The year to come will be filled with debate and decisions on key issues that will affect the health and character of the city and region for years to come.
Waterfront watchers have their gaze on the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency as it reviews a revised Environmental Impact Statement to make a decision on Puget Sound Energy’s plan to convert natural gas into liquefied natural gas to fuel container ships and store gas for utility customers to use during cold snaps. The final EIS on the potential impacts to air pollution should be out in February, but the draft is drawing sharp criticism from environmental groups and even the Attorney General’s Office, which blasted the draft report for not addressing key issues. Among those concerns were the “no action” option since the site is already being constructed and would have to be removed if the plant was not allowed to begin operation and the impacts on air quality if the natural gas came from sources other than from Canada, as proposed.
In a nutshell, the LNG plant would be an 8-million-gallon facility that would pipe in natural gas from British Columbia and freeze it so that it becomes a liquid. It would then be sold as a cleaner-burning fuel for container ships that run between Tacoma and Alaska. The site would also serve as LNG storage for use during the few times a year gas demand peaks.
Critics of the project range from environmental groups such as the Sightline Institute, Citizens for a Healthy Bay, Redefine Tacoma, 350 Tacoma and the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. These groups, and others, worry that the plant is an environmental risk located too close to urban areas; that it would continue the nation’s reliance on fossil fuel and would not leave Puget Sound air, water or land any cleaner. They further argue the plant mingles PSE’s role as a utility company with a risky private venture at no benefit to rate payers.
Tideflats Subarea Plan
The concern over the LNG plant boiled over following the vocal battle over the now-dead plans to build what would have been the world’s largest methanol refinery. The furor has since led to calls for a Subarea Plan of the Tideflats that would involve long-range visioning of the working waterfront as well as reviewing all land-use rules. Hope shined eternal more than a year ago when the city and port agreed to a deal to conduct one, but process then lagged for all of 2018 over disagreements about what governments would sit at the decision-making table during the process. It is back on track, knock on wood, with the city, port, Fife, Pierce County and the Puyallup Tribe developing a plan for officials from each government to follow. The first meeting of the five-government group was held this week.
The next step is finalizing the scope of work that would then lead to the selection of a consultant. That selection could come as early as April and provide a shepherd to guide the complex process through what could be a two- to three-year effort.
The expense of the work will be split three ways. The city and port are each fronting $500,000, and the Tribe has pledge another $200,000. In the meantime, most of the working waterfront is under interim regulations that restrict developments and expansions but must be reviewed and readopted every six months until the subarea plan is adopted and permanent zoning rules pass the City Council.
Driving through parts of the Stadium District and Hilltop neighborhoods will include detours and backups this year as Sound Transit crews set out to construct the expansion of the Link light rail from downtown and through Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
The $217 million project will extend the existing Link light rail system 2.4 miles from the Theater District along Stadium Way to 1st Street, Division Avenue and then swing a left onto Martin Luther King Jr. Way to South 19th Street. Train service is scheduled to begin in 2022 and provide uninterrupted train service from the Tacoma Dome Station to the Hilltop’s “Medical Mile” that runs between Tacoma General Hospital to St Joseph Medical Center. The system will then extend again, to Tacoma Community College, by 2039.
The construction got off to a rough start after residents of Eastside and South Tacoma voiced concern and frustration that the equipment and supplies needed for the Link project were being stored at a vacant, but high-profile site at 38th Street and Pacific Avenue. The equipment couldn’t be stored at the construction sites along the route because the work areas are too small and in public right of ways or property owners closer to the site didn’t want their lands tied up with construction debris and trucks for the next two years.
Sound Transit and Tacoma officials are now sorting out how best to move forward over what was apparently some misunderstanding about how the site would be used to limit impacts of the site’s construction traffic. The 38th Street site, for example, will have a maximum of 10 truck trips a day and an average of between three and five. The trucks will avoid going west of 38th Street and avoid Pacific Avenue by heading east to Interstate-705 to the construction sites along the Link route. The details of the full plan still need city approval from Public Works as well as Planning and Land Services.
The Tacoma Public School District is facing a looming funding gap that was caused by the state’s funding model for public schools in the wake of the McCleary decision that determined the state was not properly funding public education. The legislature developed a new funding system that created winners and losers by capping the amount districts could collect in local levies. The new formula hurt urban districts like Tacoma. Tacoma had $70 million in levy funding already approved by voters, but the new formula allows the district to collect just $40 million of that. The district is now seeking help from lawmakers to balance out that shortfall.
The funding shortfall, which led to layoffs, comes at a time the district is posting record high graduation rates and student scores on standardized tests as it inches toward its 2020 deadline to accomplish a roster of goals about student learning.
Lawmakers are heading to Olympia to craft the state’s two-year budget that will include talks about ways to fund homelessness programs around Washington, fix the school funding gap and help develop plans to keep the population of resident Orca whales from shrinking into extinction.
Also on the budget agenda is to develop ways to reduce the state’s generation of greenhouse gases that have been linked to global warming. The governor’s goal is to reduce carbon emissions by 25 percent of its levels in 1990 by 2035.
Not to be overlooked is the debate about funding for mental health and drug addiction services around the state, as communities battle with rising opioid addiction and is trickledown effects.
Housing and homelessness
The city passed a roster of tenant rights rules late last year to help renters with the rising rate of rent around the city by requiring longer notification for rent increases. The new rules also create a system for relocation assistance for when landlords remodel apartment complexes and provide rules on tenants making installment payments to cover their move-in costs rather than in a lump sum prior to moving into a new unit.
Non-profit human services agencies like the Korean Women’s Association and Tacoma Housing Authority have stepped up their efforts to provide affordable housing, most notably through partnerships that keep 61 units at the Rialto Apartments and Olympus Hotel affordable through a federal housing subsidy for qualified tenants.
Tacoma’s two-year budget, which passed in late 2018, also continues the emergency funding for its Stability Site on Puyallup Avenue. The site was created almost two years ago as a response to the rising number of illegal homeless encampments around the city and now provides shelter for 80 people every night as they transition to more stable housing. The $2.3 million effort includes counselors and human service advocates to assist residents into sustainable housing.
Another arrow in the city’s quiver of options to battle homelessness includes the creation of a $1.2 million Affordable Housing Trust Fund for Tacoma to help construct affordable housing developments as well as hire two people to run the city’s housing programs. There is also $221,000 for a Neighborhood Planning Program to improve engagement about issues involving residential and commercial growth as the city continues to experience a building boom that can provide jobs but also lead to property value increases that can price residents out of the city.
To aid in that effort, the budget also sets aside $200,000 to assist low-income tenants with covering relocation costs into other affordable housing options when their rents rise faster than their incomes.
Construction of new lanes along Interstate 5 and offramps will continue in 2019, with an expected parade of traffic notices about lane revisions and closures throughout the year.
But another interesting transportation idea that bubbled up late last year that will lead to further discussions in 2019 is the notion of running pedestrian-only ferries between Tacoma and Seattle as a way of reducing commuter traffic between the cities.
A feasibility study on concept mentioned possible landing sites at the 11th Street Dock, Foss Seaport, Old Town Dock, Point Ruston and Point Defiance and allow passengers to ride the waves instead of I-5. Start-up capital costs range from $40 million to $53 million for the dock construction. Annual operating costs would run about $2.8 million with only about a third of that covered by ticket sales that would cost about $25 to $30 per trip.
Further analysis is required to develop a viable business plan and gain support from lawmakers.
Voters decidedly supported Proposition 1, a .01 percent increase in the sales tax that will fund arts programs around the city, making Tacoma the first city in the state to enact a tax rate specifically targeting arts programs under a new state law.
The tax now puts Tacoma’s sales tax at 10.2 percent, on par with Seattle and among the highest in the state. The added tax will raise an estimated $5 million for arts funding each year. Proponents of the proposition, Tacoma Creates, gathered signatures to put the tax on the ballot earlier this year after state lawmakers approved options for cities to increase arts funding. Washington ranks 46th in the nation for publicly funded arts programs.
Money from the arts tax will foster arts, heritage, science and culture programs in every neighborhood around the city with the money funding enrichment programs at youth centers and senior centers, after-school programs and weekend projects, especially for lower-income families and students.
The next public step in the effort will come on at 6 p.m. on Jan 23 at 901 Broadway, with a facilitated community conversation about charting the process to administer the arts funding
McMenamins and Old City Hall
After decades of sitting vacant, followed by years of on-and-off construction scheduling, the former Elks Temple downtown is primed to reopen as a landmark hotel and entertainment center under the McMenamins brand of destination locations around the Pacific Northwest.
The McMenamins Elks Temple will offer 45 hotel rooms when it officially opens in April. Alongside those rooms, the fully renovated, historic structure will have three boutique restaurants, niche bars and a microbrewery, of course.
Renovations have been underway for more than a year and come with a reported price tag of $34 million.
Interviews for management and non-management positions are set for January and February.
As construction on the hotel ends, work will begin across the street as Surge Tacoma works on plans to renovate Old City Hall into a different sort of destination location. The company is finalizing a purchasing agreement with city officials to transform the long-mothballed former hub of government into a mixed-use location that will offer retail and office spaces alongside restaurants, bars and exhibit space for the Tacoma Historical Society. Upper floors will offer micro apartments that will most certainly have some of the best views in the city.
Since the building doesn’t come with parking spaces, side deals will have to be worked out with the parking lot across the street and for street parking as well as incentives to promote vehicle-less living.
Economy and Jobs
Underlining many of the issues facing Tacoma and the surrounding communities is the question of how long the building boom will continue and what economic impacts they will ultimately bring to the area as wages continue to lag well below the rate of housing prices. On a more global issue, the ongoing trade war between the Trump administration and China could start creating deep downturns in shipping traffic through the Port of Tacoma. That should be of concern to most people since Pierce County is the most trade-dependent county in the most trade-dependent state in America. So, if the global economy gets the sniffles, the local economy gets the flu that historically lasts well past when other areas recover.