The Cushman Substation

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

Cushman Tower Photo by Morf Morford
Cushman Tower
Photo by Morf Morford



Like most cities, or perhaps even most individuals, Tacoma has a mixed record on taking advantage of opportunities.

Tacoma has had times when visions for the future were clarified and invested in, and we’ve had a few times where our loss of nerve caused us, not only to lose our vision but to revert to our basest impulses and lose our sense of who we are in the present.

The expulsion of the Chinese in 1895 and the evacuation and demolition of (most of) Tacoma’s once thriving Japantown are two of the darkest eras of Tacoma’s history. But these events are also, perhaps at their core, manifestations of the prevailing greed, fear and blatant racism of our city – if not our nation – at a particularly sensitive and vulnerable time.

We have had golden opportunities set before us and have, sometimes, chosen the short-sighted, predictable, seemingly easier way instead.

A prime example is the Olmstead design for the downtown center of Tacoma.  We could have had graceful, gradual boulevards with continuous stunning views of the bay and Mt. Rainier (you can see Olmstead’s plan here

Instead of choosing a plan that suited, if not complemented, the natural terrain, our city fathers chose a standard city block grid more suitable for a relatively level city center.

Have you walked up these hills? It might be a good workout, but walking from Pacific Avenue to Yakima Avenue is not something one does lightly.

I know many people who would ride their bikes to work if they did not have to face those hills on the way home.

Generations later, we can thank those urban planners for our struggles up those excruciatingly steep hills. They had a chance to design and build a world class city.

We also have examples of opportunities and visions framed and seized.

Some examples are the nationally (if not internationally) recognized innovative programs of The Tacoma School District – SOTA, SAMI and IDEA.

One of the greatest visions seized on by Tacoma is barely known but has impacted every one of us – and its impact goes far beyond us, and we still barely notice it.

Tacoma visionaries set up a system of what we would now call crowd sourcing to provide electricity by public investment (P.U.D. – Public Utility District) which would provide electricity to Tacoma at (for many years) the lowest rates in the country.

Amazingly enough, one of the first buildings to house the machinery to make it all work still stands. And many of us drive by it on a regular basis. This would be the Cushman Substation on North 21st and Adams.

This building, which has been in operation since 1926, is on national and state (but not city) historical registries.

TPU (Tacoma Public Utility) is the current owner and has chosen to “surplus” the property. There is a local neighborhood move to maintain its historic public use and turn it into a park and public space – possibly for community events or a year-round farmers market.

One of the objections from the City Council for the use of the interior space is that it was not designed for public access and use.

Another objection is that the City wants to pursue any other option for the “highest and best use” for this unique and historic property.

By “highest” officials usually mean the highest offer, and “best use” is basically anything they want it to mean – it makes “highest” sound a little less callous.

Condos have been mentioned, but if there is anything the Proctor neighborhood does not want or need right now, it is more condos.

I have my own definition of “best use” and it is a very simple principle: is this decision something future generations will thank us for and appreciate? Or is it a decision that will make them marvel at our shortsighted pettiness and the sheer failure of our vision and imagination?

The Cushman Substation has stood as a monument to the power of vision and community in Tacoma for over 90 years. It should continue its legacy as a representative of what we can accomplish together.

If you want to contact your City Council member:

– Anders Ibsen, Position 1, (253) 591-5470

– Robert Thoms, Position 2, (253) 594-7848

– Keith Blocker, Position 3, (253) 591-5470

– Marty Campbell, Position 4, (253) 594-7848

– Joe Lonergan, Position 5, (253) 591-5470

– Lauren Walker Lee, Position 6, (253) 591-5470

– Conor McCarthy, Position 7, (253) 594-7848

– Ryan Mello, Position 8, (253) 591-5470

Cushman Substation Photo by Morf Morford
Cushman Substation
Photo by Morf Morford