The Tacoma Sun


A Gentle Way to Grow

By Morgan Alexander

Part 1 in a series on economic development in Tacoma. 

Bahama Nails sign in window

Following the plight of a little nail shop has got me thinking about how we think about growth.

Growth comes in two forms: incremental and punctuated. Incremental growth occurs gradually over time and is more organic. Punctuated growth is marked by sudden and dramatic change. Humans, by our nature, are mesmerized by punctuated change – as long as it’s not happening to us! Think of cities evacuating due to a volcanic eruption, the devastation of a community from a major flood, earthquakes wrecking havoc on a region’s infrastructure, or a six story building going up where most of the surrounding buildings have only one story. You get the idea. Conversely, humans like consistency and gradual change, if any change at all. It is safe to say that humans generally don’t like a great deal of change, especially when it’s happening to us.

How does this relate to the recent case of a Vietnamese family filing for a change of land use for their home-based nail salon in the Proctor District?

This home business in particular exists in a single family dwelling located at the corner of N. 26th & Madison Street. The other three corners are all commercial structures with fairly low impact businesses operating in them- two banks and financial service company. While it is understandable that we would want to keep commerce from encroaching too much on neighborhoods, we must ask ourselves what our aim is.

Without a doubt, the Proctor District is one of the more stable and successful business districts in Tacoma. Rental rates are high and vacancy rates are usually near zero and the availability of commercial zoned properties for sale are also quite rare. However, the last significant development in the Proctor District occurred nearly a decade ago with little new development since. This is a classic case of pent-up demand in the marketplace.

Through the Growth Management Act, the State of Washington mandates that the City designate urban growth areas and plan accordingly. According to the City’s Growth Strategy, the population is predicted to increase to 255,240 by the year 2022. Based on the current population of 201,700, the city of Tacoma should be adding 3,569 new living units every year.

Clearly, increased density in many of our neighborhoods is not happening as was expected from our land-use zoning system. While some of the business districts have witnessed a revival of sorts, we have added very little density. Density is necessary in order to create vibrant business districts, walkable neighborhoods, and sustainable transportation systems such as streetcars.

There is a fear in Tacoma that there needs to be some sort of buffer between commerce and residential.

Commerce and residential do not need to be mutually exclusive. They can peacefully exist and even prosper side-by-side. The perception that there needs to be a line dividing commerce from residential is one inherited from 50 years of suburban-based urban planning – a one size fits all approach that only works in suburbia.

There are examples showing the symbiotic relationship between commercial and residential all over town. The Rosewood Cafe is a great example of a business with a fiercely dedicated neighborhood following within a single family neighborhood context. If they were to build the Rosewood Cafe building today and open for business, it would be illegal. Why? Because our policies declare it so. Since the build sat vacant for so long, it had lost its “right” to be zoned commercial. Get it? I don’t. As it was explained to me by a city planner, the Rosewood Café is only open today because of lax enforcement from a previous era of city government. It would be a tough sell today.

Back to the nail salon. One of the arguments brought forth against allowing expanding the home-based nail salon business into a regular business operation were concerns about signage, parking, and exterior building modifications. Seems reasonable. However, it appears that the use of the building is being confused with the building itself. One solution is to address these topics through a policy update. If the use is low impact and family friendly, which is desirable in this location, it shouldn’t be too difficult to create guidelines addressing neighborhood concerns for a win-win situation.

Somehow, all of our historic business districts evolved without the tight zoning controls that have been in place for the past 50 year. They grew naturally over time, not overnight. That’s the way it is around the world – even London, Paris, and New York started with small home-based shops. With an awareness of how our business districts came to be, we gain an understanding of the way to grow them: incrementally.

Bahama Nails in Proctor District
Bahama Nails, 4002 N. 26th Street. The owners of this home-based business would like to hire employees. rosewood-corner.jpg
The Rosewood Cafe, 3323 N. 26th Street, built 1931. The Rosewood Cafe is near the Proctor District and is surrounded by single family homes. They serve beer and wine along with a simple menu. Although they have minimal off-street parking, their overall impact on the neighborhood is very low in terms of adverse impact. The building is what we now call “mixed-use” as it has apartments in back of the storefront. Small commercial buildings such as this one are located all around Tacoma and were built along what was once one of the most extensive streetcar networks in the country. Located at intervals along the streetcar route, the buildings provided goods and services to the neighborhood and to streetcar passengers.Jasminka (front)
The Jasminka store at 3820 N 26th in the Proctor District. The store and facade was built in 1970 according to county records. However, the original structure – a house with a storefront added – was built in 1905.Jasminka (back)
Alley view of the Jasminka store. This structure was built in Proctor District Ice Cream Shop located at 3812 North 26th Street. According to county records, the facade of the building dates from 1975. However, the original structure which began as a house is over 100 years old.2007-10-26-1r.jpg
Alley view of the Proctor District Ice Cream Shop. This part of the structure was built around 1905 and probably provided living quarters for the original shop owner.Collector’s Nook (front) 
A long time Tacoma business, the Collectors Nook is located at 213 North I Street. The storefront was built in 1927.Collector’s Nook (back)
Alley view of the Collectors Nook building. Behind the Collectors Nook store is actually two old houses (double house). The structure seen in this photo dates from about 1888 (213 N. I), while the house hiding behind the tree is from 1889 (211 North I).

published November 7th, 2007

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Erik Bjornson // Nov 9, 2007 at 1:37 am

    Following the plight of a little nail shop trying to make a go of it in the Proctor District over the past year has brought up some questions about how we think about growth.

    Great issue.

    Once concern has been that mixed use centers work well when there are defined edges of commercial use other wise, one gets the mess one currently sees on 6th avenue between Alder and Stevens.

    The concept of “fuzzy edges” was tried for a bit by the city but ultimately found to be not as preferable as a more defined business district.

    Another issues is thatdefined commercial districts can work better for mass transit rather than a sprawlish row of commercial buildings.

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