Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Creating spaces for artists to live and work in Tacoma makes sense

A rendering of what the “work/live” artist spaces at the Station Artist Lofts will look like once completed. Six of the development’s 14 units will have rents capped at 80 percent or below the area’s median income, according to Tacoma Community and Economic Development Director Ricardo Noguera.
A rendering of what the “work/live” artist spaces at the Station Artist Lofts will look like once completed. Six of the development’s 14 units will have rents capped at 80 percent or below the area’s median income, according to Tacoma Community and Economic Development Director Ricardo Noguera. Courtesy city of Tacoma/The Station Artist Lofts

In a Tacoma City Council meeting largely dedicated to pot talk, this week’s execution of two multifamily tax exemptions for two vastly different new developments felt like a blip on the radar.

But they were both a big deal.

One of the developments, which received an eight-year tax credit from the city, is literally huge — 172 market-rate rental apartment units coming soon to the Stadium District. Not surprisingly, two speakers used the public comment portion of Tuesday night’s meeting to stand up against the project. Given its size and its “market rate” designation, they fear the development will lead to increased rents and push out struggling artisttypes.

That’s certainly a concern worth considering, but probably not a reason to scuttle the project.

Let’s be real for a moment: The empty parking lot the development will replace doesn’t hold the key to the neighborhood’s soul, and the development is unlikely to immediately transform Stadium into the new South Lake Union. While some of the expected rents are admittedly eye-popping, ultimately the upscale development will charge what Tacoma’s rental market can bear. It also will add the type of density that all of Tacoma’s mixed-use centers need and be perfectly positioned next to the Link light rail once it reaches that point in a few years.

The need for more affordable housing, meanwhile, will remain.

By pure coincidence, the other development to receive a tax credit Tuesday night, on McKinley Hill on the East Side, is specifically designed for the essential and economically vulnerable demographic that people are concerned about pushing out of Stadium — artists and creative types.

It’s a population city officials say they value.

I think Tacoma is starting to take off in a very positive direction. We do want to create opportunities for artists and creative folks.

Tacoma Community and Economic Development Director Ricardo Noguera

“It’s going to be cool,” the area’s city councilman, Marty Campbell, tells me of the development. “This is just another example of how the creative culture and the arts are becoming the fabric of Tacoma.”

Bringing new life to a previously vacant 6,500-square-foot former police substation, the project goes by two names: the Station Artists’ Lofts or, more colloquially, McKinley Station. I’ll call it the latter.

The development is far smaller: 14 one- and two-bedroom units, designated as “work/live” spaces near the thriving neighborhood hub that is the Top of Tacoma, a popular bar and gathering spot. But despite its diminutive size — at least in comparison, which probably isn’t fair — there’s still plenty of reason to be excited about it.

Eight of McKinley Station’s units will be market rate for the neighborhood. The remaining six will have rents capped at 80 percent or below the area’s median income, according to Tacoma Community and Economic Development Director Ricardo Noguera. It’s a trade-off for the city extending a low-interest loan to the project’s developer, Eli Moreno and his Pierce Real Properties. Those units also are the reason the project qualified for a longer, 12-year tax break from the city.

As the “work/live” designation implies, the units are intended to be a place of business and residence for artists of all kinds.

Noguera describes McKinley Station as the “first formal work/live project” for artists and creatives in Tacoma, something he says he’s been trying to bring to Tacoma since he arrived here in 2012. Largely, it was made possible by a fairly recent amendment to city code that makes the adaptive reuse of building for work/live projects easier. The project’s website lists an opening date of this spring or summer.

Speaking to The News Tribune’s Rosemary Ponnekanti earlier this year, city arts administrator Amy McBride said McKinley Lofts will help “bring creative energy” to the neighborhood.

The development certainly seems to have the potential to do that. Carving a space for artists in Tacoma to live and work, at rents they can afford, offers possibilities that go beyond the obvious benefit to just them. It injects added life and creativity into communities, and sends a message about the type of neighborhoods we want to cultivate.

The (McKinley) business district is up and coming, but the community feel is well established. You’re now going to have artists intentionally embedded in the community. … I think we’ll see fruits that we can’t even imagine.

Tacoma City Councilman Marty Campbell

“The (McKinley) business district is up and coming, but the community feel is well-established,” Campbell says. “You’re now going to have artists intentionally embedded in the community. … I think we’ll see fruits that we can’t even imagine.”

Imagining a better future for Tacoma is fun. Seeing an actual payoff is even better. If things go as planned, McKinley Lofts will deliver both opportunities.

Which is why we should all hope it’s the first of many such projects.

Luckily, Noguera says other live/work developments are in the works, including one that will transform the old Carpenter’s Union Building on South Fawcett Avenue.

Here’s an idea: Maybe the city should focus on finding a way to build one in the Stadium District.

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