Postcard survey will likely decide Old Town Tacoma historic district issue

Tacoma’s Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to mail a postcard opinion survey to residents and property owners in Old Town to gauge the support or opposition to a nomination to designate the neighborhood a historic district.

The move follows recent efforts by a citizens group to block the nomination for an area of the city that dates back to the 1860s.

The group, which calls itself the “Old Tacoma Boosters and Citizens Opposed To Creation of an Old Tacoma Historic District” and “Homeowners Committee Opposed to Historic Designation,” argues that such a designation would place restrictions on its freedoms as property owners, and the neighborhood itself consists of buildings and homes that are not as historically significant as perceived.

“Old Town is a great place to live and we want to keep it that way,” wrote the group, which is chaired by William R. Kellis, in a March 25 letter. “But we also want the ability and flexibility to remodel and improve without governmental intervention or operation by committee.”

Included with the letter was a petition containing approximately 150 signatures from property owners who oppose the plan. Since then, a second letter, dated April 4 and sent to Tacoma’s historic preservation officer, notes 69 more people have signed the petition in opposition. “The total now comes to 213 residents in opposition to the designation,” wrote the group in the April 4 letter. “We are hopeful that these additional signatures will be sufficient to convince the Landmarks Preservation Commission that this proposal does not have community support, and that the proposal should be withdrawn.”

Still, when the nomination was submitted to City Hall on Sept. 15, 2009, it included a six-page petition signed by more than 100 residential property owners or renters in the area who supported the plan. It also included a Dec. 8, 2008 letter from the North End Neighborhood Council supporting the plan.

During the commission meeting yesterday, which included a row of people who opposed the plan, as well as the author of the nomination, Kathy P. Ursich, several commissioners hoped the City-generated postcard survey would be an unbiased way to gather the temperature of the neighborhood. A similar postcard survey was conducted recently for the Wedge historic district nomination. According to a staff report prepared for the meeting, a petition gathered in 2008 and submitted with the nomination in 2009 showed roughly 17 per cent supported the nomination. Petitions submitted in March and April of this year showed roughly 34 per cent opposed the plan.

“In summary, it is clear that there is significant organized opposition to the historic district proposal, at least as it has been presented by the signature gatherers,” said Tacoma Historic Preservation Officer Reuben McKnight during Wednesday’s meeting. “Nonetheless, it is also clear that there is some support for the concept, although because the bulk of the signatures were gathered in 2008 and because there has not been a concerted effort to generate support for the district, it is unknown to what extent these numbers represent actual support for the district.”

Several unsuccessful efforts have been made over the past 35 years to create a historic district in Old Town. In 1974, the Old Tacoma Improvement Club sought the designation after conducting a survey that showed support. However, the plan was quashed when commercial property owners opposed it. In the early 1990s, residents again attempted to seek the historic district designation. The request was reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Planning Commission, but was tabled by City Council, which “directed the historic preservation officer to redo the design review component so that property owners could more easily determine the architectural requirements for future development,” according to the most recent nomination.

The current nomination excludes Old Town’s business district and commercial properties located in the zoned “C-2 commercial” area from the proposed historic district overlay. Proponents hope this will be enough to attain approval. The proposed boundaries would stretch from North 31st Street, south along North Junett Street to North 29th Street, west to North Carr Street, and south along Carr Street (including both sides of Carr) to Yakima. The southern boundary continues west along Tacoma Avenue North to North 11th Street before returning to North 30th Street. The area includes 55 residential homes dating between 1869 and 1960. Five properties have been placed on either the local, state, or national registers of historic places: St. Peter’s Church, 2910 North Starr Street (1873); Slavonian Hall, 2306 North 30th Street (1907); Seamen’s Rest, 2802 North Carr Street (1883); Starr Street Houses, 2721, 2723, 2801, 2803 North Starr Street (1906); and Olof Carlson House, 1116 North 26th Street (1899).

Commissioner Ken House, who attended a public meeting on the matter last month that included many people opposed to the nomination, observed that 34 per cent opposition so early in the process was “really strong.” Like several others on the commission, he hoped the postcard survey would resolve the Old Town historic district nomination once and for all. “What I was hearing at the informational meeting was that people in opposition would like to see a resolution,” said House. “If we do the postcard thing, we should bring that to a resolution so we’re not dragging this out and saying, ‘Let’s do something else.'”

Commissioner Ha Pham agreed. “People don’t always speak up unless they are strongly against something,” she said. “It’s very informative to see residents coming out and getting their opinions on it. The postcard survey will give us an unbiased view of where the neighborhood stands.”

Commissioner Marshall McClintock, who is also a resident of the North Slope Historic District and serves on its board of directors, commented that the historic district boundaries currently proposed could cover too much of an area.

“When I saw this plan, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a really big district,'” he said. He added that the North Slope Historic District started with a three-block area and took 10 years to grow to its current size. “If there are definable areas with the currently proposed area that have a majority interest, those might be small historic districts or multiple property nominations.”

The final postcard survey that will be mailed to Old Town residents and property owners still needs to be approved by the commission. The next public meeting on the issue is scheduled for Weds., April 27.

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For earlier Tacoma Daily Index coverage of the Old Town Tacoma historic district nomination, click on the following links:

More signatures gathered in opposition to Old Town Tacoma historic district (04/11/11) —

Group forms to oppose Old Town Tacoma historic district proposal (04/07/11) —

Landmarks Preservation Commission will tour proposed Old Town Tacoma historic district (03/15/11) —

**UPDATE** Tacoma’s Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting canceled (02/23/11) —

Landmarks Preservation Commission will tour proposed Old Town Tacoma historic district (02/22/11) —

Historic Aspirations: Is 2011 the year Old Town Tacoma becomes an historic district? (01/26/11) —

Residents again seek historic district designation for Old Town Tacoma (12/06/10) —