City revisits historic naming policy

The City of Tacoma is looking at a set of recommendations to improve how it names its public places after historically significant people, according to a presentation this week at City Hall.

At issue is a 21-year-old process that has left the decision at the mayor’s discretion. As it stands, when someone wants to bestow historic recognition on a street or park, that request is submitted to the mayor’s office. Depending on its merits, the mayor will forward the request to the city’s landmarks preservation commission, which will hold public meetings to discuss the request and make a recommendation. If the commission favors the naming designation, the request and recommendation are forwarded to the mayor. Finally, it is presented to City Council as a resolution for action.

This process happened last year when a stretch of pedestrian right-of-way along Broadway between South 13th Street and South 15th Street was named the Harry P. Cain Promenade, after the late Tacoma mayor and U.S. Senator; and a pocket park near City Hall was named after the late journalist and historic preservationist Ben Gilbert.

Last year, then-Mayor Bill Baarsma asked city staff to review the process so the decision doesn’t rest solely with the Mayor’s Office.

“There’s been a general sense that the public process could be improved [by adding m]ore opportunities for input, more transparency, and a better understanding of where these requests originate,” said Reuben McKnight, Tacoma’s historic preservation officer. He spoke Monday during Tacoma City Council’s environment and public works committee meeting. He also noted several challenges related to historic naming such as the justification for naming a street or park, and the costs associated with that naming.

Most concerns from residents center on street naming.

“It’s controversial because people don’t want to have their street names changed because they like it or because their business cards have it,” said McKnight. He added that when the Harry P. Cain Promenade proposal reached City Hall last year, most public comments were related to whether or not the actual street name was going to change. Business owners were concerned they would have to change their business cards and stationery to reflect a new street name (the street name did not change).

The landmarks preservation commission made a number of recommendations. Most significantly, it recommended that naming requests should first be submitted to a neighborhood council instead of the mayor’s office. The neighborhood council would then decide whether to submit it to City Hall. “The purpose of that is to both allow some public process ahead of it getting to the City, so that there’s also some natural vetting process that would occur,” said McKnight.

City Councilmember Spiro Manthou liked the idea of more public vetting, but wanted to include more groups, such as neighborhood business districts, in the mix.

The landmarks preservation commission also recommended that for construction of new buildings, there could be an announcement that the City is seeking input from the public on what to name the building. The commission also recommend city council committees review any name change requests before they are presented for a vote by the full city council.

No action was taken on the recommendations during Monday’s meeting.

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For related Tacoma Daily Index coverage, click on the following links:

City Council to vote on Cain Promenade, Gilbert Park nominations —

Broadway promenade to bear name of former mayor, senator Cain —

City Hall park to be named for late editor, preservationist Gilbert —

City Hall park would honor late editor, historic preservationist —

Consulting team will review Tacoma’s historic preservation policies —

Heavy lifting ahead for City’s historic preservation office —