Historic Tacoma’s objections to new development rules mostly credible

Historic Tacoma, a nonprofit advocacy organization, raised an alarm Friday about proposed changes to the city’s development rules aimed at increasing the variety of housing options in the city.

The so-called “up-zoning” — now under consideration by the planning commission — would allow construction of more duplexes, triplexes, town houses and cottage housing as well as “mother-in-law units” — smaller second dwellings on a lot that already holds a single-family home.

Historic Tacoma’s alert, posted online and distributed by email, said the proposal as written is a threat to historic preservation. The News Tribune took a look at some of the organization’s assertions.

CLAIM 1: “It’s the same as what was proposed and then withdrawn in Seattle at the end of this July.”

Fact: This statement refers to the recommendations made by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s committee that was formed to develop a “housing affordability and livability agenda” for the city. Among the group’s many recommendations were significant changes to the city’s single-family zone, including recommending Seattle “abandon the term ‘single family zone’ and refer to such areas as low-density residential zones” that would allow more “housing types” including cottages, duplexes and triplexes.

The proposed changes in Tacoma maintain the zoning for single-family homes but attempt to achieve more density by allowing additional housing types that must meet certain criteria to ensure they fit in the neighborhood.

True or false? Mostly false. The president of Historic Tacoma, Gary Knudson, said Friday that Tacoma’s ideas aren’t “exactly the same, but the impetus is very similar.”

“There’s an impetus for affordable housing, some of it being driven by transportation. And we are desperately trying to add life and viability to all of our neighborhoods,” Knudson said, adding that sometimes changes are proposed for the sake of change.

“It’s not a coincidence that Tacoma and Seattle are doing this at the same time” despite vast differences in their economies, he said.

The city of Tacoma’s lead planner on the issue, Elliott Barnett, said Friday that “it’s reasonable to make the comparison” but that the proposals are not as sweeping as those in Seattle.

“This is not something the planning staff invented,” he said. The recommendations were part of a larger list from affordable housing advocates whose work began in 2010, Barnett said, as well as a response to people who for years have wanted these options.

CLAIM 2: “Single-family zoning has served as a passive form of historic preservation in our older neighborhoods throughout Tacoma. ... Under the proposed up-zone, however, that protection would disappear.”

Fact: Most of the city’s residential neighborhoods are not designated as historic districts, so they don’t have the added layer of protection from poor renovations or capricious demolition. Despite this, many of the city’s neighborhoods have maintained their building stock, mostly unchanged through the years.

Historic Tacoma suggests this is because the city’s zoning laws didn’t allow a major change in use, so developers never tried it. The proposed changes, the group fears, will open the floodgates.

“Our intention is to maintain the character of existing neighborhoods based on existing building stock whether or not they’re listed” as officially historic, Knudson said. Historic Tacoma is concerned that because “people’s values may not be enshrined in any code, they’re at risk.”

True or false? True. Without a home being specifically listed on the city’s historic register, or having it be part of a historic district, demolition is a permitted activity.

Someone could demolish a home in South Tacoma now “and replace it with a big McMansion,” Barnett said. “What this proposal changes is what you could build back.”

Barnett acknowledges the concern over whether the proposed rules would make land so attractive that it creates incentive to demolish older homes that are significant but not protected by historic designation. “It’s a legitimate policy question,” he said.

CLAIM 3: “The proposal is couched in terms of a ‘pilot study,’ but that only refers to the ‘design review’ portion of the proposal. The proposed single-family up-zone is proposed as a permanent change.”

Fact: The proposed changes to the city’s zoning include language describing many of them as a “pilot” — but the city is not using that word in a typical way.

The “pilot” part of the changes refers to the formation of a special committee to review the design for the first handful of new housing types, but specifically states that there is no time limit proposed to end the “pilot” program. It would be “reassessed as directed by the City Council or (planning and development services) director” after a few of the new housing types have been built.

True or false? True. Barnett said the goal is to change city code to allow new housing uses, and the city wants to allow enough time for the new rules to be used.

“We don’t know how much interest there will be, and it may take some time,” he said, citing University Place as an example of a city that changed its zoning to try to attract developers for new housing stock, but the zoning rules expired before anything happened.

“They didn’t learn anything from it,” Barnett said. The proposed changes to Tacoma’s code do “call for it to be revisited after there’s significant interest.”