Top stories of 2017 show a city in transition



Growing tensions and safety concerns about industrial activities on the Tideflats started in 2016 with the now-dead plans to build what would have been the world’s largest methanol plant and came to a rumbling boil in 2017 as environmental eyes turned to Puget Sound Energy’s plans to install a liquefied natural gas plant (LNG).

PSE is building the $310 million facility to provide a lower-emissions alternative to diesel used by container ships, namely nearby TOTE ships to and from Alaska. The 8 million gallon facility would freeze natural gas so that it becomes a liquid for use in container ships as well as provide storage of natural gas for use by PSE gas customers during extreme weather spikes.

The site will be a one-of-a-kind plant on several fronts. First off, it will be the only plant of its type owned by PSE, which had to get special approval from the state because the plant will be a for-profit venture that would be operated by a public utility, albeit through the creation of a shell company that would shield rate payers from undue cost overruns and market swings born by the commercial side of the ledger.

The Puyallup Tribe has fought against the plant for years, dating back to challenges of the plant’s environmental review over questions of how construction at the former Superfund site could potentially leach toxins into the waterway and threaten salmon runs.

Construction is underway and unlikely to stop, but the eyes of “water warriors” have focused on the Tideflats for what future projects will be allowed on the waterfront. In addition, a “subarea” planning committee has formed to monitor and plan out uses of the Tideflats.

Race for mayor

Tacoma elected a new mayor in 2017, after eight years of strong leadership from Mayor Marilyn Strickland who was prevented from running again due to term limits. Candidate Victoria Woodards won by a comfortable margin against opponent Jim Merritt, who had thrown his hat in the ring for a second run after his first defeat in 2009 to Strickland.

The race turned edgy at times. Merritt, a noted architect, was criticized for taking too much credit for lots of major projects in Tacoma to the point that he was sent a cease and desist letter from prominent local developer Loren Cohen demanding that Merritt stop his “false, misleading…illegal passing off of yourself as the architect of Point Ruston,” as Merritt took credit for in interviews and in the voters guide, among other such Tacoma landmarks. Then it was discovered that Woodards overstated her education credentials, claiming in her 2004 application for a seat on the Metro Parks Board that she had earned an associate’s degree from Pierce College and in the 2005 voters guide for this same seat claiming a bachelor of science degree in marketing and public relations. Woodards explained these errors, and in the end her lapse in judgment didn’t cost her enough votes to lose the election. She assumes the Tacoma mayor’s seat on Jan. 2, 2018.

City manager search

Tacoma City Council formally approved the contract with Elizabeth Pauli to be the city’s next city manager in 2017. The former city attorney had been serving as the acting city manager since T.C. Broadnax left for the top executive post in Dallas and a failed $24,500 national search landed four less-than-stellar candidates.

Pauli’s contract to “perform the functions and duties specified by law, the Tacoma City Charter, and Tacoma Municipal Code, and to perform other legally permissible and proper duties and functions as Employer shall assign, from time to time,” is a two-year deal that will be reviewed annually and reaffirmed by a majority of the council every two years.

Her salary will be $237,348.80 this year, or $114.11 an hour. She will receive a year’s salary and benefits if her contract is not renewed unless she is terminated for gross negligence, intentional acts which are not in the best interests of the city or upon conviction of a gross misdemeanor or felony.

Pauli oversees a staff of more than 2,000 and a biennial budget of more than $1.9 billion, which includes a General Fund budget of $461.2 million. Tacoma has a population of approximately 208,000 residents.

Prior to joining the City of Tacoma, Pauli was a partner at the Tacoma-based law firm of McGavick Graves. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and also has Bachelor of Science degrees in education and social work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a member of the Washington State Bar Association and the Washington State Association of Municipal Attorneys.

Addressing homelessness

Tacoma City Council declared a public health emergency regarding the health and safety of homeless encampments in May as a way to funnel money to stem the tide of large encampments around the city. From the start, the “emergency” would last longer than the six months covered by the original declaration. An extension came in October to cover the rest of 2017, while a recent renewal carried the declaration through the end of 2018.

The original declaration came at a time when there was more than 50 homeless encampments dotting the city. The largest among them have since   been shut down and replaced by a city-run shelter and assistance facility along Puyallup Avenue. The site features a large tent with 80 individual tents inside and 20 pallet shelters outside. The site also includes portable showers, handwashing stations, laundry facilities and restrooms. It is being operated by Catholic Community Services through a contract with the city at a cost of $2.7 million.

Tacoma Schools successes

Tacoma Public Schools is not only undergoing the biggest building boom in its history, but is continuing its run of academic successes. Both are expected to continue through 2018.

The new Arlington Elementary, for example, reopened last fall, the first elementary school in the district to follow the concept of flexible learning spaces that allow rooms to be easily reconfigured to best match projects and assignments. The building uses more natural light, courtesy of skylights and windows. Classrooms have sliding glass doors that open to shared learning spaces. Every classroom is also near a courtyard to allow for interaction with nature.

Construction on Mary Lyon Elementary started during the summer, so students have temporarily shifted to the old McKinley Elementary School until Mary Lyon opens in fall 2018. Work is also underway on a new Browns Point Elementary School, which will open next August. During construction, students will continue to attend classes in the original Browns Point Elementary School building and old Meeker Middle School building.

Likely the most noticeable new building in the district is the Science and Math Institute (SAMI), which opened inside the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. The innovative environmental learning center comes through a $19 million partnership between the school district and Metro Parks Tacoma to feature SAMI classrooms and science labs as well as space for zoo staff and volunteers. This project is a partnership between Tacoma Public Schools and Metro Parks Tacoma.

The changes at the school district this year don’t just include walls and windows. The school district also posted a graduation rate of 86.1 percent, the highest since the state began officially tracking the statistic in 2003 and the seventh straight year of gains.

The recent figures are the latest milestone in the community-wide effort to improve public school education in Tacoma that started in 2012. At that time, the school district’s graduation rate was 61.7 percent. The school board then set out to create multi-program partnerships to boost student achievement for all grade levels and student groups. Data-driven reports have been released annually ever since to chart the effectiveness of those efforts.

Link Expansion

The expansion of the Tacoma Link light rail system from its current terminus in the Theater District loop up to Martin Luther King Jr. Way is in its pre-construction phase. The extension will more than double the length of Tacoma Link, which currently serves about one million riders each year. The $175 million extended route will be 2.4 miles long with stops from the Tacoma Dome through downtown and the Stadium District and loop uphill to Hilltop. Tracks will run in existing road lanes and will be compatible with on-street parking and existing bicycle facilities. Platforms will be located in the center roadway, with construction scheduled to begin in 2018 and trains projected to start running in 2022.

The expansion will then dovetail into the third expansion in the works after voters approved South Transit 3, which included an extension of 3.5 miles from Hilltop to the Tacoma Community College campus at a cost of about $478 million. But that extension isn’t slated until 2041.

Metro Parks expansions

The construction of the future 11-acre park along Point Defiance’s breakwater peninsula is well underway alongside other projects around the parks system.

But the peninsula park is the most notable, considering that it will feature a lawn large enough to host 2,500 people for special events, offer an 18-foot-wide trail, a habitat area to view seals and postcard-quality views of the waterfront.

What is also noteworthy is that part of the project, namely the trail and hillside, will likely honor a giant of the literary world, Frank Herbert, who grew up in Tacoma and is best known for his “Dune” series. The current recommendation is to name a section of the site the Dune Peninsula and the trail the Frank Herbert Tail.

The $60 million park is being built on top of a Superfund site that was once polluted by slag from the Asarco copper smelter that operated nearby for decades on Ruston Way. The slag formed a breakwater used by Metro Parks. The toxic material is being kept secure by a protective layer topped by clean dirt, lawn and sustainable prairie grass. The waterfront site is particularly fitting to bear Herbert’s name since the central theme of environmental degradation borne by unchecked industrialization found in the “Dune” series played out during Herbert’s time in Tacoma and on the site in particular.

Northwest Detention Center

Tacoma City Council raised their collective eyebrows this year over the Northwest Detention Center at a time when illegal immigration debate raged around the country following the election of President Donald Trump.

The private detention center on the Tideflats is operated by GEO Group through a federal contract. The 1,575-bed facility opened in 2004 and expanded in 2009, with little protest at the time. It has since been the target of steady protests for immigrant rights, legal actions and concerns. Detainees at the center have also staged rolling hunger strikes over working conditions, $1 a day wages and human rights concerns.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland went so far as to call out her predecessors over their decision to site the facility on the Tideflats in the first place.

“This particular facility, at this particulate location, is the height of hypocrisy,” she said, noting that the current council would have voted the project down had it been proposed today instead of when it faced the City Council in 2000.

I-5 changes

Every driver on the local strip of Interstate 5 is experiencing changes to the lanes and exits. Those changes hit their stride in 2017, but will continue for several more years, unfortunately.

Southbound Interstate 5 through Fife toward Tacoma has been reconfigured into two distinct roadways separated by a barrier at Portland Avenue. This alignment requires drivers to plan ahead and know which lanes will take them to their destinations.

The southbound lane alignment has two lanes to the right of the barrier, known as collector/distributor lanes, designated to provide access to exits that serve State Route 16, State Route 7, downtown Tacoma and South 38th Street. The three lanes to the left of the barrier are being reserved for travelers heading further south toward South Tacoma, Lakewood and Olympia. Every driver along I-5 has likely taken a wrong lane more than once. Southbound drivers who accidentally miss the exit and find themselves in those three left lanes now have to continue on I-5 and take the 56th Street exit and loop back onto northbound I-5 to Exit 132 to reach those destinations.

The alignment allows crews to replace the original concrete roadway and create a work zone for the new McKinley Street overpass. Detours will be provided for all ramp closures. WSDOT advises motorists to pay extra heed to the new lane alignments.

The Washington State Department of Transportation has also activated ramp meters at the onramps of 54th Avenue East, Port of Tacoma Road, East Bay Street and Portland Avenue. The ramp meters allow WSDOT crews to make adjustments to the timing as necessary to help clear bottlenecks during peak times.

Puget Sound Hospital

Construction is underway at the former site of an eyesore overlooking downtown. The former Puget Sound Hospital had been dormant for years and has since been demolished to make way for the South Sound 911 emergency response communication operations campus.

The former Puget Sound Hospital along the Pacific Avenue hillside dated back 110 years, when it started as Northern Pacific Hospital for railroad workers. It then served as a medical center under various names, most recently as a county-owned mental health facility that finally closed in 2010 after operating at the location for a decade.

The former hospital’s eight-acre site will soon be the new home for South Sound 911, the combined emergency dispatch and records agency for 41 police, fire and medical agencies in the county. Construction of the communication complex is set to start this fall and be completed in the summer of 2019 at a cost of $62 million.

South Sound 911’s public safety communications center will include two buildings. The main building will be a 55,000-square-foot center for dispatch operations, as well as a municipal emergency operations center. A second building, about half its size will house administrative offices and a public counter.

Plastic bag ban

Tacoma City Council’s ban on single-use plastic bags went into effect in 2017. Plastic bags other than those used for carryout food, produce, dry-cleaning bags and newspapers bags are now illegal. Businesses are also required to charge for paper bags used to replace plastic.

The ban, however, is complaint based, so enforcement would only become an issue after a customer complains that a shop is handing out plastic bags. Retailers could face a $250-a-day fine if they fail to comply.

The law affects all retail businesses within the city of Tacoma and follows the same carryout bag restriction already found in 16 other communities in Washington. Low-income residents receiving assistance will not be charged the pass-through fee, nor will customers who bring their own reusable bags.

The city estimates that 70 million to 100 million disposable checkout bags were used in Tacoma each year. These bags created unsightly litter and threatened marine life.

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