Whitman neighbors seek historic district designation

For Whitman area resident Pat McGregor, history looms everywhere in his neighborhood. It’s evident in the 67 residential homes that date back 100 years or more. It’s also evident in the nine homes that will turn 100 years old next year. And it’s apparent even in his own home, which sits on the former site of St. Stanislaus Church. According to McGregor and fellow Whitman area resident David Stafursky, who together have researched assessor’s records and the neighborhood’s history, fully one-third of the buildings in the neighborhood are 100 years old or more.

“We’ve got some really historic homes in this area,” says McGregor, who spoke after a presentation to the City Council neighborhoods and housing committee yesterday afternoon. He was at City Hall to update committee members on an effort to seek historic district designation status for the neighborhood.

If McGregor and his group, Whitman Area Neighbors, are successful, City Council could vote within a year on whether to create the city’s newest historic district, which would be bordered by So. 38th and So. 43rd Streets, and M and Thompson Streets, and named after Marcus Whitman, the late pioneering physician and missionary.

The interest in South Tacoma history traces back to summer 2005, when the city’s Historic Preservation Office received a grant and hired Eysaman & Company, a Tacoma-based consulting firm with a specialty in preservation work, to update records of 197 historic properties in South Tacoma. One recommendation that came out of that work was consideration of historic districts in South Tacoma and the South End. “Very few buildings in the South Tacoma and South End have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places,” wrote Eysaman & Company in its report. Though it was noted that four properties (Bob’s Java Jive, Kenworthy Warehouse, Tacoma Mausoleum, and Claude Grey House) are listed on the city’s register of historic places, they are not part of the national register.

Presently, Tacoma has five historic districts: North Slope, Old City Hall, Union Depot/Warehouse, Stadium/Seminary, and Salmon Beach.

Inspired by the recommendations, Whitman Area Neighbors decided to pursue historic designation for its neighborhood. Yesterday’s presentation aimed to provide council committee members with an update on the group’s findings.

According to McGregor, his group has worked closely with the North Slope Historic District, which was nominated in 1994, expanded in 1996 and 1999, and boasts more than 950 structures on Tacoma’s Register of Historic Places. It’s Tacoma’s only city residential historic district and one of the largest residential historic districts in the nation. The two groups have gone on walking tours of the North Slope to get a sense of what Whitman’s historic district could look like, and some of the hazards of non-designation.

Case in point: the number of North Slope buildings that were razed years ago for apartment buildings. “People were just knocking old houses down and building these apartments,” says McGregor, amazed by the moves. Three years ago, he adds, an old Craftsman home was demolished in the Whitman area. “We want to keep the historic flavor of the neighborhood.”

Members of the North Slope Historic District have also helped with practical things, such as securing records and reviewing what the application for historic designation looks like.

Still, it’s not an easy sell.

During yesterday’s meeting, Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma recalled controversies over North Slope and Old Town designations. “This can be a very difficult task,” he told fellow committee members. He described the North Slope designation as “a battle,” and pointed to the failure to secure historic district designation for Old Town. Typically concern exists that such a designation would limit how property owners may develop their assets. But designation can also provide tax incentives that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

McGregor says he understands both sides of the issue. His group has asked many of these questions, too. “We’ve had a lot of questions,” he says. “What will this [designation] do [to the neighborhood] if this happens?”

For now, McGregor and his partners are trying to garner community support for the idea. They knock on doors to share information, hold monthly meetings, and work closely with City Hall to get on council agendas and share their findings. The group will continue those efforts before presenting it to City Council.

“We want to make sure we have all our ducks in a row, the community is involved, and we are prepared,” says McGregor. “It’s really taken on a life of its own. A lot of folks in the Whitman area are interested in this project.”

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If you would like to learn more about this project, Whitman Area Neighbors meet every 3rd Wednesday at Whitman Elementary School at 6pm.