Homeowners in Tacoma’s West End who have worked for years to preserve their neighborhood’s atmosphere experienced an unexpected setback this week.
The Tacoma City Council voted 8-1 Tuesday against giving the Narrowmoor neighborhood extra protection against some types of development. Councilman Anders Ibsen, whose district includes the neighborhood, was the lone dissenter.
Neighborhood residents said after the vote that they were surprised by the council’s decision to reject the city planning commission’s recommendation to create a “conservation special review district overlay zone” for the neighborhood.
“It’s just unfortunate the City Council couldn’t take their recommendations to heart,” Narrowmoor homeowner and West Slope Neighborhood Coalition co-chairman Dean Wilson said. “It’s lose-lose. Nobody has gained from this thing. The city of Tacoma has only lost.”
Narrowmoor residents sought to safeguard their sweeping views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Range by protecting the skinny, deep lots and the low-slung ramblers that are the hallmarks of the neighborhood, which includes several blocks west of Jackson Avenue between roughly Sixth Avenue and 19th Street.
But council members said they couldn’t support protecting large lots in one neighborhood at the same time they are asking other neighborhoods to accept more density. They also expressed concerns about the neighborhood’s 1940s-era covenants, which hark back to a darker side of American history that once allowed communities to prevent minorities from joining their ranks.
The covenants say, in part: “No part or parcel of land … shall be rented or leased to or used or occupied, in whole or in part, by any person of the African or Asiatic descent, nor by any person not of the white or Caucasian race, other than domestic servants domiciled with an owner or tenant and living in their home.”
As Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who was born to a Korean mother and an African-American father, said recently: “It was written years ago when someone like me could only be a servant.”
Federal law would clearly prohibit anyone from enforcing that covenant today, but it still bothers some council members.
“I just couldn’t look the other way and say ‘these are nice people that are working on this,’ ” Councilwoman Lauren Walker said. “Every time they come up and talk about the history of their covenants and what a great community it was, it made me uncomfortable.”
Narrowmoor residents agree that the racial restrictions are a black mark on the history of their community.
“We had nothing to do with the covenants,” Wilson said. “They were a sad heritage of the era. This was the early 40s, just after we detained the Japanese in detention camps.”
The covenants also benefit neighborhood preservationists by governing what landowners can do with their property. Property owners can’t build on lots smaller than 9,000 square feet, for instance. Covenants helped Narrowmoor neighbors win a lawsuit last year against a homeowner who built an addition onto an existing home.
But covenants must be enforced in civil court and are not considered when city planners, say, consider an application to subdivide a lot, neighbors say.
“People (have) put in detached garages where they were not intended,” Wilson said. “Others built very high roofs. Even though they may not have added a habitable story, they would be absolutely devastating to view impacts.”
A conservation district falls somewhat short of a historic district in that it doesn’t require approval for small design changes, like windows and fencing. But property owners would have been required to seek approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission for expanding or demolishing an existing home, or building a new structure.
“I agree that we don’t want to have a conservation district on every corner, but I think in unique instances where there are historical assets to be preserved, I think it’s appropriate,” Ibsen said.
The views and character of Narrowmoor, however, were not first among the council’s concerns Tuesday.
Earlier Tuesday night, the council approved a pilot project to increase housing density in some residential areas of Tacoma, which includes allowing duplexes and triplexes in traditionally single-family neighborhoods or an additional dwelling on a single-family lot. The move was part of a larger effort to increase housing supply and possibly drive down housing costs.
Councilman David Boe said creating a Narrowmoor conservation district might have set a precedent that other neighborhoods looked to as a way to prevent unwanted development in their areas.
“When you add up all of the regulations, it basically precludes any new development,” Boe said of the Narrowmoor proposal.
Walker said giving a well-to-do neighborhood more tools to restrict development would have gone against her 20-year history as an advocate for affordable housing and diverse communities.
“When you have neighborhoods that are having ‘not in my back yard’ attitudes, or zoning to keep things the way they are, or to keep these ‘others’ from coming in … I was struggling with the West Slope as one of these examples,” Walker said Wednesday.