The Tacoma Sun


A Post-Kunstler Tacoma

By Morgan Alexander

I’ve been thinking about Kunstler’s recent visit. For all his bombast and bleakness, he does offer some food for thought.


The first part of Kunstler’s talk was about our reliance on fossil fuel and how we’ve come to rely on it for commuting long distances to jobs (unsustainable), to move food from other countries to our tables (unsustainable) while converting our farmland to giant warehouses (unsustainable) that are served by giant fleets of diesel trucks (unsustainable). Meanwhile, we don’t support our national passenger rail service, Amtrak, and can no longer afford to maintain our highway infrastructure.


While I agree there is a finite source of fossil fuel – they don’t make dinosaurs anymore – I don’t agree with Kunstler that passenger air flight or single occupancy vehicles will be only for the ultra-rich anytime soon. Although the recent collapse and mergers within the airline industry may prove him right. It is clear to me though is that we are not moving fast enough towards effective sustainable solutions.


Cities vs. Burbs


Top 5 Cities with the Greatest Percentage Population Growth, 2000-2007
1. Snoqualmie (King Co.) 427.3%
2. Roy (Pierce Co.) 234.6%
3. DuPont (Pierce Co.) 187.3%
4. Issaquah (King Co.) 120.4%
5. Lake Stevens (Snohomish) 109.9%
source: PSRC


About 12 miles southeast of Tacoma near Bonney Lake is a master planned community called Cascadia. Over a decade in the making, the Cascadia project is an ambitious project that sits on nearly 5,000 acres and is anticipated to eventually be home to more than 16,000 people. Needless to say, much planning has gone into the Cascadia vision: open space, parks, ponds, and miles of trails. According to their website other features include, “a major conference center, the business park, a town square built with pedestrians in mind, a performance hall, a think tank focused on international understanding — the Cascadia Institute — a culinary school, a hotel and an outdoor sculpture park. It will draw on green-development principles that include the use of sustainable power and water recycling.” It’s hard to find fault with such an admirable vision. Indeed, judging by the fact that they’ve already sold over 400 lots to homebuilders without even having infrastructure in place indicates there is something compelling about this project. The project is as close to being perfect as you’re likely to see, except for one thing: it’s not supposed to be there.


According to the latest numbers released by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), suburban development accounted for over 75% of new housing development for the years 2000-2007. Put another way, less than a quarter of all new development was inside the Puget Sound Metro area which includes Tacoma, Seattle, Bellevue, Everett, and Bremerton. To implement Washington State’s Growth Management Act, the PSRC has just released the latest version of its guiding document called Vision 2040. The document was approved about a week ago by PSRC representatives from Snohomish, King, Pierce, and Thurston counties and various ports, tribes, state offices, and transit organizations.


If anyone knows what’s going on with growth in the Puget Sound, it’s the PSRC. Yet, even in their latest document their projections show housing growth for unincorporated and rural areas only 28%. Why the discrepancy? Why, despite all the cranes over Seattle’s skyline building condo tower after condo tower was Seattle’s growth less than the state average? City of Tacoma officials have known for years that something was amiss due to the fact that nearly no new housing has been built where it wants it most: in its mixed-use centers. Sure, downtown has seen much new development especially in the form of high-end condos and the Tacoma Mall area (Zen question: How is the mall a village?) has seen many new town-homes of questionable design go up. Meanwhile, there has been very little new housing built in Proctor, Sixth Ave, or Stadium – all desirable or upscale neighborhoods. Despite Seattle and Tacoma each garnering sub 5% gains for the 2000-2007 period, the PSRC did get right its forecasted total growth. Translation: the Puget Sound Metro area IS getting the increase in population it was expecting… it’s just not WHERE it was expected – or desired.


In his insightful story on Vision 2040, Crosscut writer Douglas MacDonald concludes, “This decade’s actual results to date, in other words, are farther from the expected share of regional population growth set in the Vision 2040 plan than the results across the previous decade. In the 1990s, those cities’ total growth was 96,000; for the first seven years of this decade, it is only 41,000. Seattle, for example, in that earlier decade added more than 47,000 people. Seven years into this decade, it has added 23,000. Bellevue added 11,500 (net of annexations) in the 1990s. Seven years into this decade, it has added 5,500 (net of annexations). Tacoma in the 1990s added almost 17,000. Seven years into this decade, it has added about 8,100.


Judged across two decades, we have been heading backwards from our goal of attracting much higher rates of population growth to the metropolitan cities, as Vision 2040 supposes we must in this and the three coming decades.”


Backwards?! I don’t think that was the plan! What does all this mean? Most immediately, it means that more earned dollars that should be going to places where they’re needed, like people’s bank and retirement accounts, will be needed for more infrastructure, public facilities and services, and of course, more roads.


That’s where it comes back to Kunstler: if you’re going to live outside a metro area, you will need your car. But it’s hard to drive when there’s no gas or when the price of gas continues to sky rocket as it has these past few years. Will Kunstler be right? Will the current gas trend make us rethink the future of driving? Will it make the Cross-Base Highway Project obsolete even before it’s finished? Only time will tell.


All this raises the question of what will happen to all those affordable cul-de-sac suburban homes when they become more expensive to get to and away from? As much as some new suburban developments try to mimic traditional neighborhoods, they continue to segregate uses which means residents must rely on their car to go shopping, go out to eat, go to work, go to the park, etc. Aside from being suburban developments being unsustainable due to their heavy reliance on cars, some recent articles suggest another emergency facing suburban developments: the sub-prime meltdown.


The Trend: More Going Local


In the March ’08 edition of the Atlantic magazine, Brookings fellow, Christopher Leinberger, wrote “Fundamental changes in American life may turn today’s McMansions into tomorrow’s tenements. Strange days are upon the residents of many a suburban cul-de-sac. Once-tidy yards have become overgrown, as the houses they front have gone vacant. Signs of physical and social disorder are spreading.


At Windy Ridge, a recently built starter-home development seven miles northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina, 81 of the community’s 132 small, vinyl-sided houses were in foreclosure as of late last year. Vandals have kicked in doors and stripped the copper wire from vacant houses; drug users and homeless people have furtively moved in. In December, after a stray bullet blasted through her son’s bedroom and into her own, Laurie Talbot, who’d moved to Windy Ridge from New York in 2005, told The Charlotte Observer, ‘I thought I’d bought a home in Pleasantville. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that stuff like this would happen.’”


More interestingly, Leinberger goes on to connect the decline of suburban developments with a renewed interest in urban living. He writes, “The decline of places like Windy Ridge and Franklin Reserve is usually attributed to the sub-prime mortgage crisis, with its wave of foreclosures. And the crisis has indeed catalyzed or intensified social problems in many communities. But the story of vacant suburban homes and declining suburban neighborhoods did not begin with the crisis, and will not end with it. A structural change is under way in the housing market—a major shift in the way many Americans want to live and work. It has shaped the current downturn, steering some of the worst problems away from the cities and toward the suburban fringes. And its effects will be felt more strongly, and more broadly, as the years pass. Its ultimate impact on the suburbs, and the cities, will be profound.


Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, has looked carefully at trends in American demographics, construction, house prices, and consumer preferences. In 2006, using recent consumer research, housing supply data, and population growth rates, he modeled future demand for various types of housing. The results were bracing: Nelson forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025—that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.


For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay.”


Tacoma’s Destiny


This bodes well for older cities like Tacoma that already have services and infrastructure in place – even if some of our infrastructure could use some TLC (hello Murray Morgan Bridge). I noticed a regional trend starting about ten years ago of towns and cities wanting to create a downtown they never had. Most of them were too small or to young to have a real downtown. Witness the plight of University Place as a current example. Its leaders desperately want to create a new center for the town and are learning how hard it is to create a new heart from scratch. Besides downtown, Tacoma has the advantage of already having many built-out neighborhood commercial districts – thanks to an extensive streetcar system that once connected neighborhoods together. However, there are many obstacles to overcome: decades of disinvestment by property owners; a low level of entrepreneurial sophistication and activity (which could be connected to the high number of government and non-profit employees); a lack of commercial development capacity, expertise and opportunities; dirty image based on tide flats smokestacks, to name a few.


I do believe that Tacoma turned a corner sometime recently. It has been a long time since there was a critical mass of residents who actually cared about the place and its future. This has caused some tension between the old guard and the new, but this is a natural part of the process and is to be expected. The question remains though, if Tacomans can come together, take back ownership of their neighborhoods, create community, and demand a better more livable city. Once this question is resolved we will be able to take advantage of Kunstler’s “oil free” world and give suburban developers and residents a reason to move back to the city – our city.

published May 5th, 2008

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Phil // May 5, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    Great analysis, Morgan! Why the Pierce County Council was conned into approving Cascadia is a good illustration of how long-range planning and stewardship of our natural resources and especially our urban/rural communities has fallen victim to short-term special interests and the largess of cash contributions they make to political hacks.

    Just look to the PDC reports for Shawn Bunney. He was flush with developer cash years before announcing his run for County Executive. Now these same special interests are able to double their contributions by Bunney rolling over their cash from prior races. The TNT won’t report it, since most of their advertising revenue comes from businesses like SoundBuilt Homes and the MBA.

    If folks aren’t out there encouraging reform and integrity in this system, I’ve concluded they have no right to bitch about the sprawl or traffic jams in South Hill/Graham, loss of farmland, or the continuing decline of our urban core. We’re consuming what little ‘virgin’ is left in our County.

    Stadium, ’87 all the way, baby!!

  • 2 Donovan // May 5, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    Excellent article, though I am biased being a Tacoma resident. Your hopefulness and relevant national context is refreshing. For a look at the days when Tacoma was the center of regional activity there is a great documentary on the old rail system called “The Seattle Tacoma Interurban Railway. It shows how people relied on mass transit and how it affected peoples liveli hoods and lifestyles. I think it might be at the future of our region.

  • 3 skyracer // May 5, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    Yes, good article. One point, however, regarding the PSRC report, Vision 2040. As the name indicates, the document is a statement of what we want our region to look like in 2040 (the vision), not a projection. The idea was to provide guidance to jurisdictions preparing updates to their comprehensive plans (and maybe give some basis on which to appeal comp plans that don’t follow the policies outlined in Vision 2040).

  • 4 Chris K. // May 5, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    Great article, Morgan. I understand your skepticism about the death of air travel. If Kunstler had thrown in a couple of graphs and tables into his presentation that showed the “twin peaks” in oil finds and production levels it would have added a bit more of a quantitative foundation to his narrative about peak oil and the resulting “long emergency” of high energy prices.

    Fundamentally, the peaking of oil is a geologic issue. Finite resources that are consumed at an accelerating rate must peak at a certain point and then fall into decline. It’s not something the market can cope with, without viable, scalable alternatives – such as transit and smart growth. (High efficiency cars are not a long-term scalable alternative because of the land requirements of autos and the fact that the gross number of automobiles (and VMT) is projected to increase significantly over the next few decades, eliminating any fuel savings from efficiency.)

    Secondly, I’m going to have to concur with you on the degree of innovation and entrepreneurialism. Our local economy is characterized by a great deal of public expenditure, and in the form of hospitals and retail. And the components of the economy that do not conform to that picture are tied to the oil-dependent global economy. We need to diversify economically and invest in industries that promote local sustainability.

  • 5 RR Anderson // May 5, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    I wonder… Does Shawn Bunney fall within the jurisdiction of Tacoma cartoonists?

  • 6 RR Anderson // May 5, 2008 at 8:06 pm

    kunstler on colbert!

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