Tacoma must build up, not out

Opinions

By Daryl Auguste

Concerns over high-rise construction threaten a more equitable future for Tacoma.

On October 10th, a number of residents from Tacoma’s North End met to discuss the latest potential development for the Proctor Neighborhood, a “Proctor Station Two”. Much like its predecessor, Proctor Station Two will serve as a mixed use project, providing both residential and retail space. Proctor Stations One & Two join similar complexes like The Henry & Thea’s Landing as part of a growing trend in high-rise developments in Tacoma.

The principal criticism aimed at Proctor Station relates to the buildings’ heights. Residents worry that the unseemly size of the complex threatens to damage the character of the neighborhood.

Some have voiced concern over the potential noise generated from the construction. Others describe Proctor Station One as a hulking visual eyesore in an otherwise picturesque neighborhood. Many have voiced their opposition to any further increase in the 65 foot ceiling for buildings (approximately 6 floors) allowed under city zoning. Some have even pushed for the laws to be rolled back in favor of the previous 45 foot ceiling.  

To some extent, their anxieties are understandable. Established in the 1890’s, Proctor is one of Tacoma’s oldest neighborhoods.

Proctor contains living reminders of Tacoma past like the Blue Mouse Theater– a registered landmark in operation since 1923. Proctor Station and other similarly sized buildings may be seen by some as an affront to the history of the neighborhood.

These criticisms are rooted in aesthetic appeals, grounded in a notion of Proctor as a quiet neighborhood with cute, convenient shops surrounded by craftsman homes. They do nothing to challenge, address, or mitigate the importance of high-rise living complexes in the formation of a more equitable Tacoma.

High-rise living quarters are critical to the sustained development entof a vibrant middle and lower class in Tacoma. With 127,000 additional residents expected to move into the city by the year 2040, the options are binary: urbanization or suburbanization, building up or building out.

The potential ramifications of suburbanization shouldn’t be unfamiliar to those aware of Tacoma’s history.

The 1950’s saw Tacoma undergo a rapid period of suburbanization and divestment that plunged it into a 40 year depression from which the city is only just recovering. The abandoned buildings strewn throughout downtown should serve as a visual reminder to those who continue to oppose the necessary long term infrastructure these high-rises provide.

Much of the draw for Tacoma’s 127,000 new residents surrounds Tacoma’s reputation as an affordable alternative to Seattle, which is experiencing a major housing crisis. With an inability to cater to this population via the old single family homes Tacoma is known for, high-rise apartments present the only clear alternative to suburbanization, which would see thousands of Tacoma residents, often the richest, abandon Tacoma in favor of nearby affluent suburbs.  

Many of these 127,000 residents arriving in Tacoma will come from middle or lower class households. As the current infrastructure the city has in place cannot properly accommodate these new residents, a priority must be placed on developing more affordable housing options in Tacoma.  

The most effective way to do so is to relax restriction on the size, height, and unit number of housing complexes in Tacoma, which is exactly what an increase in the ceiling for housing complexes has done. An attempt to roll back the laws to only permit for a 45 foot ceiling under the guise of maintaining the “character”, of a neighborhood is a treacherous position, as is holding the aesthetic or historical appeal of anything above laws allowing for a more robust lower and middle class.

Much more compelling are criticisms focused on the need for low- and middle-income high-rises that don’t currently exist.

Units at the Henry apartment complex range from $1100 – $2900 per month. Prices at Proctor Station range from $1195 – $2840 with residents’ income averaging out to $110,000– over twice the $50,439 average for Tacoma. These are not affordable places to live for the average Tacoma resident.

During the development stage in 2008, the city of Tacoma tweaked its multi-family tax exemption program to allow for a 12 year property tax exemption if Proctor Station designated at least 20% of their apartments as “affordable housing”. Proctor Station declined, signaling its desire to cater exclusively to the wealthier pockets of Tacoma.

This sadly represents the norm rather than the exception. However, it signals a willingness in local government to provide affordable housing.

High-rises are critical to a sustained, equitable future for Tacoma, but they cannot be constructed to exclusively serve the wealthy. Let us not mistake the construction of Proctor Station as some noble egalitarian quest; the motivations are principally financial.

This shouldn’t necessarily read as a criticism of these high end apartments, as their construction is a critical first step to a more equitable form of high-rise apartment. They can lay the structural and political framework for expansions, and their high end emphasis may afford the initial investments required.

As renters and residents of Tacoma, we have a moral responsibility to encourage the development of low- and middle- income high-rise apartment developments. The 127,000 new residents moving into Tacoma by 2040 affords a tremendous potential opportunity. The advent of these high-rises can help create for financially prosperous, diverse, and equitable future for Tacoma.

While Proctor Station may not be personally indicative of the aforementioned affordable housing, it’s developers success in relaxing restrictions must be commended and upheld. If the locals of Tacoma’s North End succeed in defeating well funded projects like Proctor Station, what chance would future low or middle income housing developments stand under the same type of pressure?

Resources.

  1. http://www.thenewstribune.com/news/business/article26294359.html
    1. Timeline on Proctor Station construction, laws surrounding it, etc.
  2. http://www.thenewstribune.com/news/local/article107425297.html
    1. Article on Proctor Station Two, featuring the quote from Jennifer K.
  3. http://postdefiance.com/the-complicated-urbanization-of-proctor/
    1. Article criticizing proctor station.

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