Tacoma Housing Authority has ambitious plans for James Center North

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By John Larson – jlarson@tacomaweekly.com

 

This architectural rendering depicts what James Center North would look like in the near future.
Credit: THA

James Center North could be called the Bermuda Triangle of shopping complexes in the area. Located across the street from Tacoma Community College and a Pierce Transit transfer center along South Mildred Street, it would seem ideally situated to draw customers such as students and staff, and anyone going in and out of the area on mass transit. With ample free parking, one would think that it would draw in motorists as well. A few businesses have done well, such as the Fred Meyer Marketplace grocery store and the Ivar’s fish and chips fast-food restaurant. But countless others have come and gone over the years: a Chinese buffet, a five-screen movie theater, a dental office, a Russian restaurant. The Taco Bell, located 75 feet away from a campus with thousands of college students, somehow managed to bite the dust.

Now, Tacoma Housing Authority has an ambitious plan to covert part of the complex into a mixed-use project, complete with rental housing for students, retail units and open spaces. In 2017, it paid nearly $6 million for 6.92 acres in James Center north of the IHOP restaurant. The five parcels currently have four buildings with 62,000 square feet, with some of that occupied by retailers and restauranteurs. In 2018, a fire caused extensive damage to a structure that many years ago was the original home of BBQ Pete’s, and later Grandy’s. The building had been vacant for some time and was eventually demolished.

THA aims to build up to 500 housing units, from market rate to subsidized apartments for low-income renters.

Joshua Jorgensen, project manager in real estate development with THA, said the agency wants to construct five buildings on the parcels, over a course of two to 20 years. The schedule will depend on financing and other factors. He said THA may not take on all of the project, as it is open to selling some of the land to private-sector developers, or a non-profit organization that shares its mission of providing affordable, quality housing.

Along South Mildred Street, the buildings would likely be four stories tall, to allow for views of Mt. Rainiers. Farther back on the property, the buildings could rise as high as six stories. Jorgensen noted there is a slight slope at James Center, which he said will be factored in the plans to take advantage of this topographical feature.

So, why have so many businesses failed in this complex? Jorgensen blames poor design and bad visibility, with many of the buildings set back so far from the street that many people driving by do not even know they exist. He mentioned El Sabor as an example of a newer business that is thriving. The Mexican restaurant is in the space once occupied by Taco Bell, and has made the most of the customer base of students across the street.

Roberta Schur, real estate and community development director with THA, said they may reduce the amount of space available for retail to make it more likely for the project to succeed. “We want to spark a sense of place and create a buzz for that part of the West End,” she remarked.

Schur said current leases will be honored. Once they expire, those buildings will be demolished. She noted there are plans for open space for the project.

West End Neighborhood Council is being consulted with, to gain the perspective of long-time residents of the area. Also offering feedback is a TCC advisory committee. Schur noted the college has a strategic plan that has identified housing as a key need among many students.

THA recently purchased two apartment complexes in the area. It also made a deal with the owner of the former Tiki Apartments on South 12thStreet. These have been renamed Highland Flats. The sale last year caused much uproar, as the new owner issued eviction notices to all tenants in order to clear the units out so they could be remodeled, and placed back on the market at a higher rental rate. Many of the residents were elderly or disabled, resulting in the city expanding tenant rights to require more advance notice to vacate in the case of renovation. TCC and THA have a partnership to provide vouchers to students who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness. It started in 2014 as a pilot project with 25 students. Nearly 200 applied for them. The THA board has agreed to increase the number of vouchers to 150. Highland Flats has agreed to be part of this effort.

“We are expanding our portfolio to the West End,” Jorgensen observed. THA looked at several other complexes that it decided not to purchase. As many apartment dwellers in the neighborhood are TCC students, he noted it makes sense for THA to be involved in making housing affordable to those pursuing a college education.

Sound Transit has plans to eventually extend light rail service to the TCC, which is being factored into the planning process. The project will be a transit-oriented development, with a mix of housing and commercial businesses, walkable streets and close access to public transportation. The parking strategy will evolve as the site is developed. In the initial phase, the abundant supply of existing parking will be utilized. Later phases may include some dedicated parking stalls for residents and on-street parking for retail customers. Overall, the ratio of parking spaces is likely to decrease. The city recently redid Mildred, adding dedicated bicycle lanes and improving the road surface.

For more information on the project, visit www.jcntacoma.comor call Jorgensen at (253) 448-2786.

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