Politics & Government

Plan to ‘up zone’ Tacoma residential areas riles some neighborhoods, historic preservationists

A significant change in land-use policy could allow for more dwellings in almost every neighborhood in Tacoma.

The city is pitching the changes to the land-use code under the flag of affordable housing. But the proposals rankle some long-time Tacomans who like their neighborhoods just the way they are.

Among the most controversial recommendations:

▪  Making it easier to build, or convert existing homes into, duplexes and triplexes in traditionally single-family neighborhoods.

▪  Allowing duplexes on corner lots in residential zones that currently only allow one single-family home per lot.

▪  Allowing what is called a “detached accessory dwelling unit,” commonly called a mother-in-law apartment, in all single-family zones. Such mother-in-law apartments are already allowed in Tacoma as long as they are attached to the home and they pass a special review process.

The new proposals are part of a larger slate of annual amendments to the comprehensive plan, the document that acts as the city’s blueprint for development. The city is holding two informational meetings and one Planning Commission hearing this month. Written comments on the proposals are due Sept. 4.

City associate planner Elliott Barnett said the changes aim to increase housing affordability and choice in the region. Increasing the housing supply will drive down costs, he said.

Julie Turner, a board member with the North Slope Historic District, said the changes alarm her neighbors. They are concerned about preserving the remaining single-family homes in their neighborhood, which already has dozens of apartments and low-income housing units, she said. The neighborhood group is circulating a petition opposing the changes.

An alert sent by Historic Tacoma, a nonprofit group, Friday echoed some of the district’s concerns over the historic preservation consequences of the city’s proposal. The organization also questioned whether the changes would really increase the stock of affordable housing if they encourage developers to tear down one $250,000 bungalow to put up three $300,000 townhouses.

“The proposed up-zone would put a bullseye on less expensive, small, older houses, the very ones that are most affordable for families,” the organization said in its statement.

The city’s proposals are based on the work of the Affordable Housing Policy Advisory Group, a group of council appointees who have been meeting for five years. Group members said Friday that the ideas that have attracted the most outrage could help drive down the cost of housing, but that another city proposal is the most important move to increase affordability.

Connie Brown, an advisory group member and the executive director for the Pierce County Affordable Housing Consortium, said what will really make a difference is the city encouraging private developers to include affordable units in larger multifamily developments in exchange for bigger, although not necessarily taller, buildings.

Such an idea is included among the list of recommended changes under consideration by the Planning Commission.

“The market is not exactly booming,” Brown said. The proposed changes are a way for developers to provide affordable housing, “and at the same time we don’t expect them to bear the brunt of providing that housing without some sort of incentive.

“The idea really is to include low-income families in places where everybody else lives.” she said.

The city’s historic preservation officer said the proposals won’t adversely affect the city’s architectural heritage, especially not in the historic districts that “have the most protection in the city” because of strict design guidelines and prohibitions against demolishing sound structures.

Reuben McKnight said historic preservation is about balance.

“What do you mean by historic preservation? Does it mean keeping everything the way it is now?” he said. “We are looking at ways to preserve the character and defining qualities of (historic properties), while at the same time accommodating them to new uses and new needs.”

“I also think it’s really important to keep a balance with other societal needs. Equity is also very, very important to me, too,” he said.

The proposed changes would make it easier to carve a large home in a historic district into two or three units, a process that is all but impossible today, Barnett said. Property owners currently must prove, among other things, that it’s a financial burden to keep the home in single-family use. Few people jump through those hoops.

“The change we are making is not going to open the door wide” to wholesale conversions to multifamily use, he said. “(The change) makes it so they could be permitted with special review and a lot of attention paid to consistency with the historic district.”

Similarly, a detached accessory dwelling would be approved only if it meets certain criteria. It would have to pass a design review, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission would also look at any proposal, Barnett said.

Turner said her neighbors’ concerns extend outside the North Slope to where residents don’t enjoy the protections that come with a historic designation.

“There are a lot of other historic areas in town,” she said. “We think that neighborhoods other than our historic district and the Wedge (District) are in more danger.”

Community meetings

Wednesday, 6-8 p.m., Baker Middle School, 8001 S. J St.

Thursday, 6-8 p.m., Stadium High School, 111 N. E St.

Planning Commission Public Hearing

Aug. 19 at 5 p.m., first floor of Tacoma Municipal Building, 747 Market St.

Written comments can be submitted to planning@cityoftacoma.org. The deadline is 5 p.m. Sept. 4.

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