs in the area.

That’s a lot of change, and — appropriately — how to accommodate this growth in a thoughtful manner is at the heart of the city’s ongoing effort to craft a sub-area plan here. As it stands, Mayor Marilyn Strickland describes the area as “probably the one place where growth has been unrestrained ... and not very well thought out.”

“What you’re seeing is a shift from a culture that’s been very auto-centric to one with people wanting to get out and walk around their neighborhoods,” Strickland says.

Transit — and transit-based development — will play a big role. The neighborhood stands to benefit enormously from Tacoma’s push to get light rail from Sea-Tac Airport not only to the Tacoma Dome but all the way to the Tacoma Mall. “I think it’s important,” Strickland tells me, while being careful to note that the city is vying against every other municipality within Sound Transit’s boundaries for a piece of the next package the agency sends to voters.

Work on the Tacoma Mall sub-area plan has been going on since last year and is expected to take until December 2016 to finalize. But last week, during a community meeting at the former site of Madison Elementary, an important step in the process occurred. In a mailer to residents, the city described it as “the first major opportunity to learn about and participate in the planning and environmental review process.”

Korbett Mosesly, who has ties to the neighborhood, was one of many who took the city up on the offer.

“I believe that it’s gotten ignored a lot, and it hasn’t gotten a lot of the thought and planning that it would take to have a thriving neighborhood,” he told me. “The neighborhood gets bashed a lot. There are a number of reasons why I love it. There are a number of issues, too.”

Mosesly’s motivation comes not just from the fact that he’s lived in the area in the past and still has family that calls it home, but also because he believes there’s a not-to-be-lost opportunity to spread equity throughout Tacoma.

While Mosesly says he understands the economic development rationale behind efforts to bring new life to the neighborhood, he also wants to make sure that the needs of current residents aren’t overlooked in the process. Simple things, he says, could make a big difference — like green spaces, parks, increased walkability and a commitment to making the area safer for kids.

The mayor echoes those sentiments, also pointing out that there’s no full-service grocery store in this area and sidewalks can be scarce.

Mosesly explains: “I love Tacoma and want to see every community grow. But it’s also an equity issue for me, about where we could do better. I think there’s an opportunity to really provide some equity in some neighborhoods that are really diverse, and that need the infrastructure to really thrive. This is a great opportunity for us to really think about it, and be proactive about it.”

Mosesly tells me he left last week’s meeting encouraged. That’s a good sign. It will take the vested participation of people just like him, from across the city, to transform the Tacoma Mall Neighborhood into everything its residents deserve.