Trouble Crossing: A conversation with architect, planning commissioner David Boe

Tacoma resident and architect David Boe has become very familiar with the city’s Comprehensive Plan. During a recent meeting at his downtown architecture firm, he drops a thick, heavy (and heavily flagged) binder, which contains the plan, onto a conference room table and cracks it open. “Here it is,” he says, as though it’s the Holy Grail.

To anyone interested in urban planning, it is.

It’s the document that guides the city’s planning future. And it’s the document that Boe has pointed to in his effort to raise an alarm over Sound Transit’s plan to build an elevated bridge over Pacific Avenue to link Sounder commuter service between Tacoma Dome Station and Lakewood Station.

Supporters say the connection was promised to commuters in Lakewood, and the project is overdue. Opponents say Sound Transit’s plan violates the Comprehensive Plan, and that promise was made using an existing rail line; a new rail line and an elevated bridge will knock out businesses in the Dome District and have negative impact on the neighborhood for a century or more.

No one has been a more visible opponent than Boe, who is vice-chair of the City of Tacoma’s Planning Commission. In July, he wrote a lengthy editorial in The News Tribune opposing Sound Transit’s plan and urging city leaders to pressure the agency to look at other alternatives. He has also drawn maps and hosted walking tours to illustrate the project’s impact on the neighborhood: can you imagine a wall rising 12 feet to a bridge over Pacific Avenue? How about increased diesel train activity through the Dome District? What about the infrastructure headache involved with lowering a section of Pacific Avenue to dip beneath the train’s bridge crossing?

Boe’s first introduction to the city’s Comprehensive Plan occurred five years ago, when his firm was designing Rainier Pacific Bank’s downtown headquarters at South 15th Street and Pacific Avenue.

It was the first new public building to go through the city’s Destination Downtown code — a planning policy geared to foster projects that create a lively downtown. “In the process of going through that code, we realized there were inconsistencies,” he explains. “There were code requirements that were actually contradictory to each other, and the general policies of the Comprehensive Plan.”

At issue: a requirement of only one curb cut per development, unless the project had over 200 parking stalls. Boe and his client tried to get a variance, but found the policy inflexible. They considered going through a public process to change the code, but that would delay the project two years.

“So Rainier Pacific ended up building more parking than it needed to or should have provided by common sense,” says Boe, who still stands behind the project, but wishes it could have offered more. “It meant we couldn’t have retail all along Pacific Avenue or all along Commerce Street, which is what the client wanted. That building is not the building it could have been because of code requirements in the city.”

The experience spurred Boe to join the all-volunteer Planning Commission and provide an architects expertise.

Today, his concerns about Sounder crossing Pacific Avenue come at a time when residents and some City Councilmembers are questioning whether Sound Transit’s projects have Tacoma’s best interests in mind.

On Sept. 12, the city council’s environment and public works committee recommended the City hire an independent consultant to examine alternatives to Sound Transit’s plan. The decision came at the end of a spirited meeting with the mayor, some councilmembers, and a group of Dome District business leaders who oppose the bridge crossing.

This week, City Council faced two competing resolutions supporting and opposing Sound Transit’s $18 billion (in 2006 dollars; approximately $47 billion, say some experts, if you account for inflation and a rise in construction costs) Proposition 1 — the so-called “Roads and Transit” package that will implement new sales and motor vehicle taxes, and whose fate will be decided by voters Nov. 6. The opposition resolution was more of a statement against Sound Transit’s treatment of the city.

The Tacoma Daily Index met Boe recently to discuss his thoughts on urban planning and concerns over Sounder crossing Pacific Avenue.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: How did you first get involved in this issue of Sounder crossing Pacific Avenue?

DAVID BOE: When reviewing another project, I stumbled onto the transportation element of the Comprehensive Plan. The plan is a vision of where the city is going. I started reading these things about multi-modal transportation: how it’s supposed to be designed to foster economic development; how it’s supposed to be beautiful, engaging, and express the character of the surrounding context that it is being put into. Subsequently, looking at what Sound Transit was proposing on the rail extension, it didn’t seem to be doing that. It seemed to be doing the contrary. It was not respecting the character of the place. It was not something that was designed to foster economic development. So I asked the question of City staff, ‘Does this come before the planning commission?’ [My thought was that Sound Transit] would have to come in and modify the Comprehensive Plan to make it consistent with what it wanted to do, which is what private individuals are required to do. The staff said, ‘No.’ I was surprised at that. On my own, I wrote a letter to the Mayor and City Council expressing my concern.

INDEX: You are the one, more than anyone else, whose name is attached to this issue, and has really taken the lead on raising concerns. Would you agree with that?

BOE: I think in some ways, I may have a little more passion about this issue because of my past experience. Between 1987 and 1989, I was the Docklands Light Railway coordinator in London for the Canary Wharf Station. I’m an architect, but for two years I was coordinating the design of this light rail station as it went from one side of the dock to the other side of the dock. I got an understanding about how these things are designed, and how engineers design them. What I was really impressed with was that this project had an urban design consultant from London Transport who was part of all the design decision-making. When the engineers would come solve the issue very straight-forward — ‘Oh, my rail line has to be at 2.85 percent, and that’s how I get that gradient’ — the urban design fellow would say, ‘Whoa! You may have solved the engineering issue, but you’ve just created a whole ton of urban design issues.’ I think that’s why, on the planning commission especially on this issue, I may be a little more vocal about it. But I also think part of it is just having the confidence on the commission that I can raise these issues. I must admit that I was impressed that the city councilmembers on the environment and public works committee who basically congratulated the planning commission chair and myself for bringing this up. We don’t have to necessarily always follow staff protocol. If we see issues, as guardians of the Comprehensive Plan, that seem to be amiss, we shouldn’t have our hands slapped down for raising them up and saying, ‘There’s an issue here.’

INDEX: One push-back to the demand that Sound Transit look at alternatives for Sounder crossing Pacific Avenue is affordability. Tacoma doesn’t have the ridership or budget to demand some of the changes Seattle has demanded of Sound Transit from its light rail line. Have you heard that argument? What do you think about it?

BOE: I’ve heard that argument. In which case, you start to wonder, ‘Why are we doing this at all?’ That push-back is, when you look at the ridership projected for this Lakewood expansion and the cost, it doesn’t pencil. If you were a project developer, you would say, ‘It’s not even close.’ So you’re going to spend millions and millions of dollars to basically amp up a little bit of the ridership. That doesn’t make fiscal sense. And especially when you think, ‘OK, are we really servicing the transit needs?’ You start to look at the realities of those heavy Sounder lines, and you start to wonder, ‘Maybe that doesn’t make any sense. Because if we don’t have the ridership for it, maybe we should develop a system that can have that kind of ridership.’ That push-back that we have to look at affordability for what our ridership is [makes you ask], ‘Should we really be extending that heavy rail at all?’ It’s the only heavy rail that Sound Transit is developing. Another push-back is people say, ‘This is our mandate. People voted on this, we have to complete this.’ Wait. Go back and look at your mandate. You said that on Sounder, you were going to use existing rail line and work with Burlington Northern Santa Fe and other rail providers to increase the maintenance and coordination of existing rail line. Go to Lakewood on existing rail lines. That’s what the mandate said. When you are basically changing the infrastructure, it better be worth it. But what I’m hearing is that we can’t afford it because there isn’t the ridership. Then maybe it’s not worth it.

INDEX: So, you’re saying don’t build it in the first place?

BOE: Well . . . It’s going to be a diesel train. We are increasing the amount of diesel trains that are running through our city, for a ridership that’s not in capacity of the trains running through the city.

INDEX: The other argument — and you touched on it — is that Lakewood is waiting for this, and every delay means a rise in construction cost. But you seem to be asking, ‘Why are we doing it in the first place?’

BOE: Well, [why are we doing] this exact type of system? I think the city manager right now is coming onboard with the streetcar system. I don’t think you make 100-year decisions saying, ‘We promised this to Lakewood, we have to get it out there to Lakewood, and we have our timeline and rising construction costs.’ If this did not have such a potential disastrous impact to Tacoma, I would say, ‘OK. Fine. Use the existing rail.’ Sound Transit can go and make improvements to the rail up the valley and connect through. That’s how Tacoma Rail right now services its customers in Nalley Valley. Tacoma Rail doesn’t go across Pacific Avenue. If you want to do it in the least obtrusive way, go up the valley. Again, you may have promised service to Lakewood, but you’ve promised, what, 500 riders? Is that worth Tacoma taking it in the shorts for 500 people in Lakewood? I would argue that’s probably not a good trade. Once you’ve done that, there’s no going back. And the construction cost alone of lowering Pacific Avenue and South Tacoma Way and 26th Street — you’re shutting that whole area down for at least a year. You have to lower all the infrastructure and all those pipes. For 500 riders, run up the valley. That’s a no-brainer.

INDEX: Clearly, there’s tension right now between some people in Tacoma, particularly in the Dome District, and Sound Transit. Do you think Sound Transit has run roughshod over Tacoma, and Seattle has gotten its way with projects in a way Tacoma hasn’t?

BOE: My feeling is that there aren’t a lot of people on City Council working in private business. They are more in the public agency or non-profit [arenas]. I think the council sometimes trusts consultants, staff, and planners more than it maybe should, and that’s not trying to cast evil in any way. It’s just like, ‘Well, we had a study on it. We had public meetings on it. It’s gone around the circuit. It must be OK.’ When it comes to some of these issues, you really need a different perspective. I would say Tacoma’s leadership hasn’t always held the bar to a higher level, especially when public money is involved. Being from the private practice and doing primarily private architecture and commercial architecture, I’ve seen the bar held to a certain height for private development, but lowered for public development. I personally believe it should be the other way around. If it’s public money, you don’t do it on the cheap because it’s public investment into your city. I look at Stadium High School and its renovation, and the amount of money spent. Any sensible person would say they never should have renovated that hotel into a school. Some people would say this latest renovation was just completely stupid. It’s public money — you should put in portables and make it as cheap as possible. But you look at that high school and say, ‘No, that’s a commitment to the city, the school district, and the high school.’ You really should build some quality in. If you look at something like [Sounder crossing Pacific Avenue], it isn’t a short-term solution. It’s going to have a lasting impact on the city and how people perceive the city.

David Boe has sketched his concerns for Sounder moving through the Dome District and across Pacific Avenue.

To view the rail line as it exists today, click here.

To view Boe’s sketch of the impacts as proposed, click here.

"If you look at something like this, it isn't a short-term solution," says architect and planning commissioner David Boe, referring to his concerns over Sound Transit's expanded Sounder service, and its impact on the Dome District and Pacific Avenue. "It's going to have a lasting impact on the city and how people perceive the city." (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright; and second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State. His work has also appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at