Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Taking a walk on the suburban side in Northeast Tacoma

Developments on Northeast Tacoma hillsides have a bird’s-eye view of heavy industry on the Tideflats. The close proximity led many Northeast Tacoma residents to oppose locating the world’s largest methanol refinery on Port of Tacoma property.
Developments on Northeast Tacoma hillsides have a bird’s-eye view of heavy industry on the Tideflats. The close proximity led many Northeast Tacoma residents to oppose locating the world’s largest methanol refinery on Port of Tacoma property.

Jerry Olson remembers the precise moment he and his wife, Jackie, made the decision to move to the northeastern tip of Tacoma.

Originally from Portland, the couple — now retired — arrived in the Puget Sound region, like so many, on the promise of jobs.

It was 1989. Then a manager for a ceramic tile company, Jerry found himself working in Lakewood. Jackie, meanwhile, worked in Kent, at a company that dealt in sheepskin.

“We just drew a line betwixt on a map and started looking,” Olson, 71, says of their housing search.

At first, he tells me, the impressively landscaped home on Beverly Avenue where they’ve now lived for almost three decades – in an area of Northeast Tacoma locals call “Upper Browns Point” – didn’t feel like the one.

But their Realtor persisted, walking to the windows and pulling open the blinds.

The move revealed a panoramic view of Commencement Bay, Vashon Island and Point Defiance.

“We’ll take it!’” Jerry remembers exclaiming.

Standing on the Olsons’ deck on a recent Friday afternoon – the late-day sun bouncing off the saltwater below – you can see why the couple decided to settle down in this spot.

You can also see why others have been drawn here, and why so many are willing to fight to hold onto the way of life they’ve come to enjoy in this often-overlooked slice of the city.

Northeast Tacoma residents have displayed a fierce tenacity many times throughout the years — most recently during the public debate over whether or not to build the world’s largest methanol plant on the Tacoma Tideflats.

We know how that turned out for Northwest Innovation Works, the company that finally gave up on the idea last week. And while Northeast Tacoma wasn’t solely responsible for the rebuff, the area’s residents played a significant part in making a loud statement against the would-be refinery.

State Rep. Jake Fey, the Democrat who now represents the 27th Legislative District in Olympia, has lived in Northeast Tacoma for the last 13 years. He represented the area’s residents, part of council District 2, on the Tacoma City Council for nearly two full terms before being elected to the state House in 2012.

“They’re fighters,” Fey says of his neighbors.

“And they organize.”

Sweeping views of Puget Sound convinced Jerry and Jackie Olson to buy a Northeast Tacoma home in 1989. Housing booms during World War II, the mid-1970s and '80s helped create the current-day suburban feel. Drew Perine

The allure of this isolated piece of Tacoma has been a draw for people searching for a slice of serenity and the good life since the turn of the 20th century, when the former tribal land at Browns Point and Dash Point was platted for development.

First, summer vacationers and campers showed up. Soon after, permanent residents. By the early 1920s, says Jim Harnish, former president of the Points Northeast Historical Society, Marine View Drive and electricity arrived. The area we know today as Northeast Tacoma was annexed by election in June 1927.

According to Points Northeast Historical Society curator Mavis Stears, housing booms during World War II and in the mid-1970s and through the 1980s helped forge Northeast Tacoma’s identity. The decades of development added many of the circuitous roads and cul-de-sacs that give the area its suburban feel. Today, two-car garages, subdivisions, Reagan-era ramblers, and faded 12th Man flags dot the landscape.

In the beginning, as it is now, Northeast Tacoma was a “bedroom community” to the rest of the city and, eventually, Seattle and King County, Harnish says.

“There are a lot of second- and third-generation families out here,” Harnish says. “There’s that sense of history among the families. … There is a sense of community, and sense of roots, and a sense that you’re a part of something bigger.”

Courtney Chaffee — spotted watching her young children play at a park at Metro Parks’ Center at Norpoint, a community center where Northeast Tacoma locals gather for its pool, fitness equipment and activities — sees the area as a nearly perfect place to raise a family.

When they’re old enough, Chaffee’s boys will attend Browns Point Elementary. At the moment, they attend a local cooperative preschool.

“My husband grew up here. His family still lives here, so we moved to be near grandparents,” Chaffee, 33, explains. “We love it. It’s great. … I think there are a lot of young families here.”

“I feel like I’m hidden,” she continues. “You feel like you’re in your own little snow globe.”

Mount Rainier looms behind these Northeast Tacoma homes. Drew Perine

There are a lot of second- and third-generation families out here. There’s that sense of history among the families. … There is a sense of community, and sense of roots, and as sense that you’re a part of something bigger.

Jim Harnish, former president of the Points Northeast Historical Society

From Tacoma’s mainland, it can be easy to dismiss Northeast Tacoma — usually viewed on the horizon, all the way across the water — as an outlier or afterthought. Its nearly 17,000 residents — roughly one in 12 Tacomans — are severed from the rest of the city by the shipyards, container cranes and grit of the Port of Tacoma.

On city maps, Northeast Tacoma is everything within city limits on the east side of Commencement Bay above the Tideflats. Talk to residents, however, and they’ll get more specific — describing the area in terms of individual neighborhoods. To them, Northeast Tacoma is not the whole swath of city on that side of the port, but rather only its most humble pocket, an area anchored by Northeast Tacoma Elementary and bisected by Norpoint Way as it cuts up the hill from Marine View Drive. Travel north, and the level of affluence increases through the neighborhoods of Crescent Heights and Upper Browns Point.

Farther north, Browns Point and its historic lighthouse, and Dash Point and its park and pier, are both distinct places with distinct characters, indistinctly identified as unincorporated Pierce County.

Literally and figuratively, all of it can feel a lot closer to Federal Way.

But if you needed a reminder that this area is, in fact, largely Tacoma, the role many residents here played in stiff-arming methanol refinery served as a reminder of the area’s place in local politics.

Linda Miller, a 68-year-old retiree with a well-kept lawn, kept a tell-tale red “No Methanol” sign in her front yard in the months leading up to Northwest Innovations Works’ decision to abandon the proposal. She also became a regular at heated Port of Tacoma meetings whenever the methanol plant was discussed.

Like most residents I talked to, Miller says she identifies as a Tacoman, despite her geographic proximity to Federal Way and the fact necessities such as large grocery shopping trips require an excursion to that city.

But when asked whether she believes her neighborhood is well-represented in Tacoma’s decision-making process, she offers a quick and resounding “no.”

“We’re so removed, and it feels like they don’t pay any attention to us,” Miller tells me from the front porch of the only home she and her husband have ever owned, a spot they’ve been for the last 42 years. “We feel so far away. Nobody visits us, nobody watches what’s going on. … We do feel neglected. It’s kind of just accepted.”

When it comes to the methanol plant proposal, however, Miller believes she and her neighbors — motivated by their proximity to the port — spoke too loudly to be ignored.

At-large City Councilman Ryan Mello, who represents the entire city, agrees. “They did,” Mello says when asked whether Northeast Tacoma residents played a particularly significant role in fighting the proposed plant. “They were extra-concerned about their property values and public health, even if just from perceptions. And they didn’t want to sit around to see the real-life impacts.”

While Miller believes all of Tacoma came together to rally against the proposal, she tells me the reaction in her neighborhood was especially pronounced.

Northwest Innovation Works, roundly criticized for its public outreach failings, did find time to send representatives to a meeting of the Northeast Tacoma Neighborhood Council in April 2014. Minutes of that meeting show, “There was considerable discussion about the potential effect of the plant, especially on homeowners on the bluffs.”

“I’m a quiet person,” says Linda Miller, a 68-year-old retiree who, like many Northeast Tacoma residents, had never been active in a political issue until the anti-methanol refinery movement began. “I’ve never been so passionate before. I’m in the blast zone, right above where they want to put this refinery.” Drew Perine

We’re so removed, and it feels like they don’t pay any attention to us. We feel so far away. Nobody visits us, nobody watches what’s going on. … We do feel neglected. It’s kind of just accepted.

Northeast Tacoma resident Linda Miller

Northeast Tacoma residents were also among only a handful of Tacomans to attend the May 2014 meeting at which the port commission approved NWIW’s 30-year lease on the Tideflats. At the time, according to The News Tribune archives, “Russ McCarty, a (Northeast Tacoma) resident, asked the commission to table the lease proposal until it could devote more study to the long-term effects of creating a new chemical production plant on the site.”

Northeast Tacoma residents’ voice only grew louder from there — eventually reaching a community crescendo over the last few months.

“Everyone dug in, because it was going to affect our kids and the whole neighborhood,” Miller says.

And when news broke that NWIW had given up on its Tacoma proposal?

“We were high-fiving,” Miller says.

The 125-acre site of the proposed methanol production plant is temporarily being used by Auto Warehousing Company as a Foreign Trade Zone for imported cars. Drew Perine

The methanol saga provided just the latest example of Northeast Tacoma residents riled up by a controversial proposal they view as a threat to their way of life.

History shows the organized resistance wasn’t out of character. And one needs only to look back to the uproar sparked by a 2006 move to develop the area’s North Shore Golf Course into 366 houses and 494 townhouses, a drama that included years of city hearing examiner meetings, court battles and contempt, to remember how engaged Northeast Tacoma residents can become.

But Northeast Tacoma’s role in the methanol debate is perhaps most reminiscent of a fight residents waged against a city-owned garbage-burning steam plant in the late ’80s and ’90s when the fear of incinerator pollution wafting up from the Tideflats became a rallying point.

Originally built in 1931 to burn coal, the facility was reworked in 1987 to burn garbage for energy, to the great protest and consternation of many Northeast Tacoma residents. The facility closed in 1998, before being briefly restarted in 2000 — a move state regulators nixed. The shuttered plant was sold in 2007 to a scrap-metal recycling company with a facility in the Tideflats.

Those issues largely predate Robert Thoms’ representation of District 2 on the Tacoma City Council, but the feelings of neglect they fed have informed how he approaches his job since joining the council in 2013.

Thoms says he goes to “great pains” to make sure Northeast Tacoma residents are included as much as possible in city business, specifically mentioning efforts to get Northeast residents appointed to committees, boards and commissions.

“It’s one of those things where I go up there as much as I can. I just have to make sure I understand the issues that are most important to them,” Thoms continues. “The groups that I work with up there, be it the Northeast Tacoma Neighborhood Council, and others, they’re extremely organized ... because they recognize they have to have good voice for themselves.”

Politically, according to local campaign consultant and number cruncher Ben Anderstone, Northeast Tacoma voters are “much more moderate,” than voters throughout the city as a whole, and tend “to be a little on the fiscally conservative side on local measures.”

Citing examples such as Pierce Transit votes in 2011 and 2012, or last year’s two-pronged roads package, which included increases to property, utility and sales tax, Anderstone sees a pattern on issues that “divide more clearly along fiscal conservative versus liberal lines, especially when it comes to city services.” All of these measures were firmly rejected by Northeast Tacoma voters.

“The general theme is that Northeast Tacoma tilts fiscally conservative, but will sternly reject measures it sees as niceties — especially if they think those niceties will be geared more to mainland Tacoma than Northeast,” Anderstone observes. “This is not an uncommon pattern when you have a community that sees itself as somewhat distinct from the rest of the city. These areas often feel underserved, and like they have less to gain from investing in the rest of the city.”

Fey has seen firsthand the passion and loyalty Northeast Tacomans have for their neighborhood.

“An area like this needs nurturing,” he says.

Sande Albers, a Northeast Tacoma resident for 32 years, said she and her neighbors were 100 percent against the proposed methanol refinery. Drew Perine

Andy Bartels sits behind the checkout desk at the quaint, two-room Mary Rose Kobetich Library. It’s a spot he’s manned, as a library assistant, for the last two years.

All told, Bartels says he’s spent a decade working for the Tacoma Public Library system, including stints at the downtown main branch, the Swasey branch on Sixth Avenue and the now-defunct Swan Creek branch on Tacoma’s East Side. In 2013 he moved to Northeast Tacoma with his wife.

“I can wax eloquent” about living in the area, he tells me.

It’s a promise Bartels quickly makes good on. Describing himself as an unofficial Northeast Tacoma “concierge,” it’s not long before he’s launching into a detailed list of all the sights he likes to recommend to newcomers.

His tour of “secret places” includes a hard-to-find “beach that takes you all the way up to the mouth of the Hylebos.”

“In the winter, when it gets dark early … I suggest people go to the Center at Norpoint, park and walk uphill one block to the corner by the (Northeast Tacoma) police substation,” Bartels continues. “From that corner, the lights of Tacoma are laid out like diamonds in a jewelry box lined with black silk.”

Though the library is quiet when I visit, Bartels relishes his opportunity to interact with the community from his position at the Kobetich library.

And with almost as little prompting as he offers sightseeing advice, Bartels discusses the common misconceptions about the area — misconceptions he routinely sees challenged by a diverse selection of patrons from his position at the checkout desk.

Indeed, there’s a temptation to broadly cast the area as an affluent suburban enclave of retirees and six-figure salaries. And while there are elements of truth to be found in this view, there’s more to Northeast Tacoma than just the view, and those financially fortunate enough to have it from their deck.

A look at the available demographic information illustrates Bartels’ anecdotal observations.

There are three main census tracts that make up the area generally considered to be Northeast Tacoma. And while, all together, the area is “pretty well-off, making it superficially similar to the North and West Ends,” according to Anderstone’s observations, there are differences.

56.9 The percentage of students at Northeast Tacoma Elementary who qualified for the free and reduced lunch program during the 2014-2015 school year.

“The median Northeast Tacoma household income is about $83,000, just over the North End, at $77,000, and well above Tacoma average, at $51,000. Both areas have much higher housing prices than the Tacoma average, lower poverty, and are more ethnically homogeneous,” Anderstone notes.

However, those numbers are skewed by the northern-most Northeast Tacoma census tract that includes the hill overlooking Browns Point. Here, the poverty rate is just 3.1 percent, residents are 73 percent white, the median age is 47.3, and the median household income is $110,000 a year — more than double Tacoma’s citywide figure.

Farther to the south, meanwhile, in the census tract that butts up against Fife Heights, the rate increases to 9.5 percent of residents living below the poverty line, the population is only 60 percent white, the median age is a lower 34.8, and the median household income is just over $77,000 a year.

That’s still 1.5 times Tacoma’s citywide figure, but — considering the average household size of 3.1 people is roughly 25 percent higher than the figure in all of Tacoma — it paints a much more modest picture than is often associated with the area.

Even more telling, at Northeast Tacoma Elementary — one of three elementary schools that serve the area — 56.9 percent of students at qualified for the free and reduced lunch program during the 2014-2015 school year. At Crescent Heights Elementary, 38.8 percent of students qualified for the program, while at Browns Point Elementary, 19.3 percent of students qualified.

For comparison, in the North End at Washington Elementary 18.8 percent of students qualified, while McCarver Elementary on the Hilltop, had a rate exceeding 95 percent. District-wide, 63.5 percent of Tacoma Public School students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches during the 2014-2015 school year.

“People think Northeast Tacoma is a tony, upscale place, but that’s just part of the story,” Bartels says.

Back in Jerry and Jackie Olson’s yard, I ask why they’ve stayed in this secluded piece of Tacoma for almost 30 years. And whether they feel like Tacoma people. They’re both quick to tell me they do.

“The water views are spectacular. You can’t beat it,” Jackie Olson says. “I always thought of myself as a city person, and Federal Way feels like a suburb.”

As delicately as possible, I point out that — from where we’re standing, surrounded by quite, dead-end streets and expansive views of a city faraway — it sure feels like suburbia to me.

The Olsons nod knowingly, but without regret.

“Moving in here was kind of a crapshoot,” Jerry says.

“We didn’t think we’d end up in a suburb, but here we are.”