Central Tacoma neighbors fight the good fight to preserve way of life

If you ever hanker for a trip down memory lane, drive through some neighborhoods in Central Tacoma, where the most visible changes since World War II might be the cars parked in driveways.

But change is coming to this part of the city, and it’s coming fast. Demographic pressures combined with a Tacoma Link extension that will run to South 19th Street make the area ripe for redevelopment. In fact, residents are already reeling from the transformation underway.

From what we’ve learned, something must be done to make these projects more open and inclusive from the outset.

Case in point: a psychiatric hospital that’s planned just a few blocks from where a similar facility recently opened.

Central Tacoma deserves a grand blueprint for the future, the kind visionaries are working on near Cheney Stadium, where a $300 million mixed-use village anchored by a pro soccer stadium is being discussed. Maybe it’ll never happen, but it’s inspiring to see investors betting on an underdog corner of the city.

What’s not inspiring is the growing likelihood that the South 19th Street corridor will become a hub for acute psychiatric care.

The problem isn’t that Pierce County may have two such facilities; indeed, local hospitals and jails have strained under a shortage of mental health beds for too long.

The problem is that the need is dispersed widely while the public safety burden will fall on one neighborhood.

Last May, we celebrated the opening of Wellfound Behavioral Hospital on MultiCare’s Allenmore campus. The 120-bed facility provides much-needed crisis stabilization, inpatient and outpatient psychiatric services.

Though Wellfound just lost its CEO, we remain impressed by the partnership forged between the region’s two largest rival nonprofit health systems, MultiCare and CHI Franciscan.

But here’s the plot twist: In 2014, the state Department of Health was already considering a similar proposal from a California company, Signature Healthcare.

Signature, with 16 for-profit mental health facilities in six states, argued it was best qualified to build and operate a hospital in Tacoma. It was so confident, it purchased land at 1915 S. Proctor St.

It’s no mystery who was awarded the first certificate of need: Local team for the win. But Signature didn’t go quietly, and a settlement ultimately gave it the green light to build a 105-bed hospital on the land it bought.

Thoughtful urban planning played no part, and it makes us wonder: Who’s charting the course for Central Tacoma?

City Councilman Keith Blocker represents the area and told us his hands are tied. “If a neighborhood is rezoned, I can’t stop a Dollar Tree from going in.”

When asked if something could be done to make redevelopment projects more open, Blocker said, “The city could always do a better job with outreach.”

That lack of public input is why Tacoma will probably end up with two behavioral health facilities in close proximity.

A public hearing was held July 18 for Signature’s site permits, and though it took place on a weekday morning, Central Tacoma residents lined up to object.

Safety is the root of their concerns: The Signature hospital is planned less than a half-mile from Foss High School, Bellarmine Preparatory School, Life Christian Academy, Tacoma Nature Center Preschool and the Senior Recovery Center. It will be buffered by acres of dense woods surrounding the Snake Lake Preserve.

A Signature attorney claimed there’s nothing to fear, saying residential neighbors and schools would benefit from services such as suicide-prevention programs.

The good news is that Central Tacomans are willing to fight for traditional neighborhoods.

They not only fight, they win. Recently they got one step closer to stopping a four-story, 920-unit CubeSmart self-storage facility that is slated to tower above a working-class neighborhood between South 18th and 19th streets.

When a Spokane developer hit 29 home owners and Gloria Dei Lutheran Church with a lawsuit over their opposition to CubeSmart, neighbors held rummage and book sales and raised funds for legal fees.

Before they triumphed in defense of their World War II-era neighborhood covenants, they blamed the city for not notifying their neighborhood association about the project.

Will history repeat with the Signature psychiatric hospital? A hearing examiner will make a determination about rezoning and conditional-use permits. But we suspect the project will go through, especially considering a similar project was approved in 2006.

It’s hard to rely on money raised from rummage sales to fight a California developer that’s been waiting five years to build a $42.5 million hospital.

Then again, no one should underestimate the residents of Central Tacoma.