Op-Ed

It’s possible to love a neighborhood to death

Design depicts five-story Proctor Station that is now under construction on Proctor Avenue in Tacoma.
Design depicts five-story Proctor Station that is now under construction on Proctor Avenue in Tacoma. BCRA

I grew up in the Parkland area, just below Spanaway Lake. That was back when the area was mostly quiet, heavily wooded glens and glades.

As a boy, I had endless favorite places for Huck Finn-style hideouts and tree forts. Since that time, most of my favorite childhood places have been turned into strip malls and parking lots.

I first moved to the North End of Tacoma in the late 1970s. My primary reason was that, in theory at least, Tacoma's North End was already developed and the land that was not developed, like parks and gulches, would stay that way.

I wanted a neighborhood that didn't change in front of me. And for many years, I did have such a place.

I didn't really think of it at the time, but my neighborhood, Proctor, is different from every other neighborhood in Tacoma and, in fact, is rare among American neighborhoods across the country.

It is difficult to imagine a neighborhood more walkable than Proctor. It is easy for pedestrians to cross any street in the area.

Have you tried crossing Sixth Avenue lately? Or Puyallup's Meridian on South Hill? Or almost any main intersection in any busy neighborhood?

The North End, especially around Proctor, is where, by some fluke of accident or circumstance, most of the lawns stay green through the summer, neighbors are (mostly) cordial, the pace is slow, crime is rare and the overriding sense is that here, unlike the rest of the world, things don't change.

And that was true, but it's certainly not true now.

If you pass through the Proctor neighborhood, you can't miss the new building coming up that fills almost the whole block between North 28th and 27th streets along Proctor Avenue. Critics call it a monstrosity. Supporters describe it as an inevitable aspect of urban density.

It certainly is a lot bigger than most of us thought it would be, but we also know that more and more people want to live in the immediate Proctor neighborhood.

Proctor has a problem every neighborhood wishes it had: More people want to live there than it can currently hold. Single-family homes make way for multifamily units not out of greed or speculation, but because of pent-up demand.

Proctor is a victim of its own success.

Time will tell if this new building is a blight or the core of a thriving urban village, but one thing supporters and detractors agree on is that this won’t be the last. But it also isn’t the first.

The 1925 Gamble Building (home of Knapp’s Restaurant) was probably criticized for the same reasons when it was built: being out of scale and changing the “feel” of the neighborhood). In fact, I’d guess that every “new” building faced local opposition.

I’ve seen more unwanted and destructive “development” than anyone should, and I have my own concerns about the size, scale, cost and increased traffic related to this construction project. I also know that the vast majority of residents of the Proctor neighborhood love their neighborhood with a passion rare in any city.

Our biggest challenge will be the continuing, precarious balance between loving our neighborhood and loving it to death.

As I mentioned before, this is a problem every neighborhood wished it had. And I know enough about human nature to know that some of the harshest critics eventually will be lining up to move into one of the new buildings.

Some worry that the costs will be too high and too exclusive. Others worry that the costs will be too low and will attract the “wrong kind” of people. Those criticisms are probably fair and reasonable.

My criticism is more personal; if I wanted to, I seriously doubt whether I could afford to live there.

What has happened when many of us can’t afford to live in our own neighborhood? This is a dilemma working itself across San Francisco and Seattle. I certainly never expected to see it here.

Tacoma resident M. (Morf) Morford, a former reader columnist, is chairman of the North End Neighborhood Council. Email him at mmorf@mail.com.

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