David Boe, a former Tacoma City Council member known for his background in design and architecture, searched for the right words. Discussing the Tacoma strip between Broadway and Commerce Street downtown — in the shadow of the Pantages and awkwardly anchored by an underused plaza and a disused fountain turned into public art of lemonade lemons — Boe walked the rope stiff between honesty and restraint.
“I sort of consider it a missed opportunity,” Boe finally said, describing a few blocks connecting 9th and 11th that also house the Pierce Transit Center and the Downtown Bus Center. “Trying to create a primary public space in downtown Tacoma, because of the hill, of course, is, it’s more difficult. …but I just think he has potential. I think there could be things that could be done to improve it – make it safer and actually function as a neighborhood park downtown.
Our conversation did not happen out of the blue. For several years, Boe was a part-time instructor at the School of Urban Studies at the University of Washington in Tacoma. This term, as he has done in the past, Boe asked students to submit plans for a potential redesign of the Broadway and Commerce Street corridor. Rooted in reality, he described it as a mission that gives aspiring designers the freedom to reinvent an area of the city that should be central to the downtown experience, but often feels more like an oblivion. .
That was an interesting proposition, I thought, so last week I attended Boe’s class and listened to the students give their final presentations via Zoom. As Tacoma changes around us – inspiring hopes and uncertainties – a chance to see the city through new and diverse eyes and possibilities seemed refreshing.
Moreover, Boe is right: the region could use some serious help.
“We chose the site because it has many issues,” Boe said, again attempting to strike a diplomatic tone while noting existing design drawbacks ranging from accessibility to street lighting and challenges with garbage collection.
“And it’s the heart of downtown.”
Attention to people
For newcomers and those unfamiliar, a brief (and incomplete) history of development efforts between Broadway and downtown Commerce is probably in order.
Much of what we see today — including the innards of the Transit Center, the theater in the plaza, and the aforementioned disused fountain — dates back to a $20 million redevelopment that took place in the early 1990s The fountain in particular has recently been transformed into a public art installation known as the “Waterwall”, which is probably a good thing since urban planning guru James Howard Kunstler once unflatteringly compared the leaning gray concrete structure at Jabba the Hutt.
Much has been said about transforming the region over the decades. As recently as 2018, Spaceworks Tacoma partnered with Pierce Transit, the city, and the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts in a public engagement campaign. So far, nothing significant has materialized, largely because of the huge financial commitments likely to be involved.
Unbound by such pesky constraints, Boe said the situation provided his students with a perfect canvas to apply their developmental skills. They responded with a bit of everything, he added, ranging from unique approaches to digital public art and color to common-sense changes that would make the transit center and surrounding area work more efficiently than it does today. today.
While listening, it wasn’t hard to feel inspired and see downtown Tacoma in a whole new way.
Amran Mohamed, 23, is a junior at UWT pursuing studies in urban design and psychology. Originally from Somalia, Mohamed immigrated to the United States a decade ago and now lives in Seattle.
Mohamed said she was drawn to urban design for its potential to create places for everyone. She focused her project on securing and welcoming the neighborhood.
Given that the area has utilitarian and communal functions – fulfilling a critical need as a transit hub and also a potential public gathering space – Mohamed said his design aims to modernize garbage collection and accessibility to bathrooms while addressing the many nooks and crannies that can attract low-level crime and other public nuisances.
Mohamed also included a skate ramp, an idea inspired by a recent visit to the site.
“When I went there, I saw kids skating, even though there was nothing to really skate on,” Mohamed said. “A mini skate ramp could make the whole area busy and active.”
Kristin Bauer, a 27-year-old self-proclaimed military spouse who moved to the area from Connecticut two years ago, took a different approach to a similar problem.
As well as expanding the plaza and installing an elevator to make it more accessible, Bauer proposed the addition of a spray park and an elevated stage, the latter in hopes of attracting events to the beyond the Broadway Farmers Market.
Bauer also saw a need to attract young people and families to the square. She said she was inspired by advice she received from a former teacher: “If you’re in an area and you see women and children, that’s usually a good place to be – and you feel safe.”
“It’s a place to pass and not stop, but it looks like the city is trying to change that,” Bauer said of downtown Tacoma, and specifically the Broadway Corridor and Trade Street.
“(Tacoma) isn’t just a place to sleep before you go to work in Seattle, and I think the layout of the place could help with that,” Bauer said.
Boe agrees, which is one of the reasons he’ll likely use the mission again.
At least until the area is redeveloped for realhe said.
“The site has all the issues to challenge an urban designer,” Boe said.
“Space has an aspect of Sisyphus.”
This story was originally published March 17, 2022 5:00 a.m.