More than 150 people packed a public library meeting room Wednesday evening to formulate a response to commercial development they feel is out of character for their neighborhood.
“We want everyone to leave here feeling empowered,” said Sammy Sonju, who organized the open house at the Wheelock Library along with several other North End residents who are concerned about plans for a second mixed-use development in the Proctor district.
“We certainly want development in our backyard,” she said, rebutting claims of NIMBY-ism. “We want this neighborhood to stay affordable.”
The underlying upset begins with Proctor Station, a six-story commercial and residential building that’s rising across from Mason Middle School on North 28th Street. That project’s development team is made up of Proctor business leaders Bill Evans and Erling Kuester, as well as Gig Harbor’s Rush Cos. The team is in the early stages of planning a second structure on North 25th Street, across from Metropolitan Market.
Wednesday’s meeting was intended to be for a smaller group to get organized and then present options to the broader concerned public, said Felicity Devlin, another organizer. “Then it just blew up,” she said. “There is a lot of anger.”
Some people questioned whether their voices would make any difference, pointing out that plenty of people objected to Proctor Station before it broke ground and that had no effect. Sonju said that was because at that point, permits had been issued. The neighbors were asking the developer to change voluntarily. Their second project hasn’t been permitted yet, she said.
As it was, the open house gave people a chance to vent their feelings, learn more about urban design and city zoning, and sign a petition to “put the brakes on new development” while Tacoma goes through its annual review of the comprehensive plan, the city’s guiding document for growth and development.
There was scattered talk about making the height limits an election issue. City councilman Anders Ibsen, who represents most of the North End, is up for re-election in the fall. Ibsen was not present, but a staff member from the city manager’s office said she was there to listen on Ibsen’s and T.C. Broadnax’s behalf.
Eric Sonju, a lawyer and husband of Sammy, explained how six-story commercial buildings came to be legal in the Proctor District, going back to a zoning review process that began in 2006. Devlin explained that she has read all the documents related to that change, ultimately adopted by the City Council in 2009.
“One thing that is horrendously clear is that Proctor was absent from the process,” she said.
“We didn’t know about the changes,” several attendees said, in remarks that reflect a general sentiment of many in the North End despite the extensive public process that came with the zoning change. Devlin gently rebuffed that idea.
“Other neighborhoods did know,” Devlin said, pointing out hundreds of comments from other neighborhoods and business districts across the city.
The group’s chief concerns were the size of new buildings, the loss of small businesses and increased demands for parking.
Proctor Station will have 151 apartments, with studio rents starting at $1,000 a month. Some of the largest units, with two bedrooms and two baths, will cost up to $3,440 a month. A parking space inside the development will be available for an additional monthly fee, prompting fears that the renters will park on the street rather than pay for a spot.
The development received a property tax abatement for 8 years because it’s a multi-family building in one of Tacoma’s mixed-use centers. A 12-year abatement is available if 20 percent of the units are designated affordable.
For some, the fact that Proctor Station wasn’t required to have affordable housing despite getting a property tax break is a moral issue.
“All kinds of studies show that kids in better neighborhoods do better,” said Ellen Cohen, who has lived in the North End for 23 years. “We have an obligation to share what we have. That’s my social conscience on this. The neighborhood has to stay mixed-income or it’s Bellevue.”
Councilman Robert Thoms, whose district includes part of the North End, said after the meeting that these issues are growing pains the city has to take seriously.
“We’re going to run into this in all the mixed-use centers,” he said. Proctor Station “was the first crane in the sky. This is a chance to get it right.”
On Thursday, Thoms said he intends to look into ways the city could include a “design consideration component” so that new development reflects the sensibilities of the neighborhoods.
“We can learn from this, and the subsequent projects (across the city) should be better than the ones before them,” he said.