November 15, 2001

Thea’s Landing: Downtown Tacoma’s new urban housing

  • Cultural revolution expected to shed the city’s industrial image


    If you talk to anyone in Tacoma who is “in the know” you are probably convinced that the city’s new cultural and educational renaissance is going to change the face of downtown forever. You may even be convinced to sell your house and make the move south.

    But, the question still remaining to be answered is: “If you build it, will they come and will they stay?”

    A key to the transformation of downtown Tacoma and its waterfront into a people place is not just bringing in the people, but keeping them there. The city of Tacoma asked a speculative housing developer to help it create a livable downtown by starting along the Foss Waterway.

    Where they started

    Once the site for paper and pulp mills, shipping traffic and industrial manufacturing that all left an indelible mark of toxic damage on land and water, the Thea Foss Waterway is now a primary driver of a greater vision.

    It began in the early 1990s with a core group of city of Tacoma visionaries who thought it was time for Tacoma to re-stake its claim as a major player in the Northwest. Executive Director of the Foss Waterway Development Authority Don Meyer says, “We had potential that we’d never tasted.”

    Waterway Esplanade
    Concept sketch at Waterway Esplanade looking north.

    Tacoma had suffered for many years with retailers that pulled out of the downtown core, businesses that moved elsewhere and investor interest that was virtually non-existent. With persistence, patience and a $7 million, city-funded purchase of 17 parcels stretching 1.5 miles along the waterfront, a plan was in place. The next step was to bring in the right developers, businesses and organizations that could make it happen.

    The plan was to create a cultural base in the downtown core that would bring vibrancy and people into the city. Coupled with that, a set of design/development goals were created which defined an elevated level of quality within the context of Tacoma’s history.

    The “new Tacoma” is host to the University of Washington, the Museum of Glass, a new convention center, local history museums, a new art museum and technology infrastructure worthy of being named America’s No. 1 wired city.

    Why housing?

    If you build it right, they will stay. Tacoma’s city agencies have taken a slightly more proactive approach to getting people downtown and keeping them there.

    Thea’s Landing, designed by Mithun, is the first speculative housing project under construction on the Thea Foss Waterway, the core of Tacoma’s downtown waterfront.

    “Tacoma is using this spec housing project as one of the first steps in reclaiming its waterfront. This is one of the best projects that we could’ve started with to say: ‘You can live in downtown Tacoma,’ “ according to Meyer.

    While the demand for housing in downtown Tacoma is not as significant as has been seen in other cities undergoing major redevelopment, those who are in the know are confident it will be a success.

    The University of Washington and other businesses that have moved into Tacoma have asked for housing for their employees. Many companies’ employees are still making the commute from Seattle and other areas outside Tacoma.

    Focus groups have shown that there is an incredible demand from the empty nesters and over 50 demographic that would move into a project like Thea’s Landing. A waiting list is already being developed for the first of two sites that should be completed in August 2002. A second site with condominiums should be completed by spring 2004.

    City support

    Thea’s Landing is a model example of how Tacoma’s public/private partnerships for redevelopment can really work. Team Tacoma (Carino Homes, Dunson Equities, Kimpton Group, Rushforth Construction, Colliers International, Mithun, HSC and Caracol) won the initial competition to develop the sites in partnership with the city. Understanding the project’s significant role in moving the city’s plan ahead, the city is returning the favor.

    Waterway Esplanade
    Renderings by Mithun
    Concept sketch at Waterway Esplanade looking north.

    The sites presented an enormous amount of environmental pollution that the city agreed to clean up as design for the Thea’s Landing project began. The city is also providing two other key advantages to encourage development, a 10-year property tax exemption and a permitting process that is both collaborative and efficient, usually within 90 days of application.

    Eric Cederstrand, associate vice president of Colliers International says, “The city really came with an attitude about what they can do to bring us to Tacoma and they are absolutely focused on what they can do to help us and other redevelopment projects succeed. Everyone wants to help each other.”

    As a Tacoma insider and former Seattle resident who made the move south, Cederstrand is an enthusiastic participant in realizing Tacoma’s potential. He explains that Thea’s Landing is unique; it is not a project that is purely motivated by economics, but is instead motivated by an ideal of what Tacoma could be, a new level for the city.

    Martha Anderson, division director for Tacoma’s Economic Development, agrees. She explains that a commitment was made by Tacoma early on that if the Museum of Glass went ahead that they wouldn’t be left out there alone. Thea’s Landing is an important connection for all the other cultural and civic projects in the city.

    “People will be looking very closely at the Thea’s Landing project as a model for new ones to come,” notes Anderson.

    Culturally-driven spec housing

    “What is really helping the project succeed is the passion and belief in the local market and the commitment over the long term by Team Tacoma and the city. Team Tacoma is truly committed to developing a superior product,” explains Mithun Principal-in-Charge Doug Leigh. It is that passion and long term vision that is driving the design of the project.

    Given its significance to the city as a model for others to follow, there were bigger design considerations for Thea’s Landing. As defined by the Foss Waterway Design and Development Plan which focuses on elevating the quality level of development and changing people’s mindsets about what living in Tacoma would be like, this project has to make a lasting impression. This impression is what will move people into downtown Tacoma to frequent the many cultural and civic facilities, as well as bring businesses into the area where their employees can live, work and play.

    “This project is a legacy for all those who are involved,” says Leigh.

    Care and context in the use of materials reflect a sense of permanence and local history. Masonry is used throughout the project and well-known local artist George Capestany, president of Caracol, created handcrafted artistic and functional elements. The subtle details suggest a level of quality that is mirroring both the cultural developments in the area and the industrial vitality of the waterfront.

    The project’s scale varies along each exposure, from a civic prominence facing the city and the freeway, to a comfortable retail intimacy along the pedestrian esplanade.

    Thea’s Landing is helping with another issue that plagues Tacoma: the city’s connection between the downtown core and its waterfront that is divided from each other by a major elevated freeway.

    The project’s design focuses on facilitating public access to the waterfront and view corridors. Two key concepts are helping to achieve these goals: 1) connections are provided through the plaza level public space to the esplanade — a vibrant pedestrian area lively with retail, parks, boats and access to the water; and 2) the concept for each corner of the building is a “lantern” form — signifying and announcing the passageways for public access.

    Providing more view units and maximizing the upper floors were also design goals. Units are oriented to provide beautiful views of the water, mountains and downtown skyline. Upper units have 17-foot-high ceilings.

    All these design elements will help the city to create and fulfill an upscale demand. Anderson believes Thea’s Landing will demonstrate to lenders and businesses that upscale housing can work in downtown Tacoma.

    What it all means

    According to Cederstrand, this represents the largest private residential development in Tacoma’s history, not only in scope, but also significance.

    “What is being developed at Thea’s Landing is the foundation and nucleus of a new Tacoma with civic and cultural activities and market rate housing that supports and motivates people in downtown during the day and beyond 5 p.m.”

    Tacoma is hoping for a cultural revolution that will change its long-held perception as an industrial town.

    Thea’s Landing is being asked to fill some big expectations, but as they all agree: This is going to put Tacoma on the map.

    Kipepeo ‘Pep’ Brown has been the marketing director for over three years at Mithun, an architecture, interior design, urban planning and landscape architecture firm located in Seattle.

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