'Green' missing from 56th Street beautification project

When the professional golf world descends on the South Sound region in 2015 for the U.S. Open Championships at Chambers Bay, Tacoma boosters sees it as an opportunity to showcase their city. One way to do that is to revamp South 56th Street, a major thoroughfare connecting Interstate 5 to the award-winning golf course in University Place.

The project would transform a barren two-mile stretch of South 56th Street between I-5 and South Orchard Street by adding new street trees, streetlights, banners, landscaped medians, and new traffic signals.

It’s a project that has been discussed at City Hall for some time, and one that Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland has personally championed.

“This came up maybe two years ago when [then] Councilmember [Connie] Ladenburg and I were talking about the fact that if you’re coming from Sea-Tac Airport and you want to get to Chambers Bay, you have to drive down 56th Street from Tacoma Mall Boulevard all the way through to University Place,” said Strickland Tuesday during Tacoma City Council’s study session. The meeting included a presentation on the so-called ‘South 56th Street Beautification Project.’ “We thought this would be a good opportunity to do some beautification, some compete streets, and really showcase Tacoma looking its best for the U.S. Open.”

According to the city’s public works staff, the project could be completed during a six-month period. During Tuesday’s meeting, staff provided five preliminary “before and after” images ( http://cms.cityoftacoma.org/cityclerk/Files/CityCouncil/StudySessionHandouts/2010/SS20100216handouts.pdf )showing different stretches of the area as it currently looks, and what it could look like post-project. Staff also noted that although the idea was recently presented at a meeting of the city council’s environment and public works committee in December, they would still need to discuss the design plans with the community.

It sounds like a good idea. But there is one catch. No one knows how to come up with the $11.4 million needed for the project.

“When we first started this, we were engaged in a conceptual exercise,” said Public Works Director Richard McKinley. “We did not engage in, ‘Lets create a project, go fund it, and build it.’ [This was] a conceptual exercise to say, ‘Show us an example of what we could do to make this street look better.’ We have not spent time thinking about where and how that would be funded.”

“I would suggest we probably need to get there first before we go anyplace else,” said Councilmember Spiro Manthou. He was one of several councilmembers who had concerns about the project. “If we’re going to make this go, where’s the funding coming from?”

Councilmember David Boe had other concerns.

“I’m having difficulty believing South 56th Street would really be the way you would sign people,” he said. “The reason I say that is because the [South 56th Street] exit for anyone going west is problematic at best when there’s no traffic. Has it been affirmed with the PGA that this is the exit? Because I would hate to go down a route of spending all this time doing something when no one actually used South 56th Street because the exit off I-5 is so screwed up.”

His other concern was related to the overall design.

“I don’t know a nice way to say this, but I don’t really care how it looks for someone driving in a car,” he said. “I care how it looks for someone on the street, a pedestrian. This is all very nice, the trees are beautiful, and it all gets cleaned up, but it’s still automotive-related and that sets a priority that down South 56th Street, it’s still car rules. I would feel much more energetic about saying, ‘No. When you are on 56th, you realize this community gets you out of your car and they spent money to make it more pedestrian-friendly and bicycle-friendly.’ I would really like to see the focus on pedestrian crosswalks and sidewalks. I look at these improvements and I still think that as a pedestrian it would be beastly. All you’ve done is give me a nice sidewalk that’s right next to a busy street. I don’t feel better as a pedestrian. But I guess the people going by at 35 [miles per hour] feel better.”

Mayor Strickland disagreed.

“I don’t think it’s too car-centric,” she said. “The reality is that there are some streets in Tacoma that are just made for cars.” She pointed to South 72nd Street, South 56th Street, and South 38th Street as examples.

Councilmember Jake Fey said he “didn’t want to throw water” on the plan, but the City should study the idea further. “I think we need to take a financial look at this,” he said. “It’s going to be a huge leap to get this amount of money in time. In concept, I’m there. But I think we have to look at the money piece seriously.”