When Tacoma City Council meets today at noon for its weekly study session, it will discuss an issue that has been working its way through City Hall for nearly three years: what action to take regarding a grass-roots effort to create a historic district and several conservation districts in the city’s Wedge neighborhood.
At issue is whether City Council should agree with the boundaries previously established by the landmarks preservation commission and the planning commission.
MultiCare Health System owns four homes that have been included in a district boundary approved by both commissions. According to property records, the vacant homes, which sit in the shadow of MultiCare’s sprawling hospital campus, are located at 1216 South Fourth Street (built in 1925); 1218 South Fourth Street (built in 1923); 417 South M Street (built in 1905); and 407 South M Street (built in 1908). The homes are located in an area limited to residential use. MultiCare officials have written letters to City Hall asking that their homes be excluded from the proposed historic district and the boundary be re-drawn.
Similarly, Salvation Army of Tacoma owns three properties that would be included in a proposed conservation district. One of the properties, located at 1521 Sixth Avenue, includes a former motel built in 1927 that now serves as the Salvation Army’s emergency lodge for 67 low-income people. Salvation Army officials plan to expand the services offered on the site by demolishing the former lodge and building a new facility on a vacant parcel. They have also argued the old lodge is not historically significant.
Although no vote will be taken during Tuesday’s meeting, nor will public comment be allowed, the meeting could provide some insight into how councilmembers might vote if the issue ever makes it on the full agenda.
The Wedge neighborhood, with its quaint homes and tree-lined streets, rests against MultiCare’s growing hospital campus. The proposal has worked its way through City Hall since June 2008, when three Wedge residents — Jean Carter, Char Cooper, and Laurie Hunger — submitted the historic district nomination to the city’s historic preservation office. According to the nomination, the Wedge neighborhood is an area of Tacoma that boasts more than 50 homes dating back 80 years or more. It’s also where Tacoma pioneer Aaron Titlow, candy company entrepreneurs Frank and Ethel Mars, and Titanic survivor Anne Kincaid resided. And it is ringed by Wright Park, the North Slope Historic District, and many of the city’s oldest churches.
The historic district nomination is partly aimed at preserving the neighborhood’s character and history in light of MultiCare’s decision to demolish a 90-year-old church to make way for new construction, as well as concern over future demolition and development.
Five historic districts exist in Tacoma. Three are listed on the local Tacoma Register (Old City Hall, Union Depot / Warehouse, and North Slope); four are listed on the National Register (Old City Hall, Union Depot / Warehouse, North Slope, and Stadium / Seminary); and four are listed on the Washington Heritage Register (Old City Hall, Union Depot / Warehouse, North Slope, and Salmon Beach).
The last time the City designated an historic district was in 1994. In 1999, an effort to create a historic district in the Old Town neighborhood failed after some homeowners feared the designation would limit their abilities to modify or develop their properties.
On Nov. 15, 2010, Tacoma City Council’s neighborhoods and housing committee could have made a decision but decided to punt instead. Indeed, it failed for the second time in three months to reach a consensus and forward a ‘do-pass’ recommendation to the full council. Instead, the committee tabled the decision for today’s study session.
During that meeting, the council committee worked through a variety of iterations for the proposed historic district and conservation districts: leaving alone the district boundaries approved by the landmarks preservation commission and the planning commission, which includes MultiCare and Salvation Army properties; modifying the approved district boundaries by excluding MultiCare’s properties; and modifying the approved district boundaries by excluding Salvation Army’s properties.
Councilmember David Boe supported leaving alone the proposal approved by the landmarks preservation commission and the planning commission and forwarding it to the full council for a vote. “Their recommendation is based on basic sound planning as best as you can do,” said Boe. “From a planning standpoint, the development of the Wedge neighborhood is about the protection of a neighborhood. It’s about preserving what’s there now and the edges. If you start to pick it apart, your wedge becomes Swiss cheese. You are going to lose that character. I don’t see any grievous error the planning commission made. I understand the concerns of the Salvation Army, but those are three separate parcels. Those aren’t parcels that are being split. It’s the ownership of three separate parcels. These could very easily be three separate property owners. As far as the lodge, I remember coming here in 1982, seeing that building, and saying, ‘Oh, my goodness. You don’t see those anymore.’ That is a very unique and historic building. I understand why it’s in the historic district because it’s highly contributive.”
Councilmember Lauren Walker favored a plan that included MultiCare’s properties “so there is some regard for what is happening with those houses and so that it fits in with the residential neighborhood district” but excluded Salvation Army’s properties.
But stakeholders who stand to be impacted by council’s decision expressed their concerns and frustrations.
“The Tacoma Municipal Code does come out very strongly in support of preserving the city’s historic properties and it outlines a procedure for creating historic districts,” said Wedge resident Ross Buffington during the Nov. 15 meeting. “The Wedge neighborhood has followed that procedure. The city set up the landmarks preservation commission to give advice and guidance on historic matters and they approved the proposal. The planning commission was set up by the city to provide advice and guidance on land use issues and they approved the proposal. The neighborhood does feel that we compromised even at the very start when we proposed the district. We restricted the boundaries of the historic district to almost exclusively residentially zoned properties and we excluded a lot of properties already zoned for hospital uses and commercial uses from the historic district.”One of the frustrations we’ve had is we’ve never understood why MultiCare bought these four residences knowing that they were zoned for residential purposes,” Buffington added. “We’ve never had really a very good explanation as to why they need these properties for their expansion. We were told in a meeting a couple years ago about their long-range plans and that they had no plans in the next 20 years to expand beyond their current campus boundaries. They had no plans to expand into the M Street area. It’s hard to understand why these four properties are so crucial to their possible expansion.”
Mike Denney, Managing Director at CB Richard Ellis, responded on behalf of MultiCare: “Part of our responsibility for MultiCare is strategic and long-term planning. These four houses were purchased 20 years ago with the idea that flexibility is important. I think anybody can remember the Tacoma General campus 20 or 30 years ago looked much different. Now we’re facing the next 5, 10, and 20 years to provide health care service in Tacoma. To be prudent, we should do everything we can to protect that investment for future flexibility. We completed our 20-to-30 year forecast and we don’t see a use for this block. But it would be imprudent for us to make it more difficult for future generations to provide outpatient services in that zone. That’s the consistent answer we’ve had all along. It’s just difficult to believe MultiCare would own four houses without a purpose. But that purpose is to preserve flexibility in the future.”
“The Salvation Army is quite frustrated that we have submitted written input and come to meetings and hearings and the outcome still makes no sense for the Salvation Army,” said Mike Lonergan, who serves on the organization’s advisory board. “Despite the efforts of the Salvation Army to be removed, the lodge, is still in it. The social services building, where 1,200 people will get Thanksgiving baskets [is still in it]. The third parcel was purchased by the Salvation Army for redevelopment. There’s already a design that may or may not be compatible with the Wedge neighborhood, but right now it’s a vacant lot.
“I would just request that you take all three of those properties out of both the conservation and historic district and recognize that the Salvation Army has been serving the community well — and actually maintaining its facilities well — for over 100 years and really doesn’t desire to be part of the Wedge residential neighborhood’s efforts,” he added. “We didn’t ask for it and it was thrust upon us.”
“I really ask you take all three of those parcels out of it,” said Salvation Army representative David Ellison added. “Our long range plan has been to tear down the old shelter and build on the vacant parcel. We’ve tried to plan this out. I feel like we’re kind of getting blind-sided.”
It wasn’t the first time council committee members failed to agree on a final recommendation to forward to city council.
The full council was expected to hear the first reading of the ordinance Aug. 17, 2010, based on the plan approved by both commissions. However, during council’s neighborhoods and housing committee meeting Aug. 2, in which a do-pass recommendation was sought before it reached the full council, the district’s proposed boundary derailed that plan.
“I don’t think we’re ready for a do-pass today,” said Councilmember Walker, who also chairs the neighborhoods and housing committee, during the Aug. 2 meeting. “I feel there’s support for the historic district, but we’ve got some boundary issues that are the main things hanging us up. Some people feel comfortable with what the planning commission is recommending. Some people are more comfortable with what MultiCare is proposing. My guess is that if we were to vote today on whether we were going to support what the planning commission was recommending, we would probably be split. That’s just a guess. I feel like we need a compromise rather than just putting this to a vote and having the historic district go down.”
Walker urged staff to come up with another suggestion or convene a meeting between Wedge residents and MultiCare representatives to reach a compromise over the boundary. “I would really prefer the neighbors and MultiCare to come back with some ideas,” said Walker.
But several people who attended the meeting told the committee the process has already worked its way through Tacoma’s landmarks preservation commission, planning commission, and a series of public hearings with all interested parties voicing their support of, or opposition to, the district.
“I do feel there’s been due process here,” said Historic Tacoma Board President Sharon Winters. “For the past year, the planning commission has spent a lot of energy on this and I really think the council is going to have to come up with a compromise if there is a compromise to be developed.”
“I think there’s been a formal process that people have had the opportunity to go through,” said Assistant City Manager Tansy Hayward. “I think part of the process that is in place has attempted — through the hearing processes that have been in place — to try and lift out some level of compromise.”
Wedge resident Reid Carr, who lives near the eastern boundary and MultiCare’s four vacant homes, told the committee the hospital purchased the homes when the area was already zoned for residential use. “If they sold them off now, they would make a ton of money,” said Carr, who attended the meeting in August with his children. “They are nice houses. They don’t need those. There are plenty of other places for MultiCare to expand. Sell them.
“I don’t understand why they are fighting for these homes,” Carr added. “It just doesn’t make sense to make. I think the boundary should stay as proposed. I don’t think MultiCare has an argument left.
“This is really what we get paid the big bucks for — to work out a compromise,” said Councilmember Jake Fey. “We certainly can give people an opportunity to express their opinions to us. But I think ultimately after some more thought and discussion amongst ourselves, it’s up to us.”Still, following the Aug. 2 meeting, Wedge residents and representatives of MultiCare and Salvation Army were to meet and try to reach a compromise before the issue was revisited by the council’s neighborhoods and housing committee. But a compromise could not be reached.
Today’s study session will begin at 12 p.m. in the Tacoma Municipal Building North, 733 Market St., Room 16. Audio from the session will be broadcast live on TV Tacoma and on http://www.tvtacoma.com . On-demand audio archives are available on the Web within 24 hours of the meeting at http://www.tvtacoma.com .
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EDITOR’S NOTE: The Tacoma Daily Index has covered the Wedge historic district nomination since the application was submitted to City Hall nearly three years ago. The Index has published dozens of articles about the issue, including interviews with the authors of the nomination and residents in the neighborhood, public testimony of people who support or oppose the nomination, and photographs of a walking tour of the neighborhood with Tacoma’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. To read the articles, click on the following links:
Tacoma City Council to discuss Wedge Historic District proposal April 5 (04/01/11) — http://www.tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1952114&more=0
Tacoma City Council committee defers decision on Wedge historic district proposal (11/18/10) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1877403&more=0
City Council committee wants more discussion of Wedge historic district boundary (08/10/10) — http://www.tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1819424&more=0
Boundaries, properties disputed in Wedge Historic District proposal (07/23/10) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1810598&more=0
A House in the City, A Home to Neighborhood History: One resident’s connection to Tacoma’s storied Wedge area (04/16/09) — http://www.wahmee.com/tdi_walkup_residence.pdf
SEPT. 5, 2008 – MARCH 27, 2009 (PART ONE) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1807429&more=0
APRIL 16, 2009 – MARCH 10, 2010 (PART TWO) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1809055&more=0
MARCH 24, 2010 – JUNE 17, 2010 (PART THREE) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1809059&more=0