Five issues we should consider in the density debate

Ken Miller
Ken Miller Staff file, 2012

Tacoma’s density debate is a glorious stew of laws, logic, dreams and fears. It may be the conversation about our future. And it will determine if we are, in fact, a cohesive community with a common fate and the power to shape our future.

Issue 1: In the beginning was the Act – Washington’s Growth Management Act (GMA), adopted in 1990. Under the GMA, counties must protect wilderness and farmland by restricting growth to suburbs and cities. Urban growth is the price we pay to climb Mount Rainier or eat local berries.

Issue 2: How to have suburbs inside a growing city. Because that’s what low-density advocates want: a suburb, with block after block of single-family homes and a concise, walkable commercial center. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But how do we simultaneously keep our in-burbs, contain sprawl and still accommodate the tens of thousands of people headed our way?

Issue 3: Can’t we lock the door? Tell all those newcomers to live in Parkland? Or adopt a no-growth policy to preserve our way of life?

No. Ignoring the expense of a wall around the city, no-growth would destroy us economically. Taxes would go up to pay for city services, or else infrastructure and public safety would deteriorate. Homes, offices and retail space would cost more, and Tacoma will be unaffordable for many of the people who live here today.

Issue 4: Fears of race and class. May we be frank? The suburbs are the ’hood for educated, white, middle-class people. Some no-growth fervor is about keeping it that way.

Let’s time travel. It’s 1977 in Washington, D.C. Metro – a superb mass transit system – opened a station in Foggy Bottom and made it the end of the line. Which was odd; not many people lived in Foggy Bottom. The major residential area is Georgetown, about a mile farther on.

You’ve heard of Georgetown. Cabinet members. Lobbyists. Hoyas. So why no Metro station in Georgetown? Yep: to keep “those people” from riding in on Metro and walking the streets. You can look it up.

Friends, the poor will be with us, if not always then for the foreseeable future. Heck, sometimes the poor are us. The dirt poor, the working poor, the paycheck-to-paycheck, Social-Security-and-a-food-bank-visit poor.

The soul of our city is revealed in their homes. If an auxiliary dwelling unit helps an old couple stay in their house by bringing extra income or lets a mother and child live on a safer street, does that come out of my piece of the pie? Really?

Issue 5: Economic opportunism. Why are we surprised developers are building in Proctor? It’s a sweet neighborhood, the fruit of decades of emotional and financial investment by residents, businesses and public servants.

Why so few high-rise residents downtown? Few amenities. (That was Chicken speaking; Egg asks “Why so few amenities downtown? Not enough residents.”) Why no cranes in Oakland/Madrona? With all due respect, there’s no there there.

Rather than banging on business for pursuing opportunity in Proctor, can we encourage opportunity elsewhere in the city, where residents actually want growth? We have open space, we have decrepit buildings yearning to be demolished. Let’s build something.

Maybe this list of issues is incomplete. Maybe the issues are badly framed. Okay. I’m less interested in being right about the specifics and more about wrestling with the issues in a truly strategic context. Not in pro forma hearings required by regulation, not by torching bureaucrats, but in authentic conversation, recognizing that density is both an issue in itself and a surrogate for a lot of other questions we haven’t answered very well.

Ken Miller has lived in Tacoma since 1970. He's served on the Tacoma Housing Authority board and on the 2014 Charter Review Committee, among other civic activities.