Tideflats review preps to begin work

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Formal movement on conducting an extensive review of the uses, impacts, traffic patterns and job-creating activities on the Tacoma Tideflats is finally underway, more than a year after plans were first announced only to then stall over cross-governmental turf battles.

“I want this process to be known by how we finished not by how we started, and I really mean that,” Port Commission President Don Meyer said before the commission unanimously approved the intergovernmental agreement last week. Tacoma City Council unanimously passed the agreement Tuesday night. The Puyallup Tribe is primed to do likewise.

The agreement includes the cost-sharing formula that the city and port will front $500,000 each for the cost of the plan and $200,000 will come from the tribe since most of the Tideflats falls within its reservation. The pact also forms a steering committee made up of two members from each of the governments as well as two from Pierce County and Fife, since they are also area that have vested interest in the future of the Tideflats.

That five-government steering committee will develop a work plan – establish timelines, public comment systems and scopes of the work needed to hire a consultant within 60 days after all parties sign onto the deal. That all goes away if the clock runs out. The city would then conduct the multi-year subarea plan on its own, without the direct participation – and funding – from the port and tribe.

That seemingly “nuclear option” comes after a year of turf war negotiations between the city, council, port and tribe over who would have full seats at the table and what would happen if one government disagreed with aspects of the plan. The city argued that it has the sole authority over land-use decisions within its borders, while the port and county wanted all decisions to be approved unanimously. Stalemate over that lasted almost a year, only to be resolved when Mayor Victoria Woodards called in a mediator to facilitate talks that led to the current agreement.

“This is a great step forward,’’ she said when voting on the agreement Tuesday.

A subarea plan is meant to craft a vision of the specific area through zoning rules, environmental and traffic reviews. Hilltop and the area around the Tacoma Mall, for example, have undergone subarea reviews that led to zoning changes, plans for street improvements and landscaping plans to provide buffers from commercial operations and residential areas. But the subarea plan in the works for the Tideflats will be larger and more complex than those, particularly since the Tideflats mark the gateway to the fourth largest shipping terminal in the nation and sit so close to downtown and fall within the sovereign boundaries of the Puyallup Tribe. At issue is the balance between economic activity and the cost of those activities on the environment and surrounding neighborhoods as well as the potential cost of jobs in the regional job center if businesses weren’t allowed to expand.

“It’s not a hard ‘no’ or an anything goes ‘yes,’” Councilmember Ryan Mello said.

In the meantime, the city has interim regulations on the Tideflats that are meant to keep economic activity and residential developments pretty much as they are during the subarea planning process. Those rules went into effect a year ago and are up for renewal this fall for another six months, which is the longest renewal time allowed by state law. The interim regulations could be renewed every six months, however, as long as the city continues to actively work on forming permanent ones. Interim rules, however, can change as part of each six-month review and also must include at least one public hearing.

The next step on that front is for the council to pass a resolution to set a public hearing on a continuing the six-month extension on the interim regulations and any modifications to them that could develop. That vote is set for Oct. 9 with the public hearing tentatively scheduled for Oct. 23 followed by a study session on Oct. 30 to recap comments from that hearing and propose possible changes. A first-reading vote could come later that night with a final vote Nov.6. The current interim regulations expire on Dec. 2.

Yet another news of note from the Tideflats is that the Port of Tacoma has voted to surplus land next to the former Fire Station 5 and begin negotiations with the city to buy the land for a new fire station. The land is now being appraised, which could take a few weeks.

The Tacoma Fire Department needs a new fire station to provide more emergency response services on the increasingly industrial waterfront. The fire department currently responds to incidents on the waterfront with crews housed at either the Fire Training Center elsewhere on the Tideflats and from Fire Station 6 after the department mothballed the historic station 5 in 2007.

Fire officials had first thought that the city could simply renovate Fire Station 5, but a structural review concluded that it was structurally “unfit” to serve as a modern fire station.

The potential expense and complexities of renovating an aged and diminutive station then prompted the idea of replacing the 90-year-old historic landmark with a new station on the same site. A deal between the port and the city for a .58-acre site next to it, however, would provide land for a new station as well as save the historic one from demolition long enough for talks about future uses for the building.

“We have a list, but it is really limited because it’s on the port,” Historic Tacoma Rick Semple said. “It is never going to be a tourist attraction.”

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