The hippest corner in town: art, cinema, townhomes revitalize a downtown neighborhood

Erik Hanberg, the general manager at the Grand Cinema theater, is in a unique position. Hanberg, along with the cinema’s executive director and a team of volunteers, runs the only non-profit, art-house cinema in downtown Tacoma.

The theater’s setting is quaint: its storefront is part of the Merlino Arts Center, which is home to an art gallery, cafe, and ballet studio; the cinema runs a combination of new releases and retrospective, midnight screenings; and the price for concessions are consciously kept low (the cinema sold 94 thousand tickets last year).

What’s unique about Hanberg’s situation is timing and location. Across the street from the cinema, at the corner of Sixth and Fawcett, the 26-unit Triangle Townhomes are being built. Whereas most indie movie houses would cry foul or worry about gentrification, Hanberg welcomes the addition. He is one of many existing downtown merchants who will soon welcome residents to the area, a result of Tacoma’s present billion-dollar development boom.

Residential units account for a large number of current projects.

“The townhomes are great for the neighborhood because they help us become a neighborhood,” says Hanberg, who has communicated with the developers throughout the project. Hanberg points out that the lot on which the townhomes are being built was previously a parking lot. “The townhomes are targeted to an audience of buyers similar to our own. If they are willing to move to a downtown area, they’re probably willing to visit an independent cinema.”

Staci Merrell, the Windermere realtor for the townhomes, echoes that remark. “Business should increase in the neighborhood,” she says. Merrell indicates that more than half the townhomes have sold. “If residents want to get a mocha, see a movie, or buy furnishings for their homes, they just need to walk across the street.”

According to J.J. McCament at the Tacoma Economic Development Department, 714 residential units have been built and opened since 2000. There are currently 171 residential units under construction, and another 1,520 residential units currently in design or permitting stages. By the time that residential development downtown is completed (estimates indicate autumn 2005, when two condominium projects are scheduled to open), there will be 2,405 new multi-family units in downtown Tacoma.

“I think the development will create a renewed interest for people to come downtown,” adds Hanberg.“When that happens, we’ll be here waiting for them.”