Council adjusts elements of Tacoma Mall plan

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Tacoma City Council made several changes to a long-term plan for the Tacoma Mall area during its May 8 meeting aimed at reducing parking requirements for developers and increasing affordable housing. Officially known as the Tacoma Mall Neighborhood Subarea Plan, this process has been underway for three years.

Elliott Barnett, a planner with the city’s Division of Planning and Development Services, noted that the process has expanded the Mall Regional Growth Center from 485 acres to 575 acres. He described it as an important section of Tacoma that is “rapidly growing and changing.” Development around the mall, which opened in 1965, has resembled what is found in suburban areas. This process would make it look more like an urban neighborhood, he noted.

Councilmember Ryan Mello mentioned meetings he has had with representatives of Simon Property Group, which owns Tacoma Mall. “They really embrace this plan.”

Mello mentioned requirements of the city to plan for future growth. He asked Barnett about future projections for housing and employment in the area. Barnett said there are 4,000 residents in the area, a number projected to triple by 2040. The current number of 8,000 jobs is expected to double during that time.

Mello said the planning process will set a new vision “for a place that is not very livable now.”

A big emphasis is on housing, including the first use of inclusionary zoning in the city. Mello offered an amendment that would require 10 percent of units in residential projects with more than 15 units to be affordable housing. Inclusionary zoning would tie these units to the average median income, which is about $52,000. These units would be for those earning half of that amount per year. Mello said more than 500 cities around the nation utilize inclusionary zoning.

Councilmember Chris Beale offered an amendment to eliminate a requirement for on-street parking for businesses. It also will reduce the number of parking spaces for residential buildings from one per unit to a half a stall per unit, and no spaces for units designated as affordable housing.

Jessica Gamble, government affairs manager for Master Builders Association of Pierce County, expressed her organization’s opposition to inclusionary zoning. She said Portland made it mandatory a year ago, and now that city’s mayor wants to offer incentives to developers to use it, rather than requiring it. “It is not an impactful way to make housing attainable.”

One element in the plan was to allow developers who do not want to build any affordable housing to pay a fee of $10,000 per unit. That figure has been set aside, to be revisited at a later time. Mello said the $10,000 figure is not realistic.

Another incentive offered to developers in areas around the city is a property tax exemption for having affordable units. This is for 12 years and is aimed at those earning 80 percent of the annual median income. In contrast, this incentive is for 50 years and aimed at 50 percent of annual median income. Mayor Victoria Woodards noted that median income is determined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Councilmember Justin Camarata said the public wants more affordable housing. “This is one tool of many that will go a long way” toward attaining that.

Woodards said this subarea plan will increase density and add green space. She hopes it will result in a grocery store being built in this part of Tacoma.

The council is scheduled to vote on the plan during its May 15 meeting.

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