Blurred Vision? Downtown residents, developers battle over waterfront plans

Who has the right to a waterfront view?

Depends whom you ask.

If you own a home in the Perkins Building, a historic commercial and residential loft-condominium complex on A St. downtown, you’ve made an investment in the city. You believed in the city’s vision of economic growth, a billion dollars of development projects, and renewed interest in the downtown district. Though you may not own the waterfront view your condominium provides, you have a stake in the city’s development and any impacts to that view.

If you work for the city, you have a commitment to public interest and economic development. If market demand calls for the development of property along the waterfront, you take advantage of the opportunity. You promote projects that spur economic development and preserve the public’s access to waterfront views.

That is the debate right now as home-owners and developers face off over a plan to build four 16-story buildings on the north side of the Murray Morgan Bridge. The project, developed by Simon Johnson LLC, proposes at least 350 apartments and condominiums, retail space, and a grocery store. The four towers would sit atop a five-story parking garage.

According to home-owners in the Perkins Building, the project would block views of the Thea Foss Waterway and Commencement Bay.

Less than three weeks ago, such a project was impossible because the height limitation in that area was 100 feet. On Nov. 16, however, the Tacoma City Council voted to raise the height limitation to 180 feet, facilitating development of the project.

“The owner of the Perkins Building poured $8 million worth of renovations into it with an understanding that the area was zoned for 100 feet,” says Tom Davenport, manager of the Perkins Building. From the rooftop, eight stories above A Street, he points to the waterfront site slated for development. “When those towers are completed, they will stand six feet taller than the Perkins.”

Davenport claims that residents received little notice of the city’s plan to change the zone’s height ordinance.

But Peter Huffman, Manager of the Growth management Division at the Tacoma Economic Development Department, says the process leading up to the council’s decision was well-communicated. The application was submitted in March, the Tacoma Planning Commission publicly discussed the issue several times during the summer, and a public hearing was held on Sept. 15. The following month, the issue went to the Economic Development Committee, and public hearings were held on Oct. 26 and Nov. 16.

At the Nov. 16 council meeting, residents, business owners, and the project’s developers spent two hours commenting for and against changing the ordinance.

“Investing in downtown living is risky right now,” said Dave Cook, a condominium owner, at the council meeting. “There’s a lot of hope and promise, but not a lot of tangible variables. There should be an obligation to residents in order to encourage these downtown stakeholders.”

Huffman argues that changing the height-related ordinance in the area wasn’t a new idea. The regulation was originally established at 140 feet, and lowered in 1996 and 1999 (to 100 feet). “There has been discussion about the height in that area since original zoning was developed,” he says.

Furthermore, Huffman says that changing the ordinance lessened the waterfront project’s impact on public views. “The whole purpose of increasing the height was to allow different types of construction configurations to occur,” he says. “The height increase allows the developer to build a low podium and create density in the towers. The council feels this form of development is more suitable in terms of having a more vibrant waterfront — particularly considering the site constraints: long, narrow, and not much depth between waterway and railroad tracks.”

Huffman recognizes concerns about the project’s impact on residential views. “But we don’t protect private views through zoning regulations, other than height limitations in north end and west slope areas,” he explains. “In downtown and historic districts, or port industrial districts, we don’t protect private views. Our concerns is views from public property and public benefit standpoints.”

Huffman also points out that height limitations vary (some ranging as high as 400 feet) throughout the downtown area. “Depending on the market,” he adds, “you could have commercial views blocked by high-rise residential projects. It’s really a function of the market whether the particular size or scale of a construction project is warranted.”

But Davenport, the Perkins Building manager, says the project is unwarranted. “It isn’t economically feasible,” he says. The project’s 350 apartments and condominiums are nearly equal to the total number of combined apartments and condominiums along the waterfront (Alber’s Mill, Cliff Street, Thea’s Landing, and Perkins) — and units are still available in those buildings. “The real issue is that this doesn’t make economic sense,” Davenport adds.

Margo Hass Klein, a Coldwell Banker agent selling homes in the Perkins Building, says business has changed since the Nov. 16 decision. “The overall feeling is still shock,” she says. “We have been blatantly telling people about the height increase, and the only sale has been for a condo on the street side, at a lower-than-list-price.”

The next step?

Environmental approval and shoreline management plans. A meeting date hasn’t been set, but residents and building owners impacted by the decision plan to attend.